There is perhaps no building in all of higher education more important to its institution than the Rotunda is to the University of Virginia. Nearly 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson designed it as a library and put it at the heart of his fledgling university. Since then, it has been renovated, rebuilt and repurposed, but it has always remained the physical and emotional center of Grounds and its crown jewel. Now, to ensure the building’s future, renovations are entering a critical new phase that will bring U.Va.’s iconic centerpiece into the 21st century—meeting the needs of today’s students while safeguarding the features that make it a World Heritage Site.

Rotunda Renovations

Rotunda Renovations

Stewardship of World Heritage Site Enters Second Phase

Rotunda Renovations Enter Second Phase

Renovations to the University of Virginia’s historic Rotunda have entered the second phase in bringing U.Va.’s iconic centerpiece into the 21st century while safeguarding the features that make it a World Heritage Site.
Video: The Rotunda Renovation

The $42.5 million second phase includes major and subtle changes in the structure – updating utility systems, restoring historical features and expanding the future use of the building. The renovation is funded through a combination of private philanthropy and state appropriations. No tuition money is involved in the project.
“The Rotunda is a historic treasure that continues to serve as the centerpiece of a major educational institution, as Thomas Jefferson envisioned,” said David J. Neuman, architect for the University.

Bio: David NeumanIts maintenance and preservation is a tremendous responsibility, and the second phase of these renovations is an opportunity for U.Va. to fulfill its role as a good steward of a World Heritage Site and a National Landmark.”

Jefferson designed the Rotunda, but the original building was heavily damaged by fire in 1895. Following the blaze, it was re-envisioned by famed architect Stanford White, principal of the New York firm McKim, Mead & White. Further modifications were made in 1938; the most recent major renovation, completed in time for the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, restored many elements of Jefferson’s original design.
Slideshow: Phase One Renovations
The new renovations are designed to restore the Rotunda as the center of the University’s academic activity and student life. This includes:

  • Expanding classroom space
  • Increased access
  • Enhanced programing

Info Box: Phase 2 Timeline
“The overarching goals of this work are to protect and sustain the University of Virginia’s most important architectural asset,” Neuman said. “Phase two will bring major construction and some disruption. But when the project is complete, the Rotunda will be even more valuable and useful to the University community and beyond.”

Construction started the day after Final Exercises and will continue for two years, during which time the Rotunda will be closed to the public.
Info Box: Project Basics
Phase one, completed in spring 2013, included installing a new oculus and copper roof, extensive masonry repairs and refurbishing the window sashes and architraves. The dome will be painted in phase two.
Info Box: Project Investments

The second phase’s modifications include:

  • Modernizing the fire and life safety and mechanical systems,
  • Replacing the portico roofs,
  • Installing a new elevator,
  • Replacing the Dome Room ceiling,
  • Upgrading infrastructure for the classrooms and the Board of Visitors meeting room,
  • Constructing an underground room to house mechanical systems,
  • New marble capitals,
  • Repaired and install new drains.
  • The University has hired famed landscape architect Laurie Olin to design the landscape plans, including courtyards and the north terraces.

Interior renovations will include:

  • Stairs to the Dome Room’s first gallery
  • New acoustic plaster ceiling in Dome Room
  • A shade for the oculus,
  • New glass doors on main floor to serve the main south entrance
  • New ground floor stairs

“This important, restorative work will benefit the University community and beyond,” said U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan.

Bio: President SullivanThe Rotunda has served as the heart of Jefferson’s academic aspirations for two centuries, and now will be strongly positioned for a third century and beyond.”

Info Box: Rotunda Renovation FAQ



Near-Constant Evolution


The University of Virginia’s Rotunda has seemingly been a work in progress from the beginning.

Designed by the University’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, the Rotunda was the centerpiece of the Academical Village, his vision of students and professors living together in a community of learning. Modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, it was designed to house the library – the core of the University – and be flanked on either side by faculty pavilions, interspersed with student rooms.
Slideshow: Faces of the Rotunda
The University was established in 1819; Jefferson presented his plans for the Rotunda to the Board of Visitors in 1821 and it was still under construction, plagued with delays and problems, when Jefferson died in 1826.

Construction took several years and the steps leading to the south portico were not built until 1832. A leaking dome proved problematic from the start.

In Jefferson’s original design, there were two south wings of the Rotunda that contained covered exercise yards referred to as gymnasia. In 1841, in response to the increased enrollment at the University, the two south wings were enclosed to create classroom space.

