Members of the Albermarle Garden Club found out about the University of Virginia's plans to build a new dormitory on the grounds of the antebellum Morea Estate late last summer when they contacted the university to discuss the planting of peonies along the front of the property.
"They were told not to bother because the bulldozers would rip them up anyway--can you imagine?" said longtime Charlottesville resident Marian Nolan last week.
The new dormitory, now under construction 100 yards from the Morea house on the east end of the property, has sparked a small civil war at the university founded by Thomas Jefferson. It has pitted longtime supporters of the university against administrators.
The university is adamant that the dormitory be built on a parcel of land that comprises 7.6 percent of the two-acre estate. Residents and the garden club, in turn, have filed suit against the university in Richmond Circuit Court. A temporary restraining order briefly halting construction was lifted by a judge last month. A court date to hear the suit has not been set.
For university administrators, construction of the 100-bed dormitory is a matter of practicality. More than 3,000 students are on a waiting list for dorm rooms, and the 2,200-acre campus in the middle of Charlottesville is hard-pressed for space, spokeswoman Elizabeth Wilkerson said.
Old university supporters like Nolan helped raise about $70,000 needed to buy the old estate for the university. They did so with the intention that it be used as a residence for visiting faculty. For them, the new dormitory has raised a question of honor.
"Of course, we had no written contract," said Nolan, one of the five individual plaintiffs in the suit against the university. "It was a gentleman's agreement. We trusted the university to care for the property in its entirety. They have breeched the honor of this agreement."
University officials have stressed the residence will remain untouched and it will continue to be used for distinguished visiting faculty.
Morea is an old brick Georgian home near the heart of the university on Sprigg Lane. It is across the street from alumni hall, flanked by dormitories built in the 1950s and by the residence of Prof. William Weedon, who donated more than $20,000 to buy Morea for the university and who supports the anti-dormitory faction.
John Patten Emmet, the university's first professor of natural history, built the house on 106 acres in 1835. It was used as a private residence until it was bought for the university in 1960.
The university may hold the deed to Morea, Nolan said, but many in the community believe they have a stake in the property. The Albermarle Garden Club maintains an extensive garden on the property.
The university did consider alternate sites on land it owns far from campus, Wilkerson said, but students vetoed most of them because they did not want to live so far away.
The university is in the process of building another 650-bed dormitory at Alderman and Stadium roads. But even there they are running up against the rich history of Albermarle County. Graves, believed to be those of slaves, were uncovered by construction crews. They will be preserved, Wilkerson said.
If the residents win their suit, the dorm on the Morea property will have to be demolished, Nolan said. Wilkerson said the university decided to start construction of the $1.5 million dorm because it already had hired a contractor and was losing money.
"It is very disheartening that it has to come to this suit," Nolan said. "The university seems to have got itself in a bind with the builder and is not willing to listen to the people who have supported them for years.
"We realize Morea is not a Monticello. But it is still important to preserve something for next generations, not chip away at its beauty just to convenience the present generation."