In 1911, the UVA School of Law relocated from the Rotunda to Minor Hall, a building designed to meet the school’s growing needs. When a Law School alumnus came back to visit Grounds in 1916, the school’s move so distressed him that the poor man “never did look at the new building, but hurried away to look at the old,” this magazine reported.

Anxiety is the ever-present companion of change at Mr. Jefferson’s University. Its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site speaks to the enduring magnificence and authenticity of its Academical Village. But UVA is not Machu Picchu, an abandoned relic. As the University has developed, it has had to confront, like no other university, the paradox of evolving while remaining unchanged.

Perhaps no development evoked this tension more than the creation of the North Grounds. The modernist structures built in the mid-1970s for the School of Law, Graduate Business School (later renamed Darden) and the Judge Advocate General’s School drew intense criticism from students and faculty, who worried about the ahistoricism of the buildings as well as the distance from the schools to Central Grounds. The design of the Darden School of Business campus, built in 1992, while neo-Jeffersonian, was not fully accepted by the University community, either.

Top: A rendering of the Darden building, built in 1975

Bottom: The Law School building under construction in 1973

UVA School of Law Special Collections Library

In his new book, The Law School at the University of Virginia: Architectural Expansion in the Realm of Thomas Jefferson, Philip Herrington (Grad ’07, ’12) examines what he calls “the push-pull between old and new” of the University’s history. He devotes half his book—which chronicles the migration of the Law School from the Rotunda to its current home—to the era when the Law, Darden and JAG schools all staked their futures on a move away from Central Grounds.

“[This book] is not simply a discussion of the physical characteristics of the structures,” says Loren Moulds (Grad ’06, ’14), a librarian in Special Collections at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library who assisted with the research. “It’s also this much more nuanced story of the tensions of an expanding campus, one which has a deep historical connection to a founder, Thomas Jefferson, who has a nearly inescapable gravity.”

The Jeffersonian vision of the University is deeply tied to the physical space he designed: the Academical Village with a series of 10 pavilions housing faculty and classrooms attached to rows of students’ quarters and joined by an inward-facing colonnade. At its center is a common outdoor space, the Lawn, and at its head a library within the Rotunda, inspired by the Roman Pantheon.

These elements manifest Jefferson’s vision of a university where learning across disciplines was fused with daily life. In an 1810 letter Jefferson contrasts this arrangement with “the common plan, followed in this country” of colleges erecting one large building, which he describes as “a large & common den of noise, of filth, & of fetid air.” The village concept, in contrast, “would afford that quiet retirement so friendly to study.”

The University has been in conversation with this vision ever since, says Brian Hogg (Col ’83), senior historic preservation planner at the University. “If you look at the history of the University, there are waves,” he says. “They’re always responding to Jefferson, but they’re responding either by denying Jefferson or by copying him or doing work that’s inspired by him.”

In his book, Herrington invokes the image of the two-faced Roman god Janus, who looks simultaneously forward and backward. “The architectural history of the University of Virginia,” he writes, “is the story of an institution doing just that: trying to look both to the past and to the future at once.”

In Herrington’s account, the University contended with these pressures as it developed North Grounds. The property was originally a farm called Sunnyside, “one of the last surviving fragments of the rural landscape that once surrounded the University of Virginia.” In 1945, UVA purchased a farm just to Sunnyside’s south to house returning veterans. Shortly after that came the opening of the Barracks Road Shopping Center and the construction of the Charlottesville bypass. Change pressed in from all sides.

During this era, UVA gave itself the option to create what it would come to envision as a new business–law complex. Soaring enrollment, as baby boomers began to hit college age, drove the change. Spurred in part by Virginia’s General Assembly, UVA’s student body doubled from 5,000 to 10,000 between 1960 and 1970, and by 1975 would hit 15,000. This same era saw an expansion of minority enrollment and, in 1970, the enrollment of the first female undergraduates.

Anticipating this growth, University leaders developed a 1965 master plan that envisioned six “teaching centers” near the Academical Village, an effort, Herrington writes, to “integrate [the buildings of the Academical Village] into a coherent, expandable whole.” All of the new centers were to be located within a 10-minute walking radius of the core “to keep the campus walkable and maintain views of the Rotunda and the mountains, creating a larger, denser, but still recognizably bucolic academic setting.”

Reality intervened when the Board of Visitors realized that plans to expand the Law School and the Graduate Business School on Grounds were incompatible with enrollment projections. The schools needed more space and, as graduate programs, were obvious candidates for moving farther from the Academical Village. Their respective deans, Hardy Cross Dillard of the Law School and Charles C. Abbott of the Graduate Business School, saw in their mutual dilemma a mutual possibility: By moving to the Sunnyside property, purchased by the University in 1963, in tandem and adjacent to each other, they could “promote a ‘cooperation of faculty and intermingling of student bodies’ that would be ‘virtually without precedent in the educational world,’” Herrington writes, quoting a memorandum of understanding.

This plaza between the Law School and Darden was coined “Red Square” by a business professor
for its resemblance to Lenin’s tomb. UVA School of Law Special Collections Library

The law and business buildings—and a nearby building for the JAG School, which trains military attorneys—went up at “the tail end of a wave of modernism at UVA,” says Hogg.

“It was very controversial when these buildings were put in,” says Richard Guy Wilson, Commonwealth Professor of Architectural History at UVA. “Beginning in the later 1950s, there was a feeling we were falling behind, that other major American universities—like Yale, Harvard, and … Michigan—were going modern. We were being looked at as old-fashioned because there had been growth and a changing concept of what university architecture should be like.”

