When Thomas Jefferson designed the Rotunda, the symbolic center of the University of Virginia, it included classrooms and the school’s library — a place everyone had reason to use, a place everyone would go often.
But over the many years since then, the building became more of a symbol and less of a center. The library was moved out in the 1930s, and in recent years some rooms were roped off with velvet barriers, and while many of the public, flagship school’s most important events are held in view of the Rotunda, on the Lawn that stretches out in front of it, or even on its steps, most people on campus rarely went inside; one student estimated that half of the students never go in.
The university just completed a two-year, $58 million renovation of the Rotunda, one that shut it down completely as workers labored to fix holes in the roof, crumbling marble, outdated electrical systems — and to restore Jefferson’s original vision of the building as the heart of university life. It reopens to the public this month, with new classroom space and areas dedicated for students to use for studying.
“I have so many friends that have never set foot in the Rotunda once,” said Connor Andrews, a graduate student who worked in the Rotunda as an undergraduate before it closed for renovations. “Now they’re all psyched that they can come back and experience that.”
He thinks it’s an important reopening. “It’s the first building a lot of people think about when they think of U-Va. It’s at the center of Grounds, we spend so much time around it. … Students are very excited to get back in there. It’s important to reopen that space for students.”
“The Rotunda is the symbol of the institution, and belongs not to the University, but to the world,” Alice Raucher, architect for the university, said Thursday in a statement. “As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Rotunda and the Lawn are of outstanding cultural importance to the common heritage of humanity. As the heart and soul of the University, the Rotunda and the Jeffersonian Grounds are the center of student life.”
It has been a long process, starting with signs of holes in the roof, and leaks, which prompted the university to commission a study of the structure. The columns were beginning to crumble, dropping pieces of marble. Utilities added in the 1970s were wearing out. University officials had to find a way to pay for it — eventually getting money from the state and using private donations.
Then they had to excavate a courtyard, to create a large mechanical room tucked out of the way. Most of the first six months of the renovation were spent working to ensure that the building was stable during the work.
“While the excavation and underpinning work was underway,” said Brian Hogg, senior preservation planner in the Office of the Architect for the University, “there was a series of lasers that shot beams at crystals all around the building,” measuring to ensure there was no movement. If there were, alarms would be set off, in the form of text messages that could prompt the general contractor to stop work immediately.
There were some surprises along the way, as they found relics from a building that has been exhaustively studied: a shingle from the original structure before it was badly damaged by fire in 1895, a hand-wrought iron bar and bolts, even a chemical hearth from the 1820s — a window into how science was taught at the university.
Now the building has a copper dome roof, painted white; new mahogany capitals in the dome room and marble capitals outside; and a restored clock. There are rooms that will hold classes five days a week, and lots of study space with comfortable leather chairs for students — including an area that had been roped off.
“One of the things we value about this place as a historic site is the buildings do still work and are cherished for the way they work in their original roles,” Hogg said. Some professors and students live in historical housing right on the Lawn, as Jefferson intended. “The Rotunda wasn’t doing that as well as the other buildings. This was a chance for it to be an active part of the school’s life.”
“I’m looking forward to the building being open at the end of September,” Hogg said, “seeing all the tables and chairs filled with people working, studying.”