Welcome to the Rotunda
A Walking Tour of the Rotunda
The Rotunda at the University of Virginia was designed by Thomas Jefferson as the architectural and academic heart of his community of scholars, or what he termed the "academical village." As the phrase implies, learning was for Jefferson an integral part of life. The academical village is based on the assumption that the life of the mind is the pursuit of all participants in the University, that learning is a lifelong and shared process, and that interaction between scholars and students enlivens the pursuit of knowledge.
The Rotunda is the focal point of the academical village, which includes the Rotunda at the north end; the Pavilions, which house faculty; and the student rooms along the Lawn. From the Lawn, Jefferson's academical village appears as he intended it.
With the books Jefferson initially selected, the Rotunda served as the library, demonstrating Jefferson's belief that a university should have as its focus a collection of academic achievements. The library remained in the Rotunda for more than a century when the much larger Alderman Library was constructed.
Jefferson modeled the Rotunda after the Pantheon in Rome, reducing the measurements so that the Rotunda would not dwarf the Pavilions. Construction began in 1822 and was completed in 1826 at a cost of almost $60,000. Jefferson did not live to see the completion of the Rotunda, the last building on the Lawn to be finished. Shortly after the Rotunda's completion, many classes were moved from the first floors of the Pavilions on the Lawn into the Rotunda's oval rooms.
In the decades following the opening of the Rotunda, a growing need for more classrooms and a large auditorium prompted the University to commission Robert Mills to build an annex, completed in 1853, onto the north facade of the Rotunda.
A fire, caused by faulty electrical wiring, started in the annex on October 27, 1895. In a dramatic attempt to save the Rotunda, engineering professor William H. Echols tried dynamiting the bridge between the annex and the Rotunda. Unfortunately, this blew a hole in the Rotunda, and the fi e spread more rapidly. Before it could be brought under control, the annex, dome and interior of the Rotunda had been destroyed. Only the Rotunda's charred circular brick walls remained.
Stanford White of the renowned American frrm McKim, Mead, and White reconstructed the Rotunda after the fire as an elaborate Beaux Arts interpretation in the Roman style. In an effort to expand the library as well as emphasize the ceremonial space of the Rotunda, White increased the height of the dome room by eliminating the entire middle floor of lecture rooms, widened the skylight (oculus), and replaced Jefferson's slender double pillars with large single columns with Corinthian capitals. He also added a portico on the north face of the Rotunda and utilized new building methods to improve the durability and fire resistance of thestructure. The building remained this way from 1898 to 1973.
In 1973, Professor Frederick D. Nichols of the School of Architecture with the assistance of Francis L. Berkeley, Jr. supervised the restoration of the Rotunda to Jefferson's original design. The $2.3 million project was financed by the Cary D. Langhome Trust of Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. On April 13, 1976, the date of the U.S. Bicentennial and the 233rd anniversary of Jefferson's birth, the restored Rotunda was dedicated. In this same year, the American Institute of Architects recognized the academical village as the most significant achievement of American architecture in the past two hundred years.
The Rotunda's ground floor and main floor now have their original oval rooms and hourglass-shaped halls. The dome room once again occupies only the third floor. Cornices in the four ancient architectural orders (Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian) have also been restored to Jefferson's design. The fifth architectural order (Composite) was used for the dome room columns. Though current needs require heating, cooling, and air circulation systems, the equipment is housed inconspicuously. Cables for electricity, telephones, and television are concealed behind wall paneling. The exterior brick walls are original, while the marble was replaced after the fire. Thus, the Rotunda appears today essentially as it did when it was built.
For a room-by-room tour, enter the Rotunda on the south side.
The flowing shape of both the lower and upper entrance halls is like that of an hourglass. Jefferson became familiar with this design from his visit to a house in Paris while serving as U.S. Minister to France. The bricks of the lower floor were handmade using methods of Jefferson's time.
In 1825, Jefferson ordered the casting of the bronze bell at the far end of the hall. One of his requirements was that the ringing of the bell be heard across Charlottesville, two miles away. Its ringing awakened students and called them to classes until it cracked in 1886. It is one of the few recoveries of the 1895 fire.
The lower east oval room houses an exhibit of Rotunda artifacts, with displays on the walls and tables. A reproduction of the first print of the academical village hangs over the fireplace. This en- graving was executed by Peter Maverick in 1822 from Jefferson's drawing. The Maverick Plan provided the public's first visual knowledge of the University. An engraving of the Pantheon shows its similarities to Jefferson's Rotunda.
In buildings of this date, fireplaces were usually built flush with the interior walls, causing the chimneys to protrude outward from the building. In the Rotunda, however, Jefferson constructed the chimneys on the inside of the building in order to preserve the cylindrical shape of the exterior.
Two small ovens were discovered during the 1970s restoration of the Rotunda, confirming that the lower east oval room was the site of early chemistry classes. Legend has it that in order to sustain the oven for chemistry experiments, the student holding the lowest grade in the class was chosen to operate a set of bellows located outside the building. These ovens were also used to produce gun- powder for the Confederaq, as the Universitywas one of only two colleges to remain open throughout the Civil War.
Formerly a natural science classroom, the lower west oval room is now used for lectures, seminars, and receptions. Over the fireplace is a recent copy of the Joshua Fn/Peter Jefferson map, originally printed in 1743. Thomas Jefferson's father, Peter, and Joshua Fry were the first to suney the Commonwealth as far west as the Blue Ridge Mountains; the map is the most accurate ofthe period. On a windowsill stands part of an original capital from a south portico column, one of those caned in Italy for Jefferson and recovered after the fire.
