The Vision for the Village
Jefferson's drawings show multiple influences and singular genius
More than a century ago, the University’s Central Grounds rose from the ashes of the 1895 Rotunda fire, and much of the original character of Jefferson’s Academical Village began a process of alteration and evolution. Using designs by the firm of McKim, Mead & White, the University rebuilt the Rotunda and closed off the south end of the Lawn with the construction of Cocke, Rouss and Cabell halls. The final building in that era of growth was Carr’s Hill, which has housed University presidents and their families for 100 years. In recognition of the Carr’s Hill centennial, a yearlong celebration will pay tribute to the evolution of the Grounds with exhibits of Jefferson’s original plans and drawings as well as the architecture that followed.
Before the University of Virginia was canonized as an architectural masterpiece, it was disparaged for the odd proportions and outdated style of its pavilions and “frail” materials. And long before Thomas Jefferson was hailed for his genius, skepticism persisted that such an amateur could have designed it himself.
Jefferson died in 1826 believing he had created a leading educational institution and an architectural landmark. Posterity continues to reappraise it; perceptions have obviously improved, though speculation over the sources of his ground plan—the gardens at Marly-le-Roy? The Hôtel de Salm in Paris?—has become an absorbing hair-splitting exercise among historians and critics.
For UVA architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson, ongoing research has strengthened his conviction that the University was, ultimately, Jefferson’s own design. In the UVA Art Museum’s current exhibit, “Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village: The Creation of an Architectural Masterpiece, 1817-1826,” his rule breaking reveals itself. A reprise of a 1993 exhibit, the current show explores the genesis of the University through a trove of original drawings, Jefferson’s correspondence with colleagues and newly gleaned information about the construction process.
“Lurking in the background are multiple types of influences, but there was never a direct influence,” says Wilson, the exhibit’s curator. “We’ve discovered more that it was an evolving process. Indeed, it was unclear when they broke ground how it was going to turn out.”
The preliminary ground plan that Jefferson drew in 1814 was one he had been mentally sketching for 10 years. In 1804, when L.W. Tazewell solicited his ideas for a university proposal to be submitted to the state legislature, Jefferson wrote that a large building to house the whole institution was not to his liking. “Large houses are always ugly, inconvenient, exposed to the accident of fire, and bad in cases of infection,” he wrote. “A plain small house for the school and lodging of each professor is best. These connected by covered ways out of which the rooms of students should open would be best.”
By 1810, Jefferson had further refined his concept. Each professor’s “small and separate lodge” should contain “only a hall below for his class, and two chambers above for himself … the whole of these arranged around an open square of grass and trees.” When he submitted his plan in August 1814 to the committee responsible for finding a location for “Albemarle College,” as it was then referred to, the blueprint contained nine identical pavilions flanked by 10 dormitories on each side, situated around three sides of a square and connected by covered walkways. In each pavilion was a hall on the ground floor for instruction and two rooms upstairs for living quarters for the professors.
The idea to use the pavilions for a didactic purpose isn’t mentioned until later; in an 1816 letter to Virginia Gov. Wilson Nicholas, Jefferson described the pavilions for the first time as “exhibiting models in architecture of the purest forms of antiquity, furnishing to the student examples of the precepts he will be taught in that art.” His concern about the lack of appropriate models of antiquity, though, dates to his Notes on the State of Virginia, wherein he lambasts Williamsburg’s buildings.
In the years since the first exhibit about the Academical Village, further investigations have made it clear that the scope of the project was larger than previously thought. The initial list of 300 laborers and craftsmen—enslaved and free—has grown to more than 400 names, though details remain sparse about many of them. “This was one of the largest building projects going on in the U.S. at that time,” says Wilson. “Given that it was taking place in a relatively rural, out-of-the-way area, the investment is rather extraordinary in terms of time and money.”
Researchers say it is difficult to accurately calculate what specific builders and other workers earned during the years of construction because the University’s system of accounting was primitive and poorly organized. Complicating matters is the fact that the University’s proctor, Arthur Brockenbrough, failed to keep proper records for at least the first year.
As Jefferson worked on his scheme for the Central Grounds, he sought advice from several people and made important alterations in his plan based on their suggestions, most notably from architects Benjamin Henry Latrobe and William Thornton, and Joseph Cabell, his chief legislative advocate and fellow Board of Visitor member. Interestingly, Jefferson’s correspondence with Latrobe and Thornton in 1817 was prompted by the fact that he had recently sold his substantial collection of architectural books to the Library of Congress to replace what was destroyed in the War of 1812. Bookshelves bare, Jefferson was forced to seek outside assistance.
In July 1817, work began on the site, a slanting cornfield a mile west of Charlottesville. The site’s irregular topography forced changes, as did the availability of skilled workmen and perennial budget woes.
“If the masonry had been available, would stone have been used instead of brick? Stone was the elite material,” Wilson says. “That’s always been a point of speculation.” The stone they did buy, limestone from a northern Virginia quarry, proved a disaster for the carving of the column capitals and inflamed the tempers of the pair of Italian stonecutters brought over to do the job. In the end, Carrara marble capitals had to be imported from Italy.
