U-Va. Rotunda waits in line for repairs

By Daniel de Vise
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.

"He created something that was really pretty new and pretty utopian," said Brian Hogg, a historic preservationist at the university.

The Rotunda faces southwest, away from town, and is on a hilltop. Its dome and columns would slowly reveal themselves on the horizon to people in carriages approaching "the Grounds." Construction was completed in 1826, shortly after Jefferson's death, at a cost of $60,000.

The Rotunda housed the university's then-modest library and large classrooms in which were conducted such malodorous studies as chemistry and physics to keep them away from professors' homes. Most other classes were taught on the ground floors of the 10 pavilions that housed the faculty.

An ungainly addition was added to the Rotunda in 1853. It burned in an 1895 fire that gutted the building and devoured the dome, leaving only the round brick walls and the stone columns.

Stanford White, a renowned American architect, remade the building's interior in an ornate Beaux Arts style. He replaced Jefferson's columns and the carved capitals that topped them. A terra cotta dome supplanted Jefferson's wooden construction.

That is how the Rotunda remained until 1973, when the university decided to return to Jefferson's original design. The Beaux Arts trappings were gutted, a simpler interior restored and a stainless steel roof installed. In 1976, the American Institute of Architects declared Jefferson's academical village the most significant achievement of American architecture in 200 years. In 1987, the Grounds were named a World Heritage site, along with Jefferson's Monticello estate, the only such designation in Virginia, Maryland or the District.

"It is the icon of the university, an emblem of education for Virginians, the nation and the world," U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan said.

But through decades of rising renown, the Rotunda has grown weary. Perhaps the most alarming decay has beset the capitals, blocks of marble carved into swirling patterns of acanthus leaves. No one seems to know why they are cracking and crumbling: Time? Bird droppings? Exposure to the elements? Other columns on the lawn, decades older, remain intact.

There is enough money in the endowment earmarked for historic structures to design a new dome. Actually building it - or anything else - might require state funds.

Replacing the capitals is "kind of a bigger project," said Colette Sheehy, university vice president for management and budget, and it depends on state funding. The university's next chance to request that money is in the fall, for the two-year budget cycle that begins next year.

And there is still the matter of deciding which version of the Rotunda to restore. There are at least three: Jefferson's original, White's 1895 redesign and the bicentennial reworking.

"One point of view in the conversation is that the great moment at this place was the Jefferson moment, and we should work our way back to that," Hogg said. "But White is a historic figure in his own right. And there are sound arguments on each side."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company