Criticism of modernist architecture at UVA was brutal, particularly among students, and was part of a larger debate over broader changes at the University, Herrington writes. “State U” became the derisive term of detractors, typified in the comments of one student in 1967: “[T]he new plan to extend the University into a large ‘State U’ of 10,000 students will only result in the pattering feet of some 4,000 ‘freshmen’ stamping out the Jeffersonian traditions. The switch to modern architecture, so demanded by this rapid expansion, is one of the first signals of the abandonment of the old ideals.”

Faculty and administrators joined the fray. University Rector Frank Rogers objected that “as a result of this fragmentation a law student will be able to complete a three-year course without ever seeing the Lawn.”

Although universities across the country fielded complaints about their own modernist architecture, the complaints took on a distinctive edge in Charlottesville. “Modern buildings were unpopular on many American campuses,” Herrington writes, “but only at UVA did they threaten ‘Mr. Jefferson’s University.’ The fact that the core of the University was a remarkably intact architectural masterpiece, one designed by a Founding Father, made the ahistoricism of modern buildings especially worrisome.”

Built largely on tight state budgets, the academic buildings that went up on North Grounds—Law in 1974 and JAG and Darden in 1975, all designed by Hugh Stubbins and Associates—nodded toward Jeffersonian ideals in their materials, hues and placement relative to each other. A 200-foot lawn—the same width as the Central Grounds version and playfully called “Red Square”—separated the law and business schools, and both buildings faced inward to it and toward each other. Other elements, including the vast parking lots adjacent to the buildings, acknowledged more contemporary priorities. “Although the designers of North Grounds chose various elements of the Academical Village to reinforce a connection with the historic campus, the commuter campus much more heavily influenced the design program,” Herrington writes. “Access, efficiency and economy were top priorities.”

The following two decades fulfilled the expectations that prompted the law and business schools to move. The Law School’s enrollment had nearly doubled between 1960 and 1975, and now it had room to accommodate faculty and students. Darden’s enrollment increased from 280 to 480 students within a few years of the move. Still, the costs of removal from Central Grounds that some anticipated began to become apparent. “Alienation was perhaps the main criticism students and faculty attached to the new site,” Herrington writes, “and it was the most difficult to solve.”

Nearly as soon as students began to occupy the new buildings, two forces emerged that would again reshape the North Grounds and its relationship to the rest of the University. The first was the arrival of postmodern architecture, which revived interest in historic precedents. The second was the evolution of sophisticated fundraising operations in the law and business schools that made realizing grander and more expensive visions possible.

“In the 1990s, both the Law School and the Graduate Business School embarked on ambitious building programs that sought to bring the Academical Village to North Grounds,” writes Herrington. The two schools, however, “took remarkably different approaches.”

The Darden School made the more radical break, abandoning its building and creating a new, postmodern complex on an adjacent hill. The design, submitted by New York-based architect Robert Stern, drew heavily from the features of Central Grounds. Its main building, Saunders Hall, opens onto a rectangular lawn with six pavilions, conveying clearly the spirit of the Lawn. Although some School of Architecture faculty criticized the design as “derivative,” writes Herrington, “For Darden, being explicit was the point.”

“History is full of reinterpretations and repositionings of types of architecture,” says Alice Raucher, University Architect. In his designs for the Academical Village, “Jefferson reinterprets what he has seen in Italy and France. Robert Stern is reinterpreting not only Jefferson but other models in order to make a place.”

The Law School chose the path of renovation, acquiring the former Darden building and developing a plan with the firm Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore that joined the two existing structures with a central pavilion and closed in the central outdoor mall. “The new construction was classical,” writes Herrington, “but it was the stripped, blocky classicism of many 1930s commercial buildings. … There were no curves, decorative capitals, or dentils, and no white,” choices that helped the new construction better blend with the existing buildings. It also included elements that deliberately recalled Clark Hall, the home the law school abandoned.

Philip Herrington’s (Grad ’07, ’12) new book explores the “push-pull between old and new” at UVA.

The JAG building remains much as it was first constructed. Together, the three complexes make up the academic core of today’s North Grounds. Once a commuter outpost, it now features mature landscaping. Several generations of students and faculty have spent careers there.

For more than three decades, Darden has been Robert Bruner’s home at UVA, from his faculty appointment in 1982 to his service as dean from 2005 to 2015. “Distance from the Rotunda presaged social distance within the University,” he says. “It made it more challenging to engage with other divisions, but as the University grows, the sense of separateness dissipates. … We engage with other schools, offer joint seminars and share research activities, but it takes a little extra effort for us to go to them and for them to come to us.”

The North Grounds’ relationship to the Rotunda and all it represents remains a work in progress. In August, the University announced plans to improve a pedestrian and bicycle shared-use path along Ivy Road in an effort to improve connections between the North and Central Grounds.

“When we think about campus planning, we’re looking for ways to develop a connective tissue,” Raucher says. “We are really working to knit together and make those schools part of the overall Grounds, philosophically as well as physically.”

The Academical Village that Jefferson designed to serve several hundred students in the early 1800s remains UVA’s foundational point of reference. University leaders and planners can push toward, pull from, and have a thousand splintered attitudes about this reference, but UVA will never know what it is like not to have it. Decisions driven by developing needs, made in times of changing tastes, will continue to be measured against evolving understandings of it.

“Nothing stays the same,” says Wilson, the architectural historian. “Our views of the past change. You’re constructing new stories of all these things. You have to have change to have history. History is about change.”

Looking back. Looking forward. Janus endures in our time, too.

Matthew Dewald is a writer and editor based in Richmond, Virginia.