UVA's lost pond

While it's known officially by Wahoos as Nameless Field, the large expanse of turf between Memorial Gym and Alderman Library has certainly been cursed on the lips of many a UVA student attempting to use the field for anything other than an impromptu slip n' slide.

Like the Dell, its grassy neighbor to the west across Emmet Street, Nameless Field has its dry days, but is more often then not soggy. What students might not realize is that they're playing on ground that once served as UVA's largest pond.

According to Coy Barefoot, UVA scholar and author of The Corner, the university was once a much wetter place. In its early years, UVA had several lowland areas, marshes, and ponds scattered throughout the present day campus, including a seasonal pond at the site of Mad Bowl on Rugby Road, as well as another on the site of the University Chapel.

But the biggie, says Barefoot, was the one at Nameless Field– known variously as the "skating pond," the "ice pond," "the university pond," or, simply, "the pond."

It was fed by Meadow Creek, which flowed downstream from present-day Observatory Hill, formerly known as Meadowcreek Hill. The loss of University Pond is just one example of many instances of the topography of the grounds drastically changing over time to accommodate development.

Barefoot stresses that the pond was "an integral part of the 19th century landscape of the university," especially in the winter.

One excerpt from alum David Culbreth's, The University of Virginia: Memories of her Student-Life and Professors, describes 1874 skating fun: "A number of old ladies also have participated in the sport under the escort of experienced friends– one had the misfortune of taking the cold dip with her beaux companions, but was not intimidated, as on the morrow she again led the procession."

Barefoot found a copy of the January, 1877 edition of UVA College Magazine which mentions that the "negro man who fell last month from the scaffolding whilst cutting ice from the pond had died of his injuries."

The lore surrounding the university pond ranges from creepy to noteworthy in Philip Bruce's One Hundred Year History of UVA. Bruce writes that in the spring of 1833, the skeleton of an anatomical cadaver was recovered from the pond, thus tipping off speculation that it might have caused the cholera outbreak at the school.

In 1864, according to Bruce, Union troops under General George A. Custer, arrived from the west along what is now Ivy Road. Before mounting the hill to the Rotunda where a "flag of truce" was waving, Custer's men crossed "the creek at the bottom of the university pond."

In 1922, excavation just west of the pond began for the site of the University's new gymnasium. Later renamed Memorial Gym, it became the centerpiece for the university's athletic center because it was neighbored by so many lowland areas that could be filled in and utilized as athletic fields, like the adjacent Carr's Field.

"The work now under way consists in the removal of 7,000 cubic yards of dirt for the foundation of the new building," read a contemporary account in College Topics, the predecessor to the Cavalier Daily. "In disposing of this, a large portion will be dumped into the lower end of the University Pond." Indeed, the dirt fill resulted in a smaller "reflecting pool" in its place.

By 1940, the newspaper noticed that the shrunken body of water was fouled because it received effluent from Mem Gym showers and swimming pool. "The Reflection Pool could very easily be a spot of beauty. Now it looks much like a mud hole."

In the summer of 1952, the Cavalier Daily branded the place a "sunken mire," which was filled in so the area could be shared by a new parking lot and athletic field.

"This, then, is the evolution of the natural landscape of the grounds as told by this one pond," says Barefoot. "Originally a wild natural pond, it was dammed for utilitarian purposes to provide water, ice, and recreation– then it was filled in and reformed as to be incorporated into the planning for Mem Gym as a decorative reflection pool, then it was totally covered over and hidden, then now, today, it is being resurfaced in the university's hopes to repaint the grounds in a more natural setting– this is a fascinating transformation that speaks volumes about our relationship to the natural world."

While there are no plans to recreate the pond and open a winter venue for UVA's hockey team, according to UVA's landscape architect, Mary Hughes, the creek that once fed the legendary pond might one day be daylighted along Nameless Field.

The daylighting already occurring is great news to Barefoot. To him, the project pays homage to Jefferson by recognizing the symbolic force of the natural landscape that was so central to the forefather's vision.

"By letting the sun shine on Meadow Creek once more," says Barefoot, "UVA is taking steps to recapture that force while at the same time rightly acknowledging the vision of the founder."