Spring 2009Features

This Old Academical Village

Preserving a national treasure

Tour the historic preservation work in Pavilion II and meet the skilled craftspeople who are doing it.

As plans for the University of Virginia began to take shape in Thomas Jefferson’s imagination, he envisioned a lawn surrounded on three sides by housing for students and professors, connected by covered walkways. The arrangement, he wrote, would form “an academical village, instead of a large & common den of noise, of filth, & of fetid air.” It’s been 192 years since the cornerstone was laid for Pavilion VII, the first of the Lawn’s complex of buildings, and it’s fair to say that Mr. Jefferson’s creation has been a resounding success. The American Institute of Architects recognized the Academical Village in 1976 as the nation’s proudest architectural achievement in its first 200 years. Additionally, the Academical Village—grouped together with Monticello—is one of only four man-made structures in the United States to be named a World Heritage Site.

However, the historical and architectural significance of these buildings doesn’t spare them from the onslaught of the elements and the wear and tear of daily use. Time has taken its inevitable toll, and many buildings at the University’s historical core are in need of considerable maintenance and restoration.

Several years ago, a team effort to address these challenges was begun by the Office of the Architect, Facilities Management and U.Va.’s Historic Preservation Advisory Committee, which includes expert University faculty and preservation professionals from the likes of the Monticello, Poplar Forest, Colonial Williamsburg and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

These historic preservation projects are supported almost entirely by private donations. An effort is under way to raise funds for the restoration and maintenance of the University’s historic buildings, both on the Lawn and elsewhere around Grounds.

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The Rotunda

“Horrible! Horrible! Horrible! The thing gets worse the more I think about it,” wrote University student John T. Thornton about the fire that consumed the Rotunda on Oct. 27, 1895.

From that traumatic event, a debate rose from the ashes that continues to this day: Once the Jeffersonian original—already substantially altered by the annex addition completed in 1854—was destroyed by fire, how should the design of the Rotunda evolve?

Renowned architect Stanford White had the first say in the matter, when his redesigned version opened in 1898. A restoration in the mid-1970s returned the Rotunda’s interior to a Jeffersonian style and replaced White’s copper roof with a brilliant white dome.

“While it is difficult to prove how the dome was first skinned, we can demonstrate that its shape and character were altered at least five times over 150 years,” wrote the late Murray Howard, curator and architect for the Academical Village, in a 1997 report on the Rotunda. “But we do know that the present brilliantly white dome is a product only of the 1970s.”

Once again, things are about to get interesting. Within a couple of years, the Rotunda’s roof—now leaking—will need to be replaced. It appears highly unlikely that the dome’s current appearance will be replicated because it represents neither Jefferson’s nor White’s design.

Handyman’s Delight

A recently completed historic structure report, commissioned by the University, provides a thorough history of the Rotunda and evaluation of its current state. The report identifies a number of issues that need attention, including the following:

  • Brick masonry is dirty and supporting biological growth
  • Replacement mortar does not match the color, profile or hardness of the original mortar, which can damage the brick
  • Marble column capitals and bases are eroded and cracked; capitals are supporting the development of brown and black gypsum crusts resulting from airborne sulfur contaminants
  • The sheet-metal roofing on the dome is rusted and leaking
  • Water is leaking into the terraces and north entry stairs are deteriorating
  • Mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems from the 1970s are worn out and require replacement

Two versions that are more historically correct are receiving the most consideration. One option is a roof made of tin-coated steel shingles that will weather to a chalky gray, which researchers now believe best represents Jefferson’s original plans. The other possibility is reintroducing the greenish patina of Stanford White’s copper dome that topped the Rotunda for nearly 80 years.

“White’s dome was here as long as Jefferson’s dome was, so that’s a very strong argument to return to copper,” says David Neuman, architect for the University. “A copper dome shows the evolution of the many years in which the University was committed to the Jeffersonian spirit and design, but was trying to make a long-lived and fireproof building. The counterargument is that because the ensemble of the Lawn—with the colonnades and the pavilions—is Jeffersonian, the Rotunda should be within that spirit. That would mean a grayish-white finish on the dome and a copper dome would detract from that sense of totality of place.”

