The Rotunda: What the devil to do with it?

news-rotundaThe Rotunda stands as the centerpiece of a Jefferson masterpiece, one of only four structures in the United States to be named a World Heritage Site, but there's one problem: 95 percent of it is not the work of Jefferson.
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO

As UVA prepares to restore the Lawn, just how much Jefferson to put back into it appears to be a matter of intense discussion. In the Spring issue of UVA's alumni magazine, an article on the restoration plans, "This Old Academical Village: Preserving a national treasure," elicited a number of angry letters-to-the-editor in the magazine's Summer issue, questioning the wisdom of some of the proposed projects. In particular, alumni criticized plans to attach a "parapet" to Pavilion X and change the colors of the Lawn's white columns and dark green shutters, arguing that just because Thomas Jefferson may have wanted them that way doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

For 1995 grad Adam Olenn, the plan to change the color of the columns to tan, the shutters to a light green, and to reconstruct the "ugly attic" on Pavilion X would be preserving Jefferson's "mistakes" and destroying the memories of generations of alumni.

"[UVA preservationists] opinion is distorted by their scholarship," writes Olenn. "Most of us who love the University are not preservationists. We have a blend within us–a mix of historical appreciation combined with the authenticity of our own experience."

Chris Morris, a 1975 Architecture School grad, calls the restoration plan "abominable" for the way it insists on preserving Jefferson's "intentions" at the expense of good design, and violates the "great horizon-expanding agrarian aesthetic" that Jefferson eventually mastered.

"If UVA is indeed intent on doing this," writes Morris, " when can I start picketing the site?"

Finally, Steven Cornell, a 2005 Architecture School grad, wondered why the University was "imbuing Jefferson purity in some buildings and disregarding it in others," commenting on the discussion about restoring the Rotunda, which he called "comical."

Indeed, while the University planners appear determined to restore Jefferson's intentions on the Lawn's columns and Pavilion X, what with extensive studies on his paint color decisions, when it comes to restoring the Rotunda, they appear to contradict themselves.

For example, the most likely plan for restoring the Rotunda's roof involves replicating not Jefferson's version, a grey tin-coated array of steel shingles, but that of architect Stanford White, with a greenish copper he chose as part of his redesign following the 1895 fire that destroyed much of the building. White also added the north portico and terraces facing University Avenue, replaced Jefferson's modest double columns with more imposing single ones, and reconfigured the Jefferson interior, removing the second floor to create a larger Dome Room that better served the expanding library.

And there's the rub–though the Rotunda stands as the centerpiece of a Jefferson masterpiece, one of only four places in the United States to be named a World Heritage Site (one other being Monticello, along with the Statue of Liberty and Independence Hall), according to UVA's own planners, 95 percent of it is not the work of Jefferson.

“You could re-create the Jefferson roof, but then you’d have a Jefferson roof on top of Stanford White’s exterior,” UVA historic preservation planner Brian Hogg told the alumni magazine. “Or you could acknowledge that 95 percent of this building is the work that Stanford White did. The only thing that’s really left of Jefferson is the brick. Are we faithful to the White exterior, or do we try to recapture more Jefferson?"

Ironically, a restoration effort in the mid-1970s that was supposed to have recaptured Jefferson's original design for the Rotunda, reconfiguring as it did much of White's American Renaissance interior, may have ruined it instead, according to some experts.

"Gutting the White interior in the interests of making a pseudo-Jeffersonian one was indefensible," says architectural historian Brian Broadus of the 1970s restoration. "Leaving  White's work alone would have permitted the Rotunda to continue as a branch of the library system and as a study space and for both sets of its first-floor entry doors to function. The day the library moved out was the day that the Rotunda lost contact with the student body."

Still, a return to White's intentions, not Jefferson's, presents a dilemma for the University, charged as it is with preserving the work of its founder.

"We need to recognize that the Rotunda is... one of the most important buildings in the world," wrote Calder Loth, a senior architectural historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, in a 2007 email to colleagues. Loth was at work on a historic structure report on the Rotunda at the time, which was completed later that year. "I think we have to ask ourselves whether what is there now truly represents Jefferson's architectural genius."

Loth went on to call the 1970s restoration work "poor quality and architecturally inaccurate" and said that "significant intervention" would most likely be warranted to preserve what Jefferson intended. "Some very profound decisions will have to be made about how to treat the Rotunda," Loth wrote.

However, two years after the report was completed, Loth says that proposed treatments for the Rotunda are still "only in the discussion stage."

"I have lots of respect for Calder," says UVA architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson, who, along with Loth, serves on UVA's Historic Preservation Advisory Committee, "but I think he is wrong. We can't go back and do the Jefferson."

As Wilson points out, White's work has stood the test of time, very little of Jefferson's original work remains, and the failure of the 1970s restoration should serve as an example.

"We have a genuine Stanford White," says Wilson, "and destroying that for a fake Jefferson is just plain wrong."