The next big change occurred from 1851 to 1854, when an annex was added, a four-story wing with a basement that extended perpendicularly off the north side of the Rotunda. It added classroom and laboratory space as well as an auditorium.

Leaks plagued the building, and not all of them came from Mother Nature.
Slideshow: Living, Breathing Landmark
In 1854, in an effort to solve the University’s need for water both for firefighting and for use by Grounds residents, civil engineer Charles Ellet devised a scheme to put two 7,000-gallon tanks in cavities of the bricks that supported the dome. Water from nearby streams was pumped into the tanks, then was gravity-fed to the Academical Village. Alas, the tanks leaked, damaging interior and exterior walls, loosening plaster, defacing ceilings and damaging library books.

In 1859, the roof needed repair again and a cupola added in 1840 was removed. The Civil War and its financial drag on the University slowed the project, and leaks in the roof and around the oculus persisted.

The roof continued to cause troubles after the war and the annex was also in need of repair, but only minor work was performed in the postwar years. In 1886, repairs were authorized for the annex, but the leaking oculus was deemed not urgent.

Electric lights were installed in University buildings in 1888 and extensive repairs were made around the growing Grounds in 1890 – but not to the Rotunda.
Graphic: Post Fire Address to Students
Then came the fire. Faulty wiring was blamed for the Oct. 27, 1895, conflagration that destroyed the annex and the Rotunda, the blaze apparently starting in the annex’s upper northwest corner. Despite efforts to halt the flames’ advance by dynamiting the portico connecting the annex to the Rotunda, the fire spread and students and faculty rushed to salvage books and artworks.

Following the fire, a succession of architects were brought in, the first being McDonald Brothers architects of Louisville, Ky. The McDonalds’ initial designs of a restored Rotunda eliminated the upper floor, extending the Dome Room up from the main floor and eliminating the oval rooms on the main floor. Their designs also created a north portico.

The Board of Visitors decided it wanted a firm “not of local repute only but of broad and national consideration.” The prominent New York firm of McKim, Mead and White was retained in 1896. The board charged the firm with not only redesigning the Rotunda, but enclosing the south end of the Lawn with three new buildings, which came to be Rouss, Cocke and Cabell halls.

The task of re-envisioning Jefferson’s intent fell to Stanford White.

Bio: Brian HoggJefferson had designed the Rotunda with three floors and Stanford White changed it to two floors, making the Dome Room much bigger,” said Brian Hogg, the senior preservation planner in the Office of the Architect.

White sought to merge Jefferson’s design with the University’s needs, which still included using the Rotunda largely as a library. He also designed east and west wings on the north side of the building, to match the south wings, and he connected the wings with colonnades. He designed the Rotunda with central heating and a mechanized ventilation system; while the central heat was retained, the ventilation system was scrapped because of cost.

White retained some of the McDonalds’ interior designs and convinced the board that Jefferson had included a third story out of necessity, but that his desire would have been for a large open space, had it been possible at the time. The oval rooms in the basement level would serve as reading and reference rooms for the two-story library with galleries ringing the central atrium. White’s plans also restored Jefferson’s semi-circular staircases on the east and west sides of the southern portion of the Rotunda’s barrel.

The Board of Visitors insisted the Rotunda be constructed of fireproof materials. White commissioned Rasfael Guastavino to create a vault of clay tiles for the interior structure of the dome. More fire-resistant than concrete or steel, the vault was also impervious to rot, insects and the elements.

The building was dedicated in 1898, though some details were not yet completed. The previously rough-cut capitals were finished in 1904, carved in place after the University received a donation to complete the work.

Over time, the library expanded, spilling into former classroom space in the Rotunda’s wings. In 1938, Alderman Library opened, assuming the duties of the primary library on Grounds. In June, the University applied for a federal Public Works Administration grant for improvements to the Rotunda. Charlottesville architect Stanislaw Makielski, an associate professor of architecture in the University’s McIntire School of Fine Arts, was contracted for the “restoration of the Rotunda,” and Fiske Kimball, an authority on Jefferson’s architectural work and the neo-classical revival in America, served as a consultant. Kimball had been a professor of art and architecture from 1919 to 1923.

The $136,373 project included converting the space in the wings into offices. The cryptoporticus – the ground-level covered passage in the south wing – was created and cast-stone balustrades on the terrace were replaced with marble, as were the hard sandstone steps on the south side of the Rotunda – likely an unfilled detail from McKim, Mead and White’s plans, Hogg said.

