History in the Round

Restoring the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.

Photos by Dan Addison

Standing high atop the scaffolding that hems the iconic dome of the Rotunda at UVA, the reflection of the late summer sun makes me squint. From this height, the lawn below is a verdant swath stretching away between the pavilions that flank this stately edifice—the centerpiece of Jefferson’s academical village. It feels uncanny to reach out and touch the nearly 200-year-old landmark and UNESCO World Heritage site. The white surface is smooth and solid, and, as of May 2014—brand new.

The fresh dome is just one part of the university’s three-phase $58.3 million dollar restoration of the Rotunda, begun in 2012 and expected to be complete in the summer of 2016. Historic preservation architect Jody Lahendro, project manager for construction, has been my guide as we scale the curtains of metal surrounding the structure where this remarkable feat of research, planning and engineering is underway. When finished, much of the original vision for the building Jefferson designed as the heart of his university will have been restored. “The challenge,” says Lahendro, “is being able to modernize the building without damaging the historic structure.”

In 2005, university conservators discovered significant structural problems in the Rotunda, and immediately began planning for the current restoration. The roof was leaking and damaging its supporting walls, which, crucially, are the only remaining portions of the building constructed during Jefferson’s time. “The most important thing here historically is the brickwork of the drum,” says Lahendro, “That’s the only portion of the Jefferson original left after the fire of 1895.”

Although the Rotunda has been renovated or rebuilt several times since its construction in 1826, one catastrophe stands out: the fire of 1895. That year, a blaze began in the Rotunda annex (then located on the North side of the current building, where a statue of Jefferson now faces toward University Avenue).

Caused by faulty wiring (during the early days of indoor electricity), the fire was slow-moving, burning inexorably but sluggishly. Rescuers attempted to halt the inferno by using dynamite to blow up a portico that connected the annex to the Rotunda itself. The effort failed, but there was time to rescue books, art and statues from the dome before it burned. In a famous photograph, a crowd is gathered on the UVA lawn (long dresses for the ladies, suits and bowler hats for the men) watching as the dome is obscured by smoke and flame, the moment frozen forever in time.

In the aftermath of the fire, the university engaged the architects of New York-based McKim, Mead and White to repair and renovate the building (after first hiring a Kentucky firm, then deciding to search for a group with greater national acclaim). Led by the renowned Stanford White, the firm had designed the Washington Square Arch and the new Madison Square Garden in New York City, as well as the central library of the Boston Public Library system.

White rebuilt the Rotunda and restored its grandeur, but deviated from Jefferson’s original design in several ways. He reconstructed the inside layer of the dome out of new fire-resistant clay tiles and covered it in copper. Though he originally intended to paint it white, ultimately the dome was left unpainted, and over time developed a green patina like that of the Statue of Liberty. The change in color was a significant departure; Jefferson’s original dome had been covered in tin plate (made of tin-covered sheet iron), which had oxidized to a pale off-white color. White also combined two floors of the original three-floor design into a single floor—the main dome room—and added new east and west wings on the building’s north side. He also added Cabell Hall (as well as Rouss and Cocke halls) to the lawn’s south end, which had previously been open to the surrounding fields, creating the modern day 952-foot stretch beloved by landscape architects and student streakers alike.

The Rotunda underwent extensive renovations again in 1976 in preparation for the national bicentennial (during which UVA played host to Queen Elizabeth II). Unlike in 1895, the project would hew to Jefferson’s original plan. The building’s original three stories were restored and White’s copper roof was swapped for steel panels that were painted white to mimic the color of Jefferson’s original dome.

In the beginning, the Rotunda contained the university library and classrooms, but it ceased to be a source of everyday use for most students in 1938, when Alderman Library opened nearby. Since then, it has been used only for administrative offices, board of visitors meetings, special events and as a museum and visitor center.

Brian Hogg, senior preservation planner in the office of the university architect at UVA, stresses that all current restorations have been planned specifically with students in mind. “One of our hopes is that it becomes a busier place …. that it is fully integrated into the life of the institution,” he says. “For a long time, it was a building that people walked past but not into.” Lahendro is more blunt: “Students have graduated without ever setting foot in the Rotunda—that’s a sin.”

When it opens again, classes will be held in the Rotunda and new study lounges will welcome students during extended hours.

“One of the most important outcomes of the restoration,” writes UVA President Teresa Sullivan in an email, “will be the creation of new classroom and quiet-study spaces for our students, so we can restore the Rotunda’s role on grounds as a central gathering place for student life.”

The restoration project, which includes updates to mechanical and electrical systems, has been entirely funded by private gifts and preservation money allocated by the General Assembly. Sullivan calls this funding “an excellent example of a public-private partnership to preserve an iconic building that is the symbolic heart of our grounds.”

Among the highlights of the restoration has been the replacement of the 16 massive marble capitals atop the Rotunda’s columns.

University conservators had noticed as early as 2009 that the existing capitals had begun “sugaring,” meaning that the stone was disintegrating and flaking off, falling to the ground not unlike sugar from a towering cake. They would have to be replaced completely.

Fragments of the original Jefferson capitals had survived, but there were no complete examples. Stonemasons from Pedrini Sculpture Studio in Carrara, Italy, (“the only contractor we’ve ever had with a recommendation from the Pope,” says Lahendro) traveled to Charlottesville to laser scan these fragments and construct computer models with the resulting information. The sculptors used these models, along with old photographs and drawings, to reconstruct new pieces in accordance with Jefferson’s design over the course of 11 months. Each finished capital weighs about 4 tons (8,000 pounds), and was carved from a single block of raw Carrara marble that weighed double that.

Carving capitals of this size in the modern era is extremely rare. “The first challenge was to find material in that size that was sound, with no cracks,” says Gianluca Ceccarelli, the sculptor in charge of the Pedrini team. “The second challenge was moving and handling blocks that big.”

In June of 2015, the new capitals were lifted by crane to the top of the Rotunda’s columns, while a huge jack system gently lifted up the entire roof. With that space of clear air, engineers slid the capitals into place via a track system atop the columns. Imagine changing a tire, only the car is a revered historic site designed by an American icon, and your tires are 4-ton sculptures of pristine Carrara marble.

Work is also being done on the Rotunda’s interior and surrounding grounds, including the installation of 40 capitals that will circle the open floor of the central dome room.

Richmond-based Tektonics Design Group has been tasked with creating these mahogany structural pieces, which will be painted white when completed in March 2016. Replicating Jefferson’s originals has been difficult—the only detailed image the designers have had to go on is a blurry enhancement of a 19th-century photograph. Tektonics owner Christopher Hildebrand describes it as “the most challenging project we’ve gotten in about 20 years worth of work …. we have been completely confronted with unknowns.”

“Mr. Jefferson intended the Rotunda to be both a library and the center of life at the University,” says Sullivan. In a way, the Rotunda’s restoration will move the building both backward and forward in time: It will modernize the structural systems in order to protect Jefferson’s original vision and reincorporate student life back into the historic landmark.

Says Sullivan, “For me, this one building symbolizes what the university contributes to our world. Conserving the past for future generations, and preparing generations to face a future that they will help to form.”

The Rotunda restoration will be fully finished ahead of UVA’s bicentennial celebration in October 2017. For more information, visit Rotunda.Virginia.edu

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