Building on Jefferson: UVA moves forward with the past
When visiting dignitaries tour The Lawn at UVA, says Richard Guy Wilson, Chair of the University’s Architectural History Department, they are often struck by how “wrong” everything looks. Indeed, as Wilson points out, the Lawn’s Pavilions are a clash of architectural styles that are perhaps more noticeable to those unfamiliar with Thomas Jefferson’s brand of genius.
“Sorry, I have to say. This is the way it is,” says Wilson. “Jefferson knew the rules of architecture, but he broke the rules.”
And he broke them, Wilson explains, to create an architectural experience for students that would teach them as much as their professors did.
"The experience of the buildings around them was as important as what was being said in the classes," Wilson says. "It is a matter of how the space it used. It is a public communal space."
Recently, Wilson and University Architect David Neuman discussed the evolution of that “communal space” and the landscape around it in light of the changing nature of education, architectural styles, and the anticipated growth of the University.
Indeed, the presentation before a packed crowd in the Newcomb Hall Ballroom last week, organized by UVA Office of Community Relations, seemed designed, in part, to reassure folks that Jefferson’s architectural legacy was in good hands. As you may recall, the University’s plan to attach a “parapet” to Pavilion X and change the colors of the Lawn’s white columns and dark green shutters, because Thomas Jefferson may have wanted them that way, angered a number of alums.
“If UVA is indeed intent on doing this,” wrote one alum, “when can I start picketing the site?”
In addition, another proposed plan to restore the leaky roof of the Rotunda could result in its iconic white dome being changed to a grey-tin-coated array of steel shingles, as Jefferson originally intended, or to a greenish copper that architect Stanford White chose as part of the redesign following the 1895 fire that destroyed much of the building. What’s more, the planned Rotunda restoration is emblematic of the conundrum of preserving Jefferson’s vision, as so much of the University’s architecture over the years has been the work of other architects. As one UVA scholar has noted, 95 percent of the Rotunda is the work of White, and, of course, the Lawn’s other major structure, Cabell Hall, is all White’s.
As Wilson noted, White himself was “very nervous” about tinkering with the Lawn, never mind designing a giant building that would block Jefferson’s famous “open-ended” vision for its Southern end.
However, as Wilson pointed out, attitudes of the times have always contributed to the evolution of the University.
“Eventually, there was an uncomfortablness with the open-endedness of the Lawn,” he said, adding that the Board of Visitors at the time “basically told him to do it.”
“At first, I hated Cabell Hall,” said Wilson. “But the purpose of that big building, I finally realized, was to keep students on the Lawn.”
Wilson suggested that the natural changes in the world, and in education, may have contributed more to the evolution of the University than any single idea.
“History teaches us to be careful about thinking you have the solution,” he has said.
As Wilson is fond of pointing out, there were once plans to put a Gothic-style Chapel in the center of the Lawn, demolish Victorian-era Brooks Hall, erect a giant arch celebrating the Confederacy, and place a 40-foot statue of Jefferson at the end of the Lawn.
During his comments, Neuman said that the University has chosen to “reinforce connectivity” over the last decade by “renovating and working within the existing University infrastructure,” and he used the new South Lawn project as an example.
However, Neuman also said that the UVA student population is growing by 150 students each year. To preserve space and connectivity, Neuman said the strategy for new construction has been to go “up or down.”
For example, he mentioned the Alderman Road dorm demolitions which are making way for higher-density residences and the construction of the Special Collections Library, much of which is underground. As Neuman boasted, there are 49 million square feet of earth in the grounds area, and only about 5.1 million square feet of it is covered with buildings. He also noted that 40 percent of the UVA student body currently lives on Grounds.
Highlighting other numbers, Neuman said that only 10 percent of the Lawn’s ground space was covered with buildings. Indeed, Wilson had mentioned that trees, which architects “typically don’t like near their buildings,” were a part of Jefferson’s plan from the beginning, as he meant to incorporate “nature’s interplay with the buildings.” Following that rule, Neuman said that only 36,200 square feet of the South Lawn project’s 274,000 square feet consists of building footprints.
Responding to a question about how the South Lawn would connect to the Lawn, Neuman shared his observation that it “did not feel like you were on a bridge” as you crossed the completed terrace, thereby creating an extension of the Lawn. Of course, it’s an extension interrupted by Cabell Hall, but Neuman said that plans for a convenience store and a caf© as part of the Cabell Hall renovations would add to student life on and around the Lawn.
Wilson ended his comments with, appropriately enough, an open-ended question: “How do we move forward with the past?”
Of course, as Wilson later emphasized to a reporter, it helps to know and understand that past. And as luck would have it, now is the perfect time.
Two extensive exhibits curated by Wilson are currently on display: “Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village: The Creation of an Architectural Masterpiece” at the UVA Art Museum, which runs until January 3, and “From Village to Grounds: Architecture After Jefferson at the University of Virginia” at the Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections Library, until June 30.