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Period Pieces

New book, exhibits showcase more of those things that tell UVA’s history

In 2014, this magazine published a special feature, titled “Object Lesson,” offering a telling of UVA’s history through various objects. Now that concept has grown into a book, Mr. Jefferson’s Telescope: A History of the University of Virginia in One Hundred Objects, written by Encyclopedia Virginia managing editor Brendan Wolfe and published by UVA Press. “My job was to take the objects, write about each one and bring them together into a coherent narrative, so you can get a primer on UVA history,” Wolfe says. The book was released in August; a corresponding exhibit will run in Special Collections as well as around Grounds (see “The Exhibit” section below). Here are several of the objects featured in the book.

Rotunda Fire photograph
Rufus Hollinger took this iconic black-and-white photograph of the 1895 Rotunda fire. Hollinger’s studio was on West Main Street; when he learned of the fire, he raced to grab his heavy equipment and transport it to the Lawn. By the time he arrived, the flames weren’t really visible, and the roof had collapsed. So he took a glass plate photo and later scratched flames into the plate, making it look like the Rotunda was still burning fiercely. Courtesy of Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Letter from Robert Lewis Dabney to his brother
In 1840, UVA faculty chairman and law professor John A.G. Davis was killed on Grounds. In this letter from Robert Lewis Dabney, who graduated in 1842, to his brother, Dabney gives an eyewitness account of the incident. He writes that, during a riot on the Lawn, several students were shooting blanks. When Davis asked them to stop, they loaded bullets into their weapons and shot him. He died in his room in Pavilion 10. The students were apprehended but, Wolfe says, never faced trial. Courtesy of Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Steve Keene Paintings for WTJU
Successful painter Steve Keene once worked as a DJ at WTJU, which was founded on Grounds in the 1950s. These particular paintings for the station were takeoffs on Norman Rockwell paintings: One was the famous freedom of speech painting and the other, the famous Thanksgiving dinner painting. Stacey Evans

Fragment of original capital of Rotunda
Currently on display in front of UVA’s Fralin Museum, this fragment is a large section of the top of the column from the original Rotunda. The capitals were carved using marble from Italy. Stacey Evans

Pass Certificate of Caroline Preston Davis
Caroline Preston Davis was a granddaughter of John A.G. Davis (the professor killed by students in 1840). Late in the 19th century, she wanted to attend UVA, but women were prohibited. She appealed to the Board of Visitors, which agreed to admit women—but with several parameters: The women had to be of “good character.” They could take classes, but not with men. They had to pass the same tests as the men. And if they passed the tests, they couldn’t receive a degree, but a “pass certificate” instead. Davis was the only woman who followed through at the time. Courtesy of Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Original Piece of Tin Roof with Painting
Several eyewitnesses talked about watching the tin roof of the Rotunda “crinkling” in the intense heat during the fire. Afterward, souvenir hunters picked up the tin pieces to buy and collect. There are at least two examples of people, Wolfe says, who painted the actual Rotunda on a piece of tin—this is one of those examples. Stacey Evans