Proceed up the stairs to the upper entrance hall
The south portico's double inside glass doors offer an excellent view of the Lawn. The hall features a Tuscan molding which accentuates the unique double curve of the stairs. The staircases, taking four months to build, were the most complex part of the Rotunda's restoration. The black walnut banisters are polished only by the natural oils of visitors' hands.
The life-size statue of Thomas Jefferson was sculpted by Alexander Galt, a Norfolk native. Completed in 1861, the statue once stood in the dome room. Students removed it from the three-foot marble pedestal during the fire of 1895. They used ropes to lower the statue onto a library table, which immediately collapsed beneath its weight. Working frantically, students ma- neuvered the statue onto a mattress, down the west staircase and out the main door just as the Rotunda became an inferno. The statue suffered virtually no damage. When the statue was initially unveiled in the presence of Jefferson's granddaughter, Mary Randolph, she exclaimed it was the best likeness she had ever seen of her grandfather.
This room, originally a lecture hall, is currently the meeting chamber of the University's governing body, the Board of Visitors. The mahogany table was made in Harrisonburg, Virginia, by the Virginia Craftsmen in 1976. The rug, woven in India, incorporates the school colors of orange and blue. The Bass Otis portrait over the mantel was painted in 1816; it portrays Thomas Jefferson in his study at Monticello. The Corinthian frieze, crowning the walls, was copied from the Roman Baths of Caracalla and is composed of acanthus leaves, rosettes, and an egg and dart motif.
The chandeliers on this floor are adapted from Argand lamps designed by B.H. Latrobe to hang in the United States House of Representatives in the early nineteenth century. Jefferson brought several Argand lamps back from Paris in 1789 and, because they gave off better light and were more economical than candles, promoted their use.
Originally, classes for the arts and letters were held in the west oval room. Today, decorated as an 1800s salon, it is the official reception room for the University where the president greets visiting dignitaries and delivers press conferences. Above the mantel is a portrait of Jefferson painted by Thomas Sully in 1821. Jefferson posed for this portrait at the age of seventy-eight, while he was busily engaged in building the University. Before the fireplace is a small red and blue Persian rug, a Bicentennial gift from the empress of Iran.
The north oval room serves as a subcommittee meeting room for the Board of Visitors, as well as the room in which doctoral dissertations are defended. The doors here and throughout the main floor are made of pine, and have been given their inlaid mahogony look by a painting process known as ""raining." This process was popular during the nineteenth century since it allowed builders to use inexpensive wood that was widely available, without sacrificing the costly imported look. For the Rotunda, this process was adapted from Jefferson's doors at Monticello.
The Sevres porcelain bust of the Marquis de Lafayette is a copy of the original executed by Jean-Antoine Houdon. It was donated to the University in 1904, by the government of France, in memory of the friendship between Lafayette and Jefferson. Lafayette was the first official visitor to the unfinished Rotunda.
The Henry Boye/Henry S. Tanner map of Virginia, including what is now West Virginia, was engraved in 1826. The upper left hand corner of the map features one of the earliest views of the academical village. The map's engraving is so precise that the Rotunda, Lawn, and Pavilions are visible, as well as each home and business in Charlottesville. Take the stairs up to the Dome Room.
The dome room is the culmination, both architecturally and philosophically, of the Jeffersonian design for the original University. Strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, Jefferson's guiding principles were the forces of logic and reason. His belief that learning was preeminent found expression in his placement of the library in the center of the Rotunda, his temple of knowledge.
Jefferson intended that social events such as dinners be held here. Thus, he cleverly placed the book cases behind the room's columns so that from the center of the roem the volumes of books cannot be seen. Jefferson initially envisioned the dome room with its ceiling painted blue and gilt stars imitating the night sky; he designed a movable seat from which the operator could place and move every star. Had his plan been implemented, Jefferson's idea would have given America its first planetarium.
The room's ceiling is a white dome, crowned with an oculus which accentuates the spaciousness of the structure. Originally, the skylight was supported on a wooden frame with spokes radiating from a central wooden axis. However, this device leaked despite various attempts to correct the problem throughout the 19th century. Today, the skylight is composed of plexiglas and aluminum, which provides the same effect as Jefferson's design.
The room is encircled by pairs of columns with capitals that feature the composite order of Palladio, a sixteenth century Italian architect who was a source of inspiration for Jefferson. This order is a synthesis of the ornamental embellishment found throughout the building. The style is the decorative pinnacle of Jefferson's architectural masterpiece.
Jefferson specified that boards for the original floor were to be cut from pine trees within designated latitudes to ensure that the wood would be neither too burly nor too soft. In order to duplicate the original floor, antique heart pine was collected from earlynineteenth century buildings in Virginia.
The view of the Lawn from the dome room is one of the loveliest at the University. Although Jefferson never intended to enclose the south end of the Lawn, in 1898 Stanford White built Cabell, Rouss, and Cocke halls at the south end of the Lawn to compensate for the classroom space lost in the fire of 1895. In June 1826, a few weeks before Jefferson's death, he stood at the top of the dome room stairs and looked out the center window over the Lawn. This was his favorite view of the University. Below, workmen were lifting the first of the marble Corinthian capitals that Jefferson had ordered from Italy. A student brought Jefferson a chair, and he sat for an hour looking toward the mountains in the distance. The open view to the south was to Jefferson a symbol of the limitless freedom of the human mind.
Guided tours of the Rotunda and Lawn are provided year-round (free of charge). Tours meet daily (except during a three-week holiday break in Dec. - Jan.) at 10, 11, 2, 3, and 4 at the Rotunda entrance facing the Lawn. Admission tours are also available (call 804-982-3200 for more information).
Tours are accessible to those in wheelchairs, and interpreters are available for the hearing impaired by pre-arrangement. Foreign language brochures are available, and with advance notice, special tours may be arranged with a guide fluent in Spanish, German, or French.