The Rotunda is more than just the symbol of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville -- it's the heart of the campus. Ninety years ago next month, the structure, designed by university founder Thomas Jefferson and pictured at right, was almost totally destroyed by fire.

Recently the university's Alderman Library acquired an eight-page letter that contains the most vivid and detailed written description to date of the catastrophe. It was written on Oct. 28, 1895, the day after the fire, by Bell Dunnington, aged 12 or 13, the daughter of a university professor, to a sister who was away.

Bell wrote that she had just gone to Sunday school when someone spotted a wisp of smoke coming from the Rotunda, then used as the campus library. Her letter recounted how there was no water pressure for fire hoses, and professors and students hurried into the building to rescue books, paintings, a heavy statue of Jefferson and other valuables.

Dynamite and bucket brigades were used in a futile attempt to halt the blaze.

"I never saw a more magnificent or awful sight than when the dome caught fire," Bell wrote. "All the top part of it was one terrible glowing mass of flame, and the tin had a curious reddish look, though it did not blaze, but wrinkled up."

When it was over, only some of the walls and blackened columns remained. The fire was blamed on the primitive electrical wiring in the Rotunda annex. The annex had been added in 1853 to the original building that dated to 1824. The Rotunda was soon rebuilt to a somewhat altered design, and was restored fully to its Jeffersonian design in 1976.