Brian Hogg (Col ’83), the University’s senior historic preservation planner, adds additional perspective to the debate. “You could re-create the Jefferson roof, but then you’d have a Jefferson roof on top of Stanford White’s exterior,” he explains. “Or you could acknowledge that 95 percent of this building is the work that Stanford White did. The only thing that’s really left of Jefferson is the brick. Are we faithful to the White exterior, or do we try to recapture more Jefferson? It goes back to the question of whether the Jefferson moment is the University’s great moment and whether we should try to recapture that. Or is this building’s history so apart from the rest of the Lawn that its complete history should be taken into account?”

The president and the Board of Visitors, along with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, will make the decision. Regardless of what form the roof takes, the overall maintenance, repair and restoration—occurring in phases over the next six years—will be completed with a goal of restoring Jefferson’s vision for the Rotunda as a center for daily University life. The building will open more fully to students and faculty by improving access and reintroducing classroom and lecture space.

“One of the real goals of this project is to make this building one that you walk into, not walk past,” says Hogg.

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Pavilion X

A stroll down the Lawn provides a window into the inner workings of the mind of Thomas Jefferson, revealing his philosophies on architecture and education. But the Academical Village isn’t as Jeffersonian as you might think. Modifications over the years—some subtle and some significant—have obscured portions of his original design.

That’s not to say Jefferson wouldn’t recognize the place he created. The essential character of the Lawn’s pavilions, student rooms and colonnades remains largely intact, unlike the much-modified Rotunda. Because so much of the buildings’ historical integrity remains, fine-tuning the details and reversing inaccuracies will go a long way toward returning them to the way they appeared in Jefferson’s day.

“There’s a set of details that we can retrieve,” says Brian Hogg. “We hope they will provide a more complete understanding of Jefferson’s design for the pavilions and the colonnades.”

The prototype for these changes will be Pavilion X, where restoration work—limited to the original part of the building—will begin this spring.

“We’re going to see the real Jefferson design that disappeared and will now be reincarnated,” says David Neuman.

Pavilion X as it appears currently (left) and a computer rendering showing parapet

The most prominent change for Pavilion X—Jefferson’s adaptation of the Theater of Marcellus and the Temple of Nerva Trajan in Rome—will be the re-creation of the attic parapet. Another key component is the restoration of student-room roofs to their original flat appearance and the return of the Chinese railings to their original design, height and position.

The other changes around Pavilion X will provide a preview of what the rest of the Lawn might look like, pending approval of the broader project.

Glossy white paint on columns will be a thing of the past, and the original finishes will be restored. Extensive scholarship and analysis have shown that the colonnade columns were originally a tan, sandy color, with a rough-textured finished. The larger pavilion columns will be further analyzed during restoration work, and when their original appearance is determined, they will also be restored.

The dark green paint currently on the shutters, which appears almost black, will be lightened to a medium green, the original color discovered by paint analysis completed by the University’s conservator, Mark Kutney.

While these changes might be jarring for those who have grown accustomed to the Lawn as it currently appears, preservationists argue that regaining historical accuracy outweighs preserving the status quo.

“Once the president, the Board of Visitors and the Department of Historic Resources make a decision, we can move forward with restoring the entire Lawn to the Jeffersonian design and, frankly, that’s what I’d like to see done,” says Neuman. “These questions are very interesting from a historical, architectural and aesthetic perspective, but some people may be emotional about the way the Lawn has always been for them. To some, change will not be regarded as appropriate. To others, the changes will be seen in the spirit of returning Mr. Jefferson to the Lawn.”

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The Chapel

Outside of Thomas Jefferson’s original Academical Village, the University Chapel might be the most beloved building on Grounds. Steeped in nostalgia, it has hosted weddings and memorial services, and has been a meeting space for academic departments as well as administrative and student groups.

Designed by Baltimore architect and University alumnus Charles E. Cassell, the Chapel opened in 1890 and has remained largely intact and unaltered for the last 110 years. Construction funds came largely from gifts collected by the local YMCA and the Ladies Chapel Aid Society.