Jefferson tested his ideas on colleagues but nonetheless could be irascible. “Challenging Jefferson on any aspect of the project meant tiptoeing lightly,” Wilson writes in the exhibit’s catalogue. “Joseph Cabell wrote to fellow board member John Hartwell Cocke that when suggesting modifications, ‘We should move in concert or we shall perplex and disgust the old Sachem.’”
Cabell must have found a diplomatic way to suggest moving the gardens—which in Jefferson’s scheme were located behind the outer row of hotels and dormitories—to a spot between the pavilions and hotels. Jefferson thought the change unworkable because it would block carriage access to the rear of the pavilions, but he returned to the drafting table. In a new version, he added perpendicular alleys to solve the problem of access. Later still, he added the serpentine walls.
It remains unclear what Jefferson’s intentions were for the south end of the Lawn. “What is more evident is that there was, throughout the 19th century, an uncomfortableness with the openness of it,” Wilson observes. Over the years, there were multiple attempts to close it off: proposed huts for statues of Jefferson, buildings, chapels, even a triumphal arch commemorating Confederate soldiers. It appears inevitable that the vista was finally blocked with the construction of Cabell, Rouss and Cocke halls beginning in the 1890s.
That so many of the documents on display have survived is a tale unto itself. Luckily for us, many of Jefferson’s sketches were never properly archived in the University’s library, in which case they would have perished in the Rotunda fire of 1895, Wilson notes. In the 1920s, a stash was found in one of the maintenance buildings on Grounds, in relatively good condition because no one had bothered them.
The House on the Hill
UVA’s presidential residence turns 100
Carr’s Hill, the stately home of all the University of Virginia presidents, has witnessed a great deal in its century of existence, but the written record has been scant. When Betsy Casteen joined the household in 2003, the available literature consisted of an outdated flyer about the house and an unfinished catalog of its period furnishings and paintings.
A full accounting of Carr’s Hill’s history was in order, she decided, especially as its 100th anniversary was around the corner. “I thought it would be great to do a book because there are so many stories to tell,” she says.
Stanford White, the renowned architect of the time and a partner in the firm of McKim, Mead & White, designed Carr’s Hill but was murdered before completing the plans. Another architect with the firm, William Kendall, finished the design. UVA’s first president, Edwin A. Alderman, wanted the dwelling to be both symbolic and functional, desiring a plan similar to a house he admired in New Orleans.
“To serve as the social locus of the University’s presidency, the Aldermans were not seeking a Gilded Age plutocrat’s house built for pleasure,” Margaret Gutman Klosko (Grad ’91) writes in Carr’s Hill: The President’s House at the University of Virginia, 1909-2009, published this fall and available only through UVA Bookstores. “Instead, they sought a hard-working house.”
Until 1904, the University’s system of governance did not include a president. Thomas Jefferson’s minimal system called for just two managers: the rector, or head of the Board of Visitors, and the chair of the University’s faculty. But the chaos surrounding the 1895 Rotunda fire and subsequent reconstruction served as a wake-up call that the University needed a better managerial system to handle such a large project.
To call Carr’s Hill a working house might be an understatement. Though the residence is spacious—10,450 square feet with six bedrooms and eight bathrooms—the social engagements held there have multiplied as the University has grown. Today, about 14,000 guests are entertained there annually. One longstanding tradition has been to invite the first-year class to Carr’s Hill the day after students arrive. “I don’t think other large universities would do that,” says Betsy Casteen.
Having married UVA President John T. Casteen III in 2003, she admits that living in a house that is both an official residence and a private home has required some adjustment, such as coming downstairs and encountering strangers. “Every once in a while, we find someone sleeping on the furniture,” she says.
Several programs are being held this year in conjunction with the celebration of Carr’s Hill’s centennial. See this related article for a list of the events.
The different stages of the University’s expansion
How does one add to perfection?
Jefferson’s lauded Academical Village became functionally obsolete soon after it opened its doors to students in 1825. A growing population and new teaching methods forced the re-appropriation of buildings for different uses. Other buildings went up without reference to the Academical Village in style or location.
As its title suggests, “From Village to Grounds: Architecture after Jefferson at the University of Virginia,” this exhibit sponsored by the Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library covers all the departures from Thomas Jefferson’s architectural vision and faithful efforts to adapt to it.
Divided chronologically, the exhibit details Stanford White’s restoration of the Rotunda after the 1895 fire and his re-imagining of its interior. His firm, McKim, Mead & White, also was called upon to close off the Lawn, re-introducing classicism to the Grounds with a series of new academic buildings. Later, a handful of architects brought Colonial Revival architecture with the construction of the Bayly Museum, Memorial Gym and Lambeth Field.
After World War II, the University’s expansion became heavily dependent on the automobile: the hospital, law and graduate business schools moved to satellite campuses. Closer to the historic core, new dormitories and dining halls accommodated the burgeoning student body.
And tomorrow’s University? The new $105 million South Lawn Project brings attention back to the historic Central Grounds. Slated for completion by the end of 2010, it will extend the axis of the original Lawn across Jefferson Park Avenue, featuring two parallel wings of academic buildings set along a courtyard. Historic preservation and new construction continue to repurpose the University’s 19th-century building stock, finding new ways to build on a masterpiece.