By the mid-1950s, momentum grew to restore the Rotunda to Jefferson’s original design, with the idea of moving the president’s office and returning Board of Visitors meetings to the Rotunda. Professor Frederick D. Nichols of the School of Architecture met with the Buildings and Grounds Committee on how to “correct the alterations” made by White. In 1957, the board approved a plan to do so, but also specified that it be paid for with private funds – which took another 15 years to raise.

In 1965, University President Edgar Shannon Jr. appointed a committee to guide the planning; the same year, the federal government designated the Rotunda as one of four National Historic Landmarks in Virginia. In 1966, the Board of Visitors selected architects Ballou and Justice of Richmond to prepare restoration plans. The architect recommended the retention of the fire-proof aspects of the White structure, such as the Guastavino vault, but clearing out the entire interior.

In 1972, the University received a Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to supplement the privately raised money. The U.S. Bicentennial Committee recommended that the Rotunda restoration be the nation’s No. 1 priority, in terms of preservation projects, for the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. Finally, work got under way.

“The McKim, Mead and White interior was completely removed,” Hogg said. “It was an evocation of Jefferson’s design.” The Rotunda was returned to three stories, with the rooms placed as Jefferson had planned. The building was closed for about two years.

The roof was also replaced. White planned for the copper dome to be painted white, but that never happened and it developed a whitish-green patina. The copper plates gave way to galvanized steel panels, which were painted white.

The workers also replaced the oculus in the center of the dome roof. White, in his design, had created a more elaborate skylight than Jefferson, and this was replaced with a simpler one made of bronze and Lexan.
Info Box: A Host to Dignitaries
The project was completed in time for the bicentennial celebration, and on July 10, 1976, the Dome Room was the site of a luncheon for Queen Elizabeth II, hosted by Virginia Gov. Mills E. Godwin.

By the spring of 1998, the marble bases of the columns on the south side of the Rotunda required repair. Workers also replaced the stone paving on top of the southwest terrace offices, and installed handrails at each side of the main stair leading from the Rotunda deck to the Lawn.

The current restoration work on the Rotunda started in 2012. Workers in the first phase replaced the steel-panel dome with copper, performed window sash work and repointed the exterior bricks.

Today, the University stands poised to again complete a major renovation, guided by Jefferson’s original designs, but bolstered with repairs and modern enhancements that will protect U.Va.’s crown jewel into a third century.

Historic Treasures

Historic Treasures

Restoration Efforts Key to Stewardship

Historic Treasures

As the University of Virginia embarks on two years of renovation work on its iconic Rotunda, it’s useful to learn from similar projects undertaken at other national landmarks.

The lesson gleaned from renovations at sites ranging from nearby Monticello to the New York Harbor: The work often is inconvenient, but the results make it worthwhile.

As Susan Clarke Schaar, clerk of the Virginia Senate, said after a two-year restoration of the Virginia State Capitol, “It was a tired, little old lady down on her luck, just being held together before the renovation with electrical wire and duct tape. Now it’s like this beautiful queen, draped in green velvet in Capitol Square.”

The replacement of the Rotunda’s historic features, such as its column capitals, the updating of utility systems and expansion of the academic uses of the portion of the World Heritage Site that originally served as the University’s library represent the building’s first major renovation in nearly four decades.

“The goal is to have the Rotunda become more a part of the daily life of the University,” said Brian Hogg, senior preservation planner in U.Va.’s Office of the Architect.

Our hope is that this will make it a place that people are comfortable coming and spending time in, rather than being a place where students bring their parents at graduation or when they visit for admission tours.”

The disruptions associated with taking the centerpiece of Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village off-line are not unprecedented. Projects at other iconic sites serve as comparable examples of stewardship of historic treasures to preserve value and relevance in the 21st century. The interior of the Statue of Liberty, for example, was closed in October 2011 for a year of renovations to allow the National Park Service to make the renowned statue more accessible.

Here’s a look at how other historic sites have handled major renovation projects.

Benefits of Restoration

Benefits of Restoration

Restored Rotunda to Reclaim Its Place at the Heart of the University


Black netting over the column capitals of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda is just one, very visible signal of the major renovations to come. The effort, however, extends beyond safety and infrastructure improvements to re-establishing the fundamental role of Thomas Jefferson’s architectural landmark.
Video: What U.Va.’s Rotunda Means to Me

“Jefferson intended the Rotunda to be the central focus of the Academical Village – not only physically by its size, location and architectural presence, but also programmatically by its function as the library and central classroom building that would be used daily by faculty and students,” said David J. Neuman, the Architect for the University. “It is our intention to return the Rotunda to that central role.”

