As this edition of Virginia Magazine reveals, there are a lot of exciting building projects underway across Grounds. From the new School of Data Science, to the Karsh Institute of Democracy, to plans for a new biotech building, UVA is in the midst of creating the physical spaces that will house new research and teaching in critical areas of study and practice. Amid all that is new, I thought it might be useful to return in this letter to the Rotunda, which has been at the center of the University since its completion in 1828.
Our alumni know that the Rotunda was part of Thomas Jefferson’s original design; it was to be the centerpiece of his vision for an “academical village,” an idealistic place where students and faculty would live and learn alongside one another. What made the Rotunda a revolutionary idea was that it held the University’s library. A university designed around the library, rather than the chapel, was a bold innovation that would shape the future of higher education. The original Rotunda included classroom space and the library collection, though it was destroyed by a fire in 1895. Records document that students and faculty rushed in, trying to save books and artwork, but the building itself was a total loss. Rebuilt and fitted with new, fireproof materials, the Rotunda was rededicated in 1898.
Even in the face of dramatic events like the fire, along with a series of additions, demolitions, and renovations, the Rotunda has played an outsized role in University life. It has been the site of historic visits, beginning with the Marquis de Lafayette, who dined with Jefferson. In 1976, the late Queen Elizabeth II toured Monticello and the Academical Village, where 18,000 people witnessed her walking down the Lawn. Then-governor Mills E. Godwin hosted a luncheon for the queen in the Dome Room. President George H.W. Bush hosted the famous Education Summit in the Rotunda, inviting all 50 governors to participate in talks, which sparked the movement for standards-based education reform.
The most recent renovations to the Rotunda were completed in 2016, thanks to the foresight of President Terry Sullivan and the generosity of campaign donors. And while it has always been one of the most photogenic sites in central Virginia, it’s now become one of the most vibrant as well. Efforts by Sheri Winston, associate director for Rotunda and Major Events, and other talented University leaders have made the Rotunda a place alive with visitors and activities.
Today, classes are held three days a week in the Lower West Oval Room. The original “Rotunda Guards” are now Rotunda Student Ambassadors, who are knowledgeable about the building and UVA history, and who welcome visitors from on Grounds and far beyond it. The building is a preferred place of study for many students—and during exams, students are welcome until midnight and enjoy free snacks provided by Aramark. Nearly 100 dissertation defenses have taken place in the building during this academic year alone, in both the Dome Room and North Oval Room. Student groups often use the Rotunda for meetings and celebratory events. Recently, after combing through Jefferson’s original plans, a group of doctoral students was inspired to turn the Dome Room ceiling into a planetarium and invited the public in for a viewing of the night sky. The Rotunda Sing, featuring UVA’s a cappella groups, still happens at the start of every year. And new traditions have emerged: The Great Rotumpkin, a light show displayed on the façade of the building, is now a staple of community-wide Halloween festivities.
The Dome Room in particular is a hub of activity, frequently used for lectures, symposiums and seminars. The recent UVA Manning Institute of Biotechnology announcement took place there in January; high-profile events, such as the Democracy Dialogues, are regular features. Community-building events like the storytelling hour, Double Take, happen in the Dome Room; and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals are given there on Founder’s Day.
The landscape of the University is growing in new and exciting ways. But the Rotunda remains the heart and soul of Grounds—and when you are next in town, I encourage you to stop in for a visit, say hello to the Rotunda Ambassadors, and reflect on Jefferson’s revolutionary vision.
James E. Ryan (Law ’92)
President of the University of Virginia