SPECIAL- Living (in) history: What's it like being TJ's tenants?
Though it's been
nearly two centuries since he last put pen to drafting board, Thomas Jefferson's
architectural presence can be felt in new buildings emerging in all corners of
Charlottesville. From the columned portico of the John Paul Jones Arena to the
pergola facing Route 29 in front of the Target in the Hollymead Town Center,
it's hard to escape the feeling that, now more than ever, all of Charlottesville
is living in our third president's shadow. But however red-bricked and
white-trimmed our town becomes, there are still only a few people who truly live
in Mr. Jefferson's house.
No, Monticello isn't taking in boarders. The rare distinction of living in an
actual Jeffersonian edifice continues to belong to the faculty and
administrators who occupy the 10 Pavilions lining the Lawn. Interspersed between
54 dorm rooms, the Pavilions were intended as places for faculty to live among
the students as part of Jefferson's Academical Village, a community where
education involved more than sitting in a classroom– it extended to constant
interaction between students and faculty. According to today's Pavilion
residents, the experience provides them as much of an education as it does their
"The biggest gift of all is these exceptional students you get to know," says
Jeanette Lancaster, dean of the School of Nursing, who has lived in Pavilion II
since 1991. "The other day, I got into a conversation about politics with a
group of students," she says. "I was out of my element because these young
people are so well informed– but what an opportunity for me!"
Of course, the discourse isn't limited to politics, as one expert from the
field can attest.
"Living in a Pavilion, it's impossible not to know what's going on," says
professor and political commentator Larry Sabato, who occupies Pavilion IV. "As
a pundit," says Sabato, "I always want to know the latest, and this means being
completely connected to the heart of the university, its students, and their
While Jefferson's ideas about teachers and pupils living side-by-side have
proven timeless, apparently there are some 19th century aspects the Pavilions
have not translated to the 21st century.
"None of the Pavilions have closets," says Pavilion I's David Breneman, dean
of the Curry School. "What I've heard is that in Jefferson's day, taxation was
based on the number of rooms, so you have these huge bedrooms with no closets.
The university provides armoires." [Sorry,
Dean, that's the world's #1 architectural urban legend. Let's debunk it here–ed.]
"You learn not to horde," says Lancaster. "For example, if I buy a pair of
shoes, I have to give a pair away."
Wardrobe space isn't the only place where Jefferson economized. Going against
the custom of the time, he refused to design grand staircases in the center of
his buildings, viewing them as wasted space. So, just as at Monticello, the only
way to go up or down in the Pavilions is by narrow stairways at either end of
"They're not only narrow, but very large steps," says Sabato. "I'm 55, and as
my knees go bad rapidly, it can be quite painful. I would think Mr. Jefferson
would at least have installed one of his dumbwaiters."
Given Pavilion I's location next to the Rotunda, the stairway situation
proves particularly problematic for Breneman.
"The stairs are right out on the Lawn, and Jefferson put windows along the
stairs to capture sunlight," he says, "so tours come right by there and look
into our stairway. It's a little spooky."
But Jefferson didn't limit his experimental designs to the far corners of the
"I have an office upstairs that's octagonal," says Lancaster. "Most rooms
have only one door, but this one has one from the hall, one from the bedroom,
and another to the balcony."
Living in large rooms with unconventional shapes can make for a unique
aesthetic, but it can also present challenges.
"You don't have the kind of wall space to put things like furniture and
bookcases," says Lancaster, "so the best solution is just not to have much
Ever the engineer, Jefferson even got creative trying to find efficient ways
to provide heat for his faculty. However, it seems the 19th-century scheme was
too clever for its own good in the 21st century.
"We have these beautiful fireplaces," explains Breneman, "but instead of
different chimneys for each, Jefferson tried to funnel them all into one
chimney. Well, the fire department declared that a fire hazard when we moved
Sabato jokes that's not such a bad thing.
"They're right to block off the fireplaces," he says. "We professors are
absent-minded and are not to be trusted with fire."
Of course, there's one problem with his Academical Village that Jefferson
could not have foreseen: the Corner didn't exist in the 1820s, and thus today's
Village is decidedly more than "academical."
"Streakers are ubiquitous," says Breneman. "There was a period last spring
when I would snap awake every night at 2:20am. The bars would close at 2, and
there would always be some fraternity or club that would come and streak. And
they're generally not quiet about it."
As a member of UVA's Class of 1974, Sabato says the poetic justice of such a
ruckus is not lost on him.
"I don't remember having the slightest care that I was making too much
noise," he says. "Now I'm getting paid back in spades."
But however many minor inconveniences Jefferson may have unwittingly created,
his modern-day tenants say there's more than enough beauty in the architecture
to make the Pavilions dream houses.
"I'm always looking at the molding along the ceiling and the construction of
this place and thinking, 'What a magnificent house!'" Lancaster says.
"There's definitely a magic," says Breneman. "People are amazed when we take
them through that we have these full rooms with high ceilings. It's essentially
beautifully designed– with three bedrooms and four bathrooms. There's no
telling what it would be worth if you were going to put it on the market."
However, like any good landlord, UVA allows Pavilion residents a wide berth
for personalizing the space, even allowing them to borrow from the university's
own collection of art and furniture.
"We had a great time decorating the place," says Breneman. "The UVA Art
Museum lent us about 15 paintings; the Curry School Foundation provided a large
Persian rug for the main living room. Combined with furniture we bought, we've
made it feel like ours."
But as much as the current residents try to make the Pavilions their own,
Jefferson still looms large.
"You do gain insight into his particular genius," says Sabato. "Every room is
different, unusual hallways and portals, the detailed moldings– you get a sense
of his intellectual curiosity and dynamic creativity. Sometimes, if I have too
many beers, I think I hear him."