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U.Va.’s Signature Structure the Rotunda to be Renovated


Though it may take at least six years and cost a minimum of $40 million, big changes are coming to the Rotunda, the building that is the heart of the University of Virginia.

U.Va. hired John G. Waite Associates of New York consultants in the field of historic preservation architecture to help the school figure out how to repair and authentically renovate Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece, which was completed in 1826.

The focus also will be on bringing the Rotunda back into the daily life of students and faculty. The sounds of teaching might soon be heard routinely in the building, which originally served as a library and a classroom in the 19th century.

“It’s been 30 years since the last renovation,” said Brian Hogg, senior preservation planner in the office of the university architect. “We’re just beginning to think about how to move ahead with reconstruction.”

The consultants, who have helped restore hundreds of historic buildings in the country, took about 10 months to examine the round structure and dig through archives. Their findings were detailed in a 700-page report.

The report, which has not been made public, examines almost every aspect of the Rotunda’s history, including the major renovations to Jefferson’s design by famous architect Stanford White after the fire of 1895 and the restoration in 1976 led by U.Va. professor Frederick D. Nichols. The consultants also looked at the forensic evidence of how the Rotunda was originally built.

“The fundamental question is how much is left of Jefferson’s building and how much of White’s?” Hogg said. “How close did they get in the’70s?”

Another fundamental question is how far to go in remaking the Rotunda as an authentic Jeffersonian building.

David Neuman, the university architect, said the Rotunda “is U.Va. history encapsulated in one building. Its history has evolved, and so one could argue to preserve that history, though not fully accurate to Jefferson.”

Tourists often have their photographs taken on the street side of the Rotunda, standing on its sweeping steps and under its massive columns. Few know that the steps and columns were added by White. Jefferson had a modest door and stoop as an entrance to the back of the Rotunda. The two street-side wings also were added by White.

“What to do about the blending or clashing of Thomas Jefferson’s and Stanford White’s buildings is an ancient issue here,” U.Va. President John T. Casteen III said in an e-mail.

Currently, the Rotunda is used by the board of visitors for its meetings and as a place for ceremonial events and dinners. Administrative offices, including those of the architect, are located in the wings.

But the architects are discussing whether the elegant double-front doors on the Lawn side locked to the public for decades may be opened as the primary entrance to the building. Currently, the entrance is below ground on the first floor.

“Can we accommodate the public better?” Neuman asked. “Shouldn’t we open the front doors? How much space could be used by students and faculty on a regular basis? No one could argue that wasn’t what Jefferson wanted.”

Many students have little to do with the Rotunda, other than walking by on the way to class. Tour guide Rachael Reeder, a fourth-year student, said: “I have friends who graduated from here who have never been in the Rotunda. . . . I think opening it up more to the public would be neat.”

The following changes also will be considered:

The metal roof of the Rotunda, which is painted white, may be replaced with stainless-steel shingles that would turn a light gray.

The sweeping interior stairs that lead from the bottom floor to the main floor may be shortened. There is evidence they were incorrectly lengthened, blocking access to the front windows facing the Lawn.

The ceiling of the Dome Room, covered with acoustical tiles, may be replaced with plaster.

The glass cupola on top of the dome may be replaced with a smaller, more Jeffersonian design.

Steps could be added to allow the public to walk on the first and second balconies above the Dome Room.

Other, smaller changes also could be made. For example, an eagle that adorns the ceiling of the Lawn-side portico is a White addition that could easily be removed. The windows, replaced by White after the fire, could be made to curve with the curvature of the Rotunda’s side as originally intended by Jefferson. The 1860 statue of Jefferson by Alexander Galt, saved from the 1895 fire by students, may be moved from the main floor back to its original location in the Dome Room.

“There are many options,” Hogg said.

Other changes would be impossible to make. The Rotunda is about 16 inches smaller in its interior diameter now than when Jefferson built it because White added a course of 8-inch bricks to strengthen the walls after the big fire.

In the short term, the Rotunda needs basic repairs. The roof has been patched repeatedly and needs replacing. The walkways that serve as a roof over the wings allow rain to leak down into the plaster walls. The “water table” a row of large rectangular stones that ring the Rotunda have tilted inward over the years, allowing water to leak into the Rotunda. The elevator and the heating and cooling system need replacing.

“The building is sound structurally and well-kept,” Hogg said, “but it’s an old building. . . . We have to fix it first. I think the maintenance will allow us to be thoughtful in what we want to do to renovate it.”

Casteen also noted that the renovations could take a long time. “The sort of restoration that seems to be envisioned in this draft requires long, careful discussion among many stakeholders,” he said.

Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch,

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