U-Va. Rotunda waits in line for repairs

The University of Virginia esimates that renovating the Rotunda will cost about $51 million.
The University of Virginia esimates that renovating the Rotunda will cost about $51 million. (For The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 9:55 PM

CHARLOTTESVILLE - Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda, the historic heart of the University of Virginia, is among the most iconic structures in higher education. Yet a close inspection reveals that the proud Corinthian capitals above its entrance are crumbling. The elevator jams at inopportune moments. The roof leaks.

Coming up with the money to fix a building of such gravitas might seem a simple affair. Jefferson's university is a storied "public Ivy," with a $5 billion endowment. Someone could, presumably, write a check.

But the endowment is largely off-limits for capital projects. And Virginia lawmakers closed their annual session Sunday without budgeting a single dollar toward the $51 million Rotunda renovation. University leaders are prepared to raise nearly half the cost from donors - but only if the General Assembly commits to paying the other half.

To Virginia lawmakers, the Rotunda repairs were Line 1054 on a list of projects awaiting funding, one urgent need among many for a higher education system that inspires both pride and anxiety in Virginia's leaders.

"It was really a tremendous tragedy, for the Rotunda and other very essential capital projects," said Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania), a U-Va. alumnus who sits on the Senate Finance Committee.

Public investment in state universities, and U-Va. in particular, has stalled as the universities' other revenue sources have grown.

State dollars now cover 7 percent of the cost of operating U-Va., down from 26 percent two decades ago. State appropriations to the university dwindled in the recent economic downturn from $167 million in fiscal 2008-09 to $136 million in 2010-11.

In the halls of government, there is no want of enthusiasm for repairing the Rotunda, which Jefferson modeled on the Pantheon in Rome. The archetypal image of the dome and the facade, its six columns topped with a triangular pediment, has become a visual trademark for U-Va. and historic Virginia.

But as the legislative session closed, the project fell victim to political stalemate. For now, the marble capitals remain draped in black mesh netting - to protect people walking below from pieces that might break off.

"The Rotunda is the part of the university - not the basketball team, not the football team, not the marching band - the Rotunda is the symbol around the world for which the university is known," said Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), a former gubernatorial candidate. "We have an obligation to fix it."

Jefferson envisioned the Rotunda as the centerpiece of his "academical village," a collection of Greek Revival structures housing faculty, students and classrooms, a cutting-edge concept in an era when many universities occupied single buildings.

The Rotunda faces two rows of pavilions that line either side of a broad lawn. With them, it forms three walls of Corinthian, Doric and Ionic columns. Jefferson's village, the prototype of the modern quad, defined an architectural style that would influence the design of courthouses, mansions and other college campuses across the nation.

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