Going to the Chapel

Last year alone, more than 40,000 people used the Chapel for events, meetings and worship. Activities include the following:

  • More than 180 weddings per year
  • Morning prayer service twice weekly
  • Reunions and memorial services
  • School of Architecture classes
  • Department of Music organ rehearsals and choral concerts
  • Graduation services

The first structure on Grounds built exclusively for worship, the Chapel, with its Gothic Revival style, is in sharp contrast to the secular classicism of the nearby buildings on the Lawn. According to The Campus Guide: University of Virginia, by U.Va. architecture professor Richard Guy Wilson and Sara A. Butler (Arch ’96, Grad ’01), the Chapel was built in response to 19th-century accusations of heathenism that had been leveled at the University. An excerpt from professor Maximilian Schele de Vere’s address at the 1885 cornerstone-laying ceremony seems to attest to this sensitivity: “The pointed window, the flying buttress, the pointed steeple, all lead the eye upward, and with the eye the heart also is lifted up, aspiring to heaven.”

The Chapel is part of a long list of buildings—which includes Brooks Hall, Carr’s Hill, Varsity Hall and Fayerweather Hall, to name a few—that have played integral roles in the history of the University. “There’s always been a lot of attention paid to the Academical Village, and rightly so,” says David Neuman. “The real challenge is to expand people’s perceptions about the quality and quantity of other post-Jefferson buildings and landscapes here that are very significant historically. These buildings demand a lot of attention as well. It’s incredibly sustainable to preserve and reuse our buildings. We’re sustaining the culture and vitality of the institution, but we’re also sustaining its future because we’re not condemning older structures to the landfill.”

Some of that well-deserved attention is being paid to the Chapel. In 2006, the Chapel’s tower was stabilized, its drainage system was carefully redesigned and rebuilt, and the roofs of the tower and belfry were re-covered. Crews disassembled the top several rows of stone in the tower and meticulously reconstructed them. A 1,200-pound bronze bell, made by the McShane Bell Foundry in Maryland and donated by the Drama Club in 1897, was also conserved during the project.

There is more work to be done, however. Damage and wear to the Chapel’s exterior—including leakage in the stone masonry and around the windows—must be addressed quickly because they threaten the building’s interior. The pews, plaster and chancel platform are next on the restoration wish list, followed by a plan to refresh and clean the interior woodwork, masonry and walls. In addition, the Chapel’s organ needs to be replaced because it has reached the end of its life span. Replacing the cork flooring with a pine floor to match the original is a longer-term project.

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Monroe Hill

The oldest buildings on Grounds sit atop Monroe Hill. These buildings, a law office and a house built by James Monroe after he bought the land in 1788, predate the Academical Village by more than 20 years. The University plans to study and ultimately restore Monroe Hill—an often overlooked but integral part of U.Va.’s formative years.

In 1817, the Board of Visitors of Central College (the University’s predecessor) purchased nearly 43 acres where the Academical Village would be built. A second purchase shortly thereafter included Monroe Hill and its buildings, which served as management headquarters for construction of the University.

In 1848, two ranges of student rooms were built on Monroe Hill, the first new buildings constructed after Jefferson’s death. When the University established its first residential college in 1986—now called Brown College—Monroe Hill House became the college principal’s residence.

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Pride of Place

Versailles has a craft shop. The Parthenon has one, too. And now, so does the Academical Village. U.Va.’s specialized craft shop is referred to as Cost Center Four, or CC4. But don’t be fooled by the drab name; its members are bringing the fine art of craftsmanship to the University’s historical core. “The best historic facilities have their own craft shops, where people are committed to that facility, to learning about it, to understanding its history and to feeling pride of place,” says David Neuman, architect for the University. “Every job is treated as specific and important to the whole of that historic structure.”

CC4, created about a year ago as a division of the Facilities Management Department, is a group of highly skilled tradesmen—two carpenters, two painters and four masons—who are dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the Academical Village. They tackle problems that may not be obvious to the naked eye but nevertheless interfere with the design and structural integrity of the buildings.

“The genesis of CC4 came from a recognition that work on the historic Central Grounds buildings requires special, unique construction skills and knowledge,” says Joseph Lahendro (Arch ’82), a U.Va. historic preservation architect.

