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U-Va. bans fireplaces in some historic rooms because of safety concerns

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One of the first questions tourists usually ask when they poke their heads into one of the coveted historic rooms on the University of Virginia’s central Lawn is “Does the fireplace work?”

And then: “Are you allowed to use it?”

In the past, people often laughed when they heard “yes.”

But this year, for the first time in nearly 200 years, U-Va. officials banned fires in the fireplaces. During inspections after a roof restoration project, workers found damage to the mortar and lining of the chimneys, and officials told students in the 106 rooms with fireplaces that they would not be allowed to use them.

The rooms are connected by wooden roof and floor structures with no sprinklers, said Michael Merriam, associate director of maintenance.

“A fire in one could quickly spread to another,” Merriam said, adding that although there is a primary concern for student safety, “there’s also a very large concern that we don’t endanger an architectural treasure.”

“I was very disappointed. It was something I was really looking forward to using,” said senior Matt Cofer, who lives in one of the rooms, which often have a rocking chair and a small pile of wood by the door. One of his best memories is of hanging out in a friend’s room during a blizzard, watching the fire while snow fell.

School officials are trying to decide what to do next. It could cost $1 million to $3 million to repair the cracked chimney linings and mortar to ensure that heat from the fires doesn’t spread to the wood structure outside the chimneys, Merriam said. Adding a sprinkler system would cost significantly more.

At a recent board meeting, one board member said it was “bordering on ludicrous” to have fireplaces and asked whether they would be limiting the hours when students could duel or graze their horses on the Lawn. But others jumped in to defend the tradition.

“I think every university has something they do that makes other universities cringe that they do because of the history behind it,” said Mark Briggs, the chief risk officer for Ohio State University.

The debate matters not only to students but also to people who care about Thomas Jefferson’s legacy at the flagship public university. Jefferson, who designed the school that is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, envisioned a place where learning was not limited to the classroom, where students and faculty lived side by side, where people would gather for philosophical debates over dinner or discuss books by the fireside.

Banning fires could chip away at that, Cofer said, “turning the Lawn more into a museum or a place that doesn’t have as much meaning and connection to the past.”

* * *

Hundreds of students compete to spend their senior year in one of the 54 rooms on the Lawn, a grassy, idyllic expanse at the heart of campus lined with white columns and stately brick buildings. A committee of students chooses the winners, based on their grades, their contributions to the school, and the three essays they write in their applications, said Reedy Swanson, a senior from Knoxville who is head Lawn resident this year. It’s considered a top honor.

All this for rooms about 13-by-13-feet with no bathrooms.

But the rooms, with worn wooden plank floors, high ceilings and big windows, are evocative. They were used for wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Edgar Allan Poe lived in a room on the Range, the area just outside the Lawn that mainly houses graduate students, as did Woodrow Wilson. Each room’s closet door has a list of former residents (dating at least to 1895, the year of the university’s only major fire, when the Rotunda and many school records were destroyed.) Brass nameplates hang on the double-shutter doors, which are often thrown open to welcome visitors and for the view of the green Lawn and the Rotunda.

Lawnies, as the room occupants are known, have all kinds of traditions, intentional and accidental — such as turning spotlights on streakers racing past, chasing them in a gorilla costume, or waking up to find that tourists have come into the room to have a look. Many customs involve the fireplaces. On Halloween, children trick-or-treat at the Lawn rooms, where fires might be crackling if it’s chilly. Summer campers make s’mores with their U-Va. counselors. In December, when the Lawn displays white lights one evening and student groups sing, the doors are thrown open to show fires burning.

One room has no fireplace. It’s usually the last one picked.

The fireplaces are romantic, said Katie Couric, who has fond memories of living on the Lawn her senior year. “It’s better than a puppy in attracting members of the opposite sex!”

Alexander Gilliam, history officer at U-Va., who lived on the Lawn decades ago, said the fireplaces are “an essential part of the Lawn.” He remembers the smell of wood smoke on cold days, laughing with friends by the fire — and also, when he was trying to study while friends were drinking, seeing ice cubes clatter down his chimney, one by one.

“I know there’s a lot of tradition in this sort of thing. But a fire fatality is not a nice tradition,” said Ed Comeau, publisher of Campus Firewatch, which has tracked nearly 150 deadly accidents since a 2000 fire at Seton Hall University killed three students and injured dozens of others.

* * *

U-Va. officials, considering whether to continue the ban or repair the damaged chimneys and perhaps add a sprinkler system, asked students for their opinions.

On the West Range, where the view recently has been of orange and green plastic construction fencing, sticky new asphalt and torn-up dirt, some students weren’t all that enthusiastic about the prospect of construction that could kick them out of their rooms for a few days and mean lots of noise and dust for weeks.

But in a report to the board, Lawn and Range residents said it is of paramount importance to restore the fireplaces so that they can be used again, Swanson said.

Someone suggested at a recent board meeting that given the intensity of the loyalty of past Lawn residents — many of whom have already contacted Swanson and others — students could launch a fundraising campaign for the work.

In the meantime, Swanson has old books lined up along the cream-colored wooden mantel in his room. Quinn Weber rigged up streaming video of a yule log on a monitor over his fireplace.

And Cofer is trying to make sure no one lights a fire in his room, because it will be full of friends and fraternity brothers all year. The university told residents that the chimneys are sealed, so a fire would be considered arson.

“If someone lit a fire in here, I’d probably tackle them out of the room and throw my body on it,” Cofer said. “Expulsion from U-Va. and a felony are probably not two things I want to put on my résumé.”

Most of all, he said: “No one wants to be the one that burned down the Lawn.”

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