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Starry Night Under the Dome

Jefferson’s original vision of the Rotunda as a planetarium comes to life

Constellations projected onto the ceiling of the Rotunda dome

Each evening, the Rotunda’s interior dome transforms into a stylized version of the night sky as seen in Jefferson’s time, thanks to the inspiration of three Ph.D. students who are bringing Jefferson’s early dream to life.

In plans dated as early as 1819, seven years before the Rotunda was built, Jefferson envisioned the dome “painted sky-blue and spangled with gilt stars.” The stars would be moved, by hand, by an astronomy professor who was elevated to the concave ceiling during lectures. But his ambitious idea was later scrapped, likely because of financial constraints, says Sam Lemley (Grad ’21).

If that dream had been executed, Lemley says, the Rotunda would have been the world’s first full-building planetarium.

Today, the array of constellations visible in the Dome Room is created by projectors secreted along the upper gallery. Lemley, Neal Curtis (Grad ’18, ’22) and Madeline Zehnder (Grad ’22) designed the space as part of a larger exhibition, “Rotunda Planetarium: Science and Learning in the University of Virginia’s First Library.” Their goal is to highlight that the building was meant to be a vibrant space for multiple disciplines: as planetarium, library, museum, even chemical laboratory.

The full exhibition, which opened November 1, will remain in place through mid-February, augmented by lectures and other events for the University and Charlottesville communities. The planetarium itself is a permanent installation.

Display cases on the ground floor also host astronomy instruments and artifacts, library books that escaped the 1895 fire, and natural history specimens of the same vintage as the original museum, which the fire destroyed.

Lemley, Curtis and Zehnder received a $30,000 grant from the Jefferson Trust, an initiative of the UVA Alumni Association, for their project.

“From a scholarly point of view,” Lemley says, “[the exhibition] tells the more complete story of the Rotunda’s history, which I think is important. … There [was] a lot more going on that we think people will appreciate.”