For instance, a lime-based mortar was used to hold the bricks together when the University was being built. At the turn of the century, Portland cement was used to replace the lime mortar. Unfortunately, the harder Portland cement eventually pulls the softer bricks of historical buildings apart, ultimately threatening the whole structure. CC4 is currently replacing critical parts of the buildings with lime-based mortar. It’s a process that follows one of the basic principles of preservation: “Where replacement is required, match the original material,” says Lahendro.

The Chinese railings that run along the roofs of the colonnades on the Lawn have provided another opportunity for the group—in collaboration with U.Va.’s renovations department—to translate research and planning into tangible results. “Without their commitment to executing these projects well, all the planning in the world wouldn’t mean anything,” says Brian Hogg, the University’s senior historic preservation planner.

According to a recent investigation by architects from Mesick, Cohen, Wilson and Baker, the railings over student rooms and the pavilions are supposed to be level (currently, the railing is higher in front of the pavilions). Also, the railing posts don’t align with the columns of the colonnades beneath them, which mars the originally intended harmony of the design. It’s an issue of subtle symmetry but important to the calibration of architectural elements that Jefferson had in mind.

“Jefferson did not simply pick a post width out of the air,” the report states, “but based it on its relationship to the column below.” CC4 and the renovations department plan to make corrections to Pavilions VII and IX this summer.

“Just being able to work on the Academical Village is pretty special,” says James Zehmer (Arch ’02), a historic preservation project coordinator. “Having the opportunity to take care of it and make the buildings enjoyable for generations to come is an honor.”

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For More Info


    • Mike on February 17, 2009

      Great pics! Thanks!

    • Nancy on February 23, 2009

      Informative. I appreciated all the explanation behind the historic preservation process. I can't help but wonder if the switch to non-white columns will be viewed positively. Monticello has this sandy-colored columns but only on one side of the house despite that color being the historicaly accurate one. That limited application suggests people are much attached to white columns.

    • Frieda on February 23, 2009

      Thank you for the historical view of how things actually were when Jefferson designed and built the University Village. I am not sure how I will like the sandy colored columns. If that is the original color and we are trying to maintain the Village as it was originally then we shall have to get used to seeing it that way. The whole article was most enlightening.

    • Alex on February 23, 2009

      I suppose if we're going to return to Jefferson's original designs, we should expect to see livestock grazing on the Lawn, too. Let's go all the way back!

    • Dr. James B. Kiracofe on February 27, 2009

      If we are going to restore the dome of the rotunda it should be restored as nearly as possible to what Jefferson intended. I think we have ample evidence of his intentions in the papers and drawings he left us. The University of Virginia is famous because of Jefferson's vision, not because of the dabblings of a bon vivant high society architect from New York who met a bad end because of some bad choices.... Seriously, next to Monticello, the Rotunda is the building most identified with Jefferson, so if we are going to "restore" it what possible argument could be made for restoring it to anything but what Jefferson intended. Not to say we should not use modern materials that might do what he intended better than the materials he had available in his day, especially where leaky roofs are concerned, but the form he intended should be respected. As far as the white columns go, this was an unfortunate change made for convenience of maintenance rather than fidelity to Jefferson's vision. He had a correspondence with Latrobe until Latrobe's death in 1820, and the idea of color for the columns was discussed, and if I recall correctly, it was Latrobe who pointed out that white would clash with nature too much and be too harsh and that the sandy color would be more sympathetic with the natural surroundings. The University has plenty of money and can raise plenty more as needed without limitation or difficulty for this purpose, therefore money is no object at this point, in spite of what some might say. So if we are going to make a real restoration of Jefferson's legacy, let us spare no expense and get it right this time, for goodness sake. No excuses, please, and no dabblers. Let us not ever forget that Jefferson intended this to be his lasting gift to the new nation he helped to launch, and that he launched this construction project in the company of two other Presidents of the United States, and that it is this heritage we wish to preserve, remember and venerate, rather than alter, blur, or dilute by the budget driven dabblings of dillitantes.

