Workers find historic remnants of U-Va. Rotunda as they restore Jeffersonian icon

It didn’t look like much, just a crumpled scrap of metal that had been tossed aside, forgotten in a pile of old rubble. But a conservator at the University of Virginia was pretty sure they had found something historically significant: a shingle from Thomas Jefferson’s iconic Rotunda.

The original building, which symbolizes Jefferson’s vision for the university, was destroyed in a fire more than a century ago. Nothing of the original dome was believed to exist. But in the midst of a $50 million restoration, workers unexpectedly found relics, including shingles, bolts, shards of glass and nails — scraps that offer clues to the school’s storied past even as university leaders hope to bring the Rotunda into the future.

When the restoration is complete, they hope the Rotunda will no longer be seen as a symbol or a historic site so much as the busy heart of the school, as Jefferson had intended.

“It’s the centerpiece of Mr. Jefferson’s university. He built the whole school around that,” said John Stout, an alumnus who met his wife at U-Va. in the mid-1980s. “It was the home base, the library, everything — it’s very important. It’s a great piece of American history that needs to be preserved.”

The restoration was long overdue because, like so much at Virginia’s flagship public university, it was complicated by history and politics. University leaders hope that when the project is complete, they will have shored up a 36,000-square-foot building that is central to the school’s designation as a UNESCO world heritage site, one of the few that still function as they were intended to: as living places rather than monuments.

During a restoration of the school’s iconic rotunda, conservators found pieces of the original dome designed by Thomas Jefferson. The rotunda was destroyed by fire in 1895 and rebuilt. University officials hope this restoration will make the building once again a center for student learning. (Sanjay Suchak/U-Va.)

But they didn’t expect to find new evidence for scholars, such as a long, hand-wrought iron bar, purposefully cut, and large handmade bolts that would fit into it.

“It was very, very intriguing,” said Mark Kutney, architectural conservator at U-Va., “in that there are clearly small pieces of a much larger puzzle that we didn’t have before.” They are still working to understand how the pieces fit into the Rotunda, but one theory is that iron bars were used to shore up the wooden structure of the dome.

“One of the interesting and important things about the restoration is the discovery of so many details, materials and, indeed, parts of Jefferson’s original building — stuff we all thought was gone,” said Richard Guy Wilson, a professor of architectural history at U-Va. “And it is still there. Really amazing.”

Rebuilding after 1895 fire

When a fire broke out in 1895 — perhaps set off by a kerosene lamp in an annex — students and professors living nearby rushed to save books from the library, furniture, the statue of Jefferson. They even, in a desperate attempt to save the Rotunda, used dynamite to destroy the connection to the burning annex.

They knew what the building meant: Jefferson founded U-Va. because he believed the nascent American democracy would fail without an educated citizenry. He designed an “academical village” in which students and faculty lived and studied alongside one another.

“Jefferson carefully chose the library at the head of the Lawn — the central green space — to signify the importance of knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge over time,” said David Neuman, architect for the university. The Rotunda, modeled on the Pantheon in Rome, symbolized Jefferson’s belief that citizens have free access to the knowledge of the world, he said.

But in 1895, all that was left of the school’s signature building were its masonry shell, ashes, broken glass and columns so badly damaged by the heat that they had to be knocked down.

Stanford White, a noted architect, rebuilt the Rotunda with substantial changes, including adding a monumental staircase to the rear entrance, building new wings and removing one of the floors in the central domed room to create a loftier space. In the 1970s, the Rotunda was modified again, with some attempts to restore Jefferson’s design and modernize mechanical systems.

In recent years, with funding a challenge, the Rotunda fell into disrepair. The mechanical systems were outdated and breaking down, the roof leaked badly and the capitals of the Corinthian columns began dropping heavy chunks of marble.

Something else had changed, too. Over the years, the Rotunda was used less and less. It is no longer the library, and it no longer hosts frequent classes. More than 100,000 visitors tour it every year, but many students graduate without ever having gone inside.

“It’s such an iconic thing, it’s hard not to see it every day of your life” at the university, Stout said. “But a lot of people walk around it on the Lawn, and I don’t know how many people go in. Fixing it up will give people an opportunity to go in and learn from it.”

During restoration, surprises

Last year, university officials took steps to make the building more welcoming to students, adding classes there, offering extended study hours inside and resuming a tradition of dinner in the Dome Room for first-year students. But without projectors and other classroom technology, the space wasn’t a good fit for many modern courses.

In 2011, the General Assembly adjourned without answering university officials’ plea for public money to repair and restore the building. Ultimately, then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) pledged support. The state has committed half of the cost and the university has been struggling to raise the rest, approximately $25 million.

Another challenge lay in the very idea of restoration: Would the planners return the building to its Jeffersonian design, stripping away the alterations made to his original vision? Or would they honor the building’s evolution?

“You have to respect the idea of tradition at the University of Virginia,” said Clay Palazzo, a principal with John G. Waite Associates Architects and a U-Va. alumnus. He said that doesn’t necessarily mean returning things to exactly how they were originally; it might mean restoring it to how people remember it.

They decided not to try to recreate all the Jeffersonian elements lost in the fire, rather to acknowledge the history of the building. Much of the work is practical, such as brick repairs and a new roof. Some is modern, such as upgrades to electric and fire-safety controls, technology for classrooms, better data connections, a new elevator. Some of the work is artistic: Stone masons in Italy are carving new capitals for the columns from giant blocks of Carrara marble.

During the restoration, workers cut through the wall of one of the oval rooms in the Rotunda. The oval rooms are enclosed within rectangular frames, so there are four hidden corner areas. What they found in the cavity surprised them: piles of rubble — including about a foot-deep layer of charcoal, plaster, glass and rusted nails — that were clearly debris from the fire.

And among all the bent and corroded fragments, they found what were clearly tin-coated iron shingles with a center joint that had once lined the roof of the dome. Some have a type of red paint on them, which was a common means to make the metal more resistant to water damage. In the black-and-white photographs of the Rotunda before the fire, the roof looks darker. “Was it red at that point?” Kutney said. “Possibly.”

Matthew Scheidt, project manager for John G. Waite Associates, said it is “amazing we’re still finding early material. There’s still lots of interesting stories that haven’t been told.”

For scholars, Palazzo said, the debris was a treasure trove. University leaders plan to display some of the finds in the Rotunda alongside classrooms that, in the future, they hope will be full of students.

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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