Snuffed out? Fire ban puts a damper on UVA tradition

A tradition as old as the UVA Lawn itself was recently snuffed out, at least temporarily, as University officials announced last week that students living on the Lawn and the Ranges would no longer be able to use their fireplaces.

According to UVA maintenance director Michael Merriam, a consulting firm hired to inspect the 106 chimneys found that they were too unsafe to use. Fearful, perhaps, of a repeat of the 1895 fire that destroyed the Rotunda, and with none of the rooms equipped with sprinkler systems, Merriam says the decision was made to ban fires and seek proposals to repair the fireplaces and chimneys.

In addition to cracks and corrosion in the steel and concrete liners, Merriam says that inspectors found that mortar had fallen out of the chimneys, gaps had opened up in the fire walls of the hearths, and that dampers and flues were faulty. (The damage was detected before the recent earthquake.)

"At a minimum, the chimneys will have to be relined," says Merriam. "But in many cases the chimneys will have to be re-pointed, fireboxes will have to be resealed, and dampers will have to be fixed. It's an extensive amount of work."

Indeed, Merriam estimates that it will cost between $1-3 million to repair the chimneys, depending on the scope of the work. While he says that some proposals have already been received, there's been no decision made yet on what will be done– or whether students will ever be able to use the fireplaces again. He reports that the faculty living in the Lawn's houses, known as Pavilions, have been fire-free for two decades.

For the fourth-year students on the Lawn, the fire ban has, well, put a damper on a tradition that has always lent ambiance to the experience of living in sparse quarters. While Lawnies might have to stroll outside in a robe in the middle of winter to take a shower, they could return to a cozy fire in the hearth. Even though the rooms a hooked into a central heating system, stacks of firewood outside the rooms testify to the fireplace tradition.

"There's a lot of disappointment," says UVA student Reedy Swanson, head resident on the Lawn. "We all grew up at the university sitting around fires in the Lawn rooms. They add to the atmosphere and create an aura of togetherness that we're going to be missing until they're up and running again."

To make sure the tradition continues, Swanson says that a group of students, past and present, have put a report together that advocates for the restoration of the fires.

"This is a living, breathing historical community," says Swanson. "It's vital that the fireplaces be restored."

According to Merriam, there's no guarantee that's going to happen, as there has been some concern among the Board of Visitors that the fires are just too unsafe given the lack of a sprinkler system. Merriam says he expects a decision to be made by the end of the month.

While Swanson hopes the chimneys and fireplaces will be restored, there's also some concern among Lawnies about the disruption a major renovation could cause, as the opportunity to live on the Lawn as a fourth year is short and sweet.

"We'll attack the chimneys in groups," assures Merriam, should the work be approved. "So that the work will cause as little disruption as possible."

Ironically, the big fire that struck the Lawn 116 years ago got its start not in a fireplace or even an oven. It was allegedly caused by faulty wiring.

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While Sandridge and Casteen built like beavers, basic maintenance and upkeep of the U's most precious structures-the Rotunda and law rooms went untended.Did you hear the old U begging for money for the Rotunda and next, an alum beg for fire places ( "for just 2OK, a historic fireplace will bear YOUR name").The U is the richest poor mouth you will ever hear.

$1-3 Million to repair the chimneys sounds like a broad range. Would make a lot more sense to replace the chimneys especially since this estimate was pre earthquake. Replacement cost would probably be the same or less and would make for much easier quicker work instead of buttering up all the holes with mortar. Most of the heat from a fireplace goes up the chimney anyway but I understand the kiddies like a little atmosphere while reading some Poe. Sex by fire light is freakin awesome too so primal!

Ah, the fireplace tradition..... Ipad2 by fire light, and as really? mentioned, sex by fire light.....

$10K-30K per chimney? want to fire it up, you pay for it...........

Think this one should go out for bid and awarded to a local bidder? Perhaps facilities management should bid on it to get their guys working again.

How about not stacking that wood for them.........

Ipad2 by firelight yesss! Fire that shi#$ up

Get a space heata mane

They should certainly work just as hard on maintaining the historic parts of UVA as they do building new parts.

Dan101- I don't believe that facilities employees get involved with new construction- only maintenenace and upgrades of exisiting facilities.

Repair the fireplaces to make them safe. Install sprinklers.

SkipWith- since UVa is such an advocate of "green" stuff (not money this time) I do not see why they would advocate fireplaces- the most inefficient use of wood and wood by products available.