The last time the Rotunda underwent a major renovation, the U.S. Bicentennial Committee recommended that the work be the nation’s top preservation project for the 1976 bicentennial celebration.
Nearly 40 years later, another bicentennial approaches as the University prepares to celebrate its 200th year in 2019. And again, the maintenance and preservation of this national landmark and World Heritage site is a high priority.
Phase one of the project was completed in spring 2013 and included a new oculus and copper roof, extensive masonry repairs and refurbished windows. Work on phase two will begin the day after Final Exercises in May and will take about two years to complete. The Rotunda will be completely closed to the public during this period.
The second phase will account for $42.5 million of the project’s approximately $50 million total. The renovation is funded exclusively by a combination of private philanthropy and state funds (the General Assembly has appropriated about $24 million for the project).
This renovation—expected to sustain the Rotunda for the next 50 years or more—is intended to bring the building into the 21st century while maintaining its 19th-century character. Planners hope that enhancements to the interior space will transform the Rotunda from a seldom-used museum piece to a center of academic life, as Thomas Jefferson originally intended.
- A cable-operated shade for the oculus will be installed, allowing users to darken the Dome Room for audiovisual presentations.
- The existing elevator will be replaced by an elevator that will open into the main lobbies, providing better access to the first two floors and the terrace.
- An acoustic plaster ceiling will replace the metal ceiling panels currently in place on the dome’s interior.
- New stairs will provide access to the lower gallery in the Dome Room, currently not accessible to the public.
- The Rotunda’s interior will undergo extensive renovations, many of which will help return the building to being a center of student life by enhancing classrooms and study areas.
Replacing the Capitals
Before work on phase one of the Rotunda renovation began, the black fabric covering the capitals since 2010—there to protect passersby from falling chunks of marble—was a clear sign that the building needed work. The weathered and crumbling capitals that are currently part of the Rotunda were installed after the 1895 fire destroyed the originals. Those replacement capitals have been more vulnerable to the elements because they were made of domestic, fine-grained white marble that is not as hard as the original Carrara marble from Italy that Jefferson had specified.
New capitals will be installed as part of the renovation, and not only will the design return to Jefferson’s plans, the materials will come from the same place as the originals.
The capitals will be re-created by Pedrini Sculpture Studio in Carrara, Italy, and craftsmen from the studio visited the University this fall to examine the remnants of Jefferson’s original capitals. Conservationists cleaned the larger remnants to match marble colors and original carving details. Craftsmen then made three-dimensional laser scans to re-create historically accurate capitals.
Carving and installation of the 16 capitals is estimated to take nine months.
The renovations will include a complete replacement of the building’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. Much of this new equipment—heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, and an electrical and fire alarm panel—will be housed in a new, underground mechanical room that will be created beneath the east courtyard. The space will also accommodate an underground catering kitchen.
An underground tunnel, leading from a service elevator and stairs next to a service lot east of the Rotunda, will provide access for caterers and other authorized personnel.
Returning the Rotunda to Students
Although it is the University’s most famous building, the Rotunda hasn’t been a hub of student life since the library moved to Alderman Library in 1938. The current renovation will once again make the building a welcoming place for students to study and take classes.
“Jefferson intended the Rotunda to be the central focus of the Academical Village—not only physically by its size, location and architectural presence, but also programmatically by its function as the library and central classroom building that would be used daily by faculty and students,” says David J. Neuman, the Architect for the University. “It is our intention to return the Rotunda to that central role.”
Among the plans that will help make that happen are the creation of a new study area in the lower gallery that encircles the Dome Room, which will be made accessible by the addition of a staircase, and the installation of upgraded data systems and audiovisual equipment to enhance classrooms. A cable-operated shading system for the oculus will facilitate daytime presentations in the Dome Room, and a new elevator and an improved main entrance will make the building more accessible.
Once the renovation is complete, the Rotunda will host increased numbers of classes, along with other events that bring faculty and students together.
The Ever-Changing Rotunda
1821 – Thomas Jefferson presents his plans for the Rotunda to the Board of Visitors.
1826 – Jefferson dies; the Rotunda is still under construction.
1854 – The annex, a four-story wing with a basement, is added to the Rotunda.
1895 – Faulty wiring in the annex starts a fire, burning down the Rotunda.
1898 – The rebuilt Rotunda is dedicated after a redesign by architect Stanford White.
1938 – Library moves from the Rotunda to the newly completed Alderman Library.
1938 – A project begins that converts the Rotunda’s wings to offices and includes the addition of the cryptoporticus—the ground-level covered passage in the south wing.
1972 – After the University receives a Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to supplement privately raised money, a major restoration begins that returns the Rotunda closer to Jefferson’s original design.
1976 – Restoration complete, the Rotunda hosts a luncheon for Queen Elizabeth II.
2013 – First phase of the current renovation project is completed, replacing the steel-paneled dome with copper, restoring window sashes and repointing the exterior bricks.
2014 – Second phase of renovation will begin immediately following Final Exercises in May.