    • Dr. James B. Kiracofe on March 04, 2009

      To be more specific, Jefferson saw first hand how domes were being built in France during his travels there. He became fascinated with the architect Phillippe Delorme's way of building domes, and employed this technique at his own home, Monticello. When he was designing the Rotunda he wrote to General Joseph Swift 22 May 1824 to request the loan of Swift's copy of De Lorme's book, a book he had once owned himself, so that he could properly design the dome for the Rotunda. Jefferson's own detailed working drawings for construction based on his direct study and understanding of De Lorme's writings survive and are in possession of the University of Virginia, see: http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/wilson/cgi-bin/draw_filter.pl?id=N332 These drawings have been published several times, so there is no mystery whatsoever surrounding what Jefferson intended. Moreover, the University has in its possession the original construction documents drawn by Jefferson himself for the dome exactly as Jefferson had it built under his direct supervision according to drawings he himself drew based on De Lorme's book. If the Rotunda is going to be "restored" it should be according to Jefferson's own drawings. Any other design would not be a restoration, but would be an inappropriate and disfiguring remodeling. What possible justification could there be for not following Jefferson's own original drawings, which the University has in its possession?

    • Thomas Jefferson on March 10, 2009

      "Instead of considering what is past, however, we are to look forward and prepare for the future." "In matters of style, swim with the current; In matters of principle, stand like a rock." While a restoration with sandy colors might be historically "correct," Dr. Kiracofe understates the influence of the current and former students of the University. When one thinks of the lawn and the University of Virginia, the brilliant white color dome is the first image in any graduate's mind since its painting in the 1970s. Dr. Kiracofe is all for historical restoration, but not everyone is. That view doesn't make them objectively wrong. The painting of the dome is a matter of style and taste: a political question best left to the majority.

    • Brant on March 18, 2009

      I totally agree with TJ. He was an innovative guy. He did like historical design, but he also experimented with new ideas. (He would probably go with HardiePlank and bluejean insulation.) Just because something is historically accurate means it looks good. And I don't want these guys mucking around ("restoring") with my university just because they think they always have to be doing something. In addition, I think the changes planned for Pav X (shown in the paper magazine) look horrible...it looks like a square UFO has landed on the roof!

    • Brant on March 18, 2009

      correction: ...Just because something is historically accurate doesn't mean it looks good.

    • David on March 19, 2009

      I completely disagree with the previous post on the proposed reconstruction of the Pavilion parapets. I was delighted to hear about the reconstruction of the parapets, a move for which I have been waiting since the early 1980s, when I was a student. Pavilion X is not the only one missing its hat -- the proposed rendering for which I think is tremendous -- and I look forward to the ultimate restoration of the parapets on Pavilions V, VIII and IX, also.

    • Steven C LOWE on May 23, 2009

      I take issue with your assesment of the chapel as "one of the most beloved buildings on the Grounds". Not to me and certainly it would not be to Jefferson who oppossed both a place of worhsip on the Grounds and a professor of theology on the faculty. His advocacy of seperation of church and state and his reduction of Jesus from a divinity to a moral and ethics teacher and model( The Jefferson Bible) attests to his position about theism, religion and education. In my view the chapel has no place on the Grounds and should be removed, not restored. It is an affront to the secular university that Jefferson designed and anthetical to his own philosophy.

    • MISTY on July 29, 2009


    • Erin on April 22, 2010

      I recently walked past the new renovations to Pavilion X and it looks awful. The paint color of the columns looks dirty and the green shutters are distasteful. Instead of looking pristine white and clean, our lawn will now look dirty. People tend to forget that Jefferson was some who valued innovation and looking forward, yet here at UVa we are always referring to what he would have done in 1826. He would have wanted the Academical Village to look better and be better in the future instead of the same. In a time when funding is limited, I am disappointed as an alumni and employee that we are spending our funds on something that not only looks bad, but that is completely unnecessary.

    • E.A. Poe on April 12, 2012

      Upon reading the "University Chapel Historic Structures Report" prepared by the Quinn Evans Architects in 2008, I noticed something surprising. They cited two sentences from the "Master Plan for Historic Buildings on Campus" that were the exact same as two sentences in this article! Except UVA magazine does not indicate that they are not the article's authors' own words. This seems like an Honor Code violation....

    • albert veri FASLA on June 15, 2012

      Please send hard copy of this article. Beautiful work. Woodcrest Design LLC 1697 Warwick Avenue Warwick, RI 02852

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