U-Va.'s Larry Sabato is a high-tech political junkie in a home that still feels like Thomas Jefferson's scholarly village
U-Va.'s Larry Sabato is a high-tech political junkie in a home that still feels like Thomas Jefferson's scholarly village

By Nancy McKeon
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 31, 2009

It's easy to imagine political analyst Larry J. Sabato a few days from now, in his second-floor home office at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, pedaling away on his stationary bike while watching election results on the big flat-panel TV that decorates a room that is otherwise characterized by mountains of paper.

Or maybe Sabato, the quintessential 21st-century political junkie, will be in the master bedroom, across the hall, working off his lunch (and strengthening his back) on the complicated weight machine that takes up almost as much room as the big wood-frame bed. Not to worry: There's another TV in there, as well.

Meanwhile, downstairs, it's another century entirely. Where the day-to-day reality of classroom work -- papers, books and boxes of both -- threatens to engulf the 57-year-old politics professor upstairs, the main-floor reception room echoes in the empty spaces between a sofa here, a table there. Upstairs, one can't really see Sabato's big wood desk for all the material stacked on it; downstairs, nary a sheet of paper mars the timeless order.

It's not precisely what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he designed the "Academical Village" as the heart and soul of the university, but it's pretty close. The cornerstone for the first neoclassical pavilion, now Pavilion VII, was laid in 1817; by 1825, a year before Jefferson's death, the college was open to its first 123 students.

Sabato lives in Pavilion IV. Flanking the verdant U-Va. Lawn are 10 two-story, balconied pavilions, linked by stretches of spartan one-room student residences. Behind the facing rows of pavilions and rooms are some of the university's famed gardens, brick terraces lined with lush boxwood and punctuated by white wood gates and fences.

Intended by Jefferson to house 10 branches of study, with classroom downstairs and professors' living quarters upstairs, the pavilions are still awarded to deans and eminent professors, generally for five to 10 years. And while the Lawn "is for everybody," Sabato says, each spring finds hundreds of honors students competing on grades and extracurricular activities for one of the 50 student rooms.

Sabato, now the Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics and director of the university's Center for Politics, was once one of the successful students, living in Room 16 East as an undergraduate. As a professor, he was invited to live in Pavilion IV six years ago. One difference between the two accommodations: The pavilions have their own bathrooms -- large, well-appointed spaces with linen storage and modern bathtubs -- whereas Lawn students have to hustle along the outdoor colonnade to communal facilities.

Another difference is that the honor of living in the pavilions comes with responsibilities. Pavilion dwellers are expected to offer hospitality in their grand ground-floor reception and dining rooms, allowing student and other groups to apply for use. So those spaces on the main floor are often filled to overflowing with guests. The lucky residents pay about $1,000 a month in rent and are expected to furnish the houses.

"It's an honor to be asked to live in a pavilion," says Charlottesville interior designer Michelle Willis Adams, who helped the bachelor Sabato decorate and furnish Pavilion IV. Sabato, she added, has hosted "more student and university groups than anyone I can think of."

The reception room's 12-foot-tall windows presented an immediate decorating challenge. While some pavilion dwellers treat the floor-to-ceiling triple-hung windows as architectural elements and leave them unadorned, Adams and Sabato decided to dress them.

To keep Sabato's costs down, Adams restricted each window treatment to a fabric swag and hanging jabots trimmed with fringe, the way they might have been during Jefferson's era. "We stayed with damasks and stripes to be in keeping with the room," she says. Upstairs, the large windows overlooking the Lawn have simple box-pleated valances on top.

When it came to furniture, the pair were helped by the university's long-standing practice to lend pieces, many of them alumni donations, to pavilion residents for use in the home's public and private areas. "This is a working collection [of furniture], not a museum collection," says Brian Hogg, senior historic preservation planner in the university's Office of the Architect. Especially given the "large entertaining component" of pavilion residence, newcomers may need special furniture, such as an enormous dining table. Also, the sheer scale of the pavilion rooms could dwarf the furniture from a typical American home. In addition, some pavilion residents retain their family homes as well as the pavilion and need additional pieces to fill the latter.

Another, funnier point: The pavilions may have been updated with the modern luxury of bathrooms, Hogg points out, but, true to their era, they have no closets. "So we have a lot of armoires" to offer, he says with a chuckle. The armoires certainly serve a function chez Sabato, where the large unit in his office houses stacks of the 30 books and monographs he has produced.

The pieces chosen by Adams and Sabato are not of the exact period of the pavilion. "But we were trying for something Jeffersonian in nature," Adams explained. Hence the long Empire sofa looking sculptural along one wall of the reception room and the Empire center table. Against a side wall is a glass harp, an 18th-century musical novelty consisting of a cabinet holding wine glasses containing different levels of water and played by rubbing a wet finger around the rims.

On a chest in the entry is an item of Jefferson's own invention, a reproduction of his famous revolving bookstand. (The original is on display in Jefferson's beloved Monticello, sited on a nearby mountaintop.) Also in the entry and in the rear "smoking room" are two framed 18th-century maps of Virginia created by Peter Jefferson, the third president's cartographer father.

Upstairs in Sabato's private quarters, the politics professor says he enjoys the "0.3-second commute" from the master bedroom suite to his office across the hallway. Down the hall is a guest room and additional modern bath, which were frequently used by Sabato's mother until her death last spring. The sheer efficiency of the private quarters -- Sabato says he wastes less time here than he did when he lived in his own Charlottesville-area home -- is spoiled only by the fact that the kitchen is two flights down, beneath the reception rooms. Sabato's administrative assistant, Joseph Alden Figueroa, dryly describes the dreary kitchen cabinets as "post-Jefferson-era."

Sabato's computer, on which he has written some of his books and monographs, overlooks the Lawn, but his favorite place may be the front balcony, where he can read and not be noticed. "People passing by tend not to look up," he says. "It's a real sanctuary."

Sanctuary certainly doesn't seem to describe the intense calendar of receptions and meetings that go on downstairs, with Sabato showing up to at least welcome his visitors. That comes under a different heading: "It's a bundle of fun," he says. "And my idea is, when you find something that's fun, you try to do more of it."

Sabato says he wants "to soak up every minute" of the time he's allotted in the pavilion -- even when the students are running around the Lawn, making noise far into the night. Being there in the background watching them, says Sabato with a laugh, "is like being a parent -- without the tuition bills."

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