What bonds can build… Monticello’s new visitor center

Plans for a new visitor center at Monticello have been a long time in the making. In 2000, when the UVA Foundation took control of the Blue Ridge Sanatorium property just below Monticello, state legislators approved the transfer with the understanding that Monticello's new visitor center would be located on the site, along with a planned research park, a la the Fontaine Research Park. However, due to "design concerns" on Monticello's part, and a fear of commitment on the part of the UVA Foundation, the new visitor center was left at the altar.

"UVA wasn't ready... they had no real vision for the site," said Kat Imhoff, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the organization that runs Monticello. "I think they're still trying to decide what to do with it."

Undeterred, the TJ Foundation elected to build its new visitor center on the site of the old ticket office and shuttle station. Both, which had the gray stained-wood look of a state park picnic shelter, were demolished earlier this year, and in March, excavation began on the new $55 million, 42,000-square-foot Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith History Center. (Twelve million will be earmarked create an operating endowment.)

As first noted locally by the Hook, $30 million is being raised through the sale of municipal bonds, and the rest will come from private donations.

Designed by the Baltimore-based architecture firm Ayers-Saint-Gross–-one of 22 firms Monticello invited to submit proposals–-the complex is scheduled to open in the Fall of 2008, with related work continuing until 2009. Incidentally, Ayers-Saint-Gross is also designing a $15 million addition to the South Chiller Plant and Thermal Energy Storage system for UVA, an effort to supply more power to the expanding Health Care and Medical Research area on grounds.

Unlike the old ticket office, the visitor center will be a destination in and of itself, comparable in educational value–-if not architectural splendor–-to the building on the hill it serves. It will also allow Monticello to remove all the tourist stuff off the mountain.

The design features five pavilions around a central courtyard, and is intended to "blend into the landscape." Indeed, architectural renderings of the complex make it look more like a stylish mountain retreat than a tourist attraction. It will also be constructed of local natural materials like fieldstone from Greene County, recycled pine flooring, and will include a "green" roof and other environmentally correct features.

One notable such feature is a geothermal comfort system, which takes advantage of the constant temperature beneath the earth to heat and cool buildings on the surface. Seventy-two "wells" have already been dug on the site, which will transfer those steady temps to the buildings. In addition, storm water will be stored and filtered via step ponds along walkways, huge storage pipes under the new parking lots, and filtration systems at points where water will collect.

One two-story pavilion will house permanent and ongoing exhibitions, and another will house the Smith Center, a classroom and "hands-on" activity center with a theater. There will also be a cafe building, plenty of outdoor places to congregate, and an educational pavilion connected to the complex by a wooded path.