It should be noted that the architect for the 1970s restoration, UVA architecture professor Frederick Nichols, whom Wilson describes as an "extremely charming man who looked like Fred Astaire" took issue with the characterization of his work on the Rotunda, exacting revenge from the grave in a 1995 New York Times obituary.

"[Nichols'] main accomplishment was recapturing the Rotunda, the capstone of Jefferson's acclaimed "academical village," the obit reads, " from the ravages of Stanford White, the flamboyant New York architect....White reworked Jefferson's classical vision to his own taste, among other things turning Jefferson's intimate Dome Room into the ceiling of a two-story hall and installing pillars, balconies and what Jefferson purists saw as mutilations."

Nichols is described as  a man with a "perpetual twinkle in his eye" who had "such legendary charm that gardeners and students worshipped him and millionaires were putty in his hands." Apparently, Nichols told friends that his biggest regret was not telling the rebellious students in the 1960s to burn down White's Cabell Hall, which he believed had destroyed Jefferson's open-ended vision of the Lawn.

Indeed, Wilson says White was "very nervous" about placing Cabell Hall at the end of the Lawn, but the Board of Visitors at time time "basically told him to," he says. However, Wilson says there were also proposals to put a 40-foot statue of Jefferson at the end of the Lawn, as well as a Gothic Chapel and a huge arc with a Confederate theme. Perhaps we should consider ourselves fortunate to have Cabell Hall.

Still, for all Nichols apparent good intentions, a true recapturing of the Jefferson original would have to involve the complete rejection of White, says Broadus.

"If one wants Jefferson, then one has to do it right and whole hog," says Broadus. "Tear off all of Stanford White's interventions and return it to Jefferson's true design."

In the process, however, Broadus says UVA would lose a "fine work of American Renaissance architecture by one of America's most deft architects," as well as prime administrative office space.

"What won't happen, but what I'd argue for," says Broadus, " is an erasure of the work of the mid 1970s, a pretty sorry era for architecture generally. To restore the Stanford White interior is to restore coherence to the Lawn design."

However, the plan to erase one element of that "sorry era," the white surface of the dome, which has become so emblematic of the building– emblazoned as it is on countless postcards, brochures, and UVA literature– could be one of the most jarring changes. In fact, according to a recent poll conducted by Virginia Magazine on its website, which asked what new historically correct surface–the Jefferson grey or the White green– the dome should have, 78.3 percent said they wanted to keep it the way it is.

"The Rotunda, what the devil to to with it?" asks Wilson, acknowledging how difficult the building is to tinker with, created as it was from such a mosaic of influences. "Jefferson was drawing on Italian sources, but by 1890, when White tackled it, Greek design was more available. Then White restored the Rotunda's library, but in the 1930s Alderman had to be built.

"Architecture is not static, just as we are not static," says Wilson. "The world, education, they have changed so much. History teaches us to be careful about thinking you have the solution."

11 comments

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Tan columns and light green shutters sound like a good idea. We've gotten used to white columns everywhere and find tan a jarring change to our sensibility, but trust me, you may find this attractive if you give it a chance

They really did take a cow up there. A baby one or calf to be proper. It also died before they could get it down.

As the nucleus of The Lawn, The University and Wahoo Nation, the Rotunda may best be re-purposed as a nuclear power plant...perhaps not. The Pantheon in Rome offers an idea...and we may need our oculus open to the sky. Tan columns? Light green shutters? Pink hearts, yellow moons - you be after me Lucky Charms?
I agree with Professor Wilson - learn from the past and think cautiously about "you have the solution." Please, just DO NO HARM.

Take it down! This would be the biggest improvement that The University could make to Jefferson's vision not only of architecture but of democracy.

" Apparently, Nichols told friends that his biggest regret was not telling the rebellious students in the 1960s to burn down White’s Cabell Hall, which he believed had destroyed Jefferson’s open-ended vision of the Lawn."

Put a cow weather vane on top in memory of the cow that was supposedly taken up there.

We need a recycling/trash transfer station.
How about an Olive Garden?
GW Bush Library?

There are so many things we need!!!

With the friendly feel good libs being 98% of the indoctrinated students and faculty at uva they would love to have a homeless shelter there, they could walk by a toss food or money to the residents and feel accomplished all day long.

What really captured my attention in this article was Freddie Nick's comment about Cabell Hall. Had he said it with any seriousness to my class at Virginia (Architecture 1969) there is a good chance that it might have mysteriously happened. We did picket the the "new" building just to the east of Old Cabell when it was going up. That and a number of others of that general period were the recipients of a small square of glue-backed paper that had written on it the words, "This building is an architectural disgrace to Mr. Jefferson's university." That may not seem like much but it did serve as a reminder that not everything at the University was done in good taste -- including some of the buildings!

This has got to be the most outrageous quote from the entire story: "We need to recognize that the Rotunda is”Š one of the most important buildings in the world." YHGTBKM. Yes, it is an important symbol and building for the University, but it hardly ranks with St. Peter's Basilica or the Pyramids. In fact, before I got to UVA, if someone had mentioned the Rotunda, I would have immediately thought of the Rotunda in the Capitol building - now there is an important building....