Inviting the Students Back In

The Rotunda sits at the north end of the Academical Village, envisioned by Jefferson as the centerpiece of the University, housing the library, the core of education. Classes were held in the building, and as the University grew, classroom space expanded into the two wings on the south side of the Rotunda.

The library remained there until 1938, when Alderman Library opened. That change meant the Rotunda, subsequently given over to offices, was no longer central to student life.

Through the renovation project, scheduled to begin after Final Exercises and last for about two years, University officials will reincorporate the Rotunda more fully into academic life, including an increased number of classes and faculty/student functions.

Bio: Wynne StuartThe goal is to have more students actively engaged with the Rotunda,” said Wynne Stuart, associate provost for academic support.

The programmatic enhancements will build on recent momentum.

Last fall, for example, College of Arts & Sciences faculty members taught 12 elective advising seminars for first-year students in the Lower West Oval Room. One goal was to accustom students to viewing the Rotunda as part of their daily routine, and not just a museum for visiting parents and friends.

“By targeting first-year students in the fall with these college-advising seminars, they come to know the Rotunda as a place that is theirs to go to throughout their careers at U.Va.,” Stuart said.

Astronomy professor Ed Murphy has taught first-year seminars for five years, but last fall’s course was the first course he taught in the Rotunda.

Bio: Ed MurphyI don’t know that it has an impact on the course, but it has a tremendous impact on the students’ connection to U.Va. and the Lawn,” he said. “And as a faculty member whose office is far away from Central Grounds, it was great to walk down the Lawn every week for class.”

“Most people view the Rotunda as this museum piece that isn’t really used on a daily basis anymore, but it’s important for students to have a connection to this historical part of the Grounds.”

First-year student Victoria Tovig took the “Hidden Histories of U.Va.” seminar, taught last fall by history professor Phyllis Leffler. Getting the opportunity to take a class inside the Rotunda was a big draw.
“I probably wouldn’t have stepped foot inside the Rotunda without this class,” Tovig admitted.

Bio: Victoria TovigI think it really enhances your education to say, ‘I had a class in Thomas Jefferson’s main building.’ It just makes you feel like you’re part of the U.Va. community to have a class there, and it’s one of my favorite spaces now.”

To encourage students and faculty to use the building more frequently as a study space, a new staircase will offer access to the lower gallery encircling the perimeter of the Dome Room. State-of-the-art audiovisual equipment will be installed throughout the building, as well as a cable-operated shading system to block the light from the oculus into the Dome Room, facilitating daytime presentations.

Renovations also will upgrade data systems and improve connections for media outlets covering Rotunda events, allowing the building’s beauty to reach a larger audience.
“I’m a historian, and I believe that being inside historic spaces is very meaningful and offers a very rich introduction to the University,” Leffler said.

Bio: Phyllis LefflerGenerations of students here have never set foot inside the Rotunda. To demystify it is very valuable. This is a particularly beautiful space, and students should think of it as a place of access and reflection.

“If you show people the possibilities, you give them a sense of ownership of the space.”

Capital Idea: Italian Craftsmen to Re-crown the Rotunda’s Columns

Fabric has covered the capitals on the north and south porticos for more than three years, due to concern over marble installed more than a century ago. Those weathered and crumbling capitals were made of domestic, fine-grained white marble that was not as hard as the originals, carved from Carrara marble in Italy.
Slideshow: The Capitals
Craftsmen from the Pedrini Sculpture Studio in Carrara visited the University this fall to examine the remnants of Jefferson’s original capitals, which survived the 1895 Rotunda fire. Conservationists cleaned the larger remnants to match marble colors and original carving details, and the craftsmen made three-dimensional laser scans to recreate historically accurate capitals.

“Having scanned the existing remnants of Jefferson’s capitals, we’re matching good, clean stone with the samples that have been scanned,” said Jody Lahendro, historic preservation architect for Facilities Management. “They’re in the process now in Italy of digitally stitching those scans together to complete a computer model of the capitals.”

Carving and installation of the 16 capitals will take an estimated nine months, restoring Jefferson’s architectural vision and eliminating safety concerns that led to the covering of the weakened capitals.

Safety, Accessibility and Comfort Will Improve

The renovations also include installing a new fire-detection system and a separate fire-suppression system.

The Rotunda’s new smoke-alert devices will include a beam detection system at the base of the hemispherical ceiling in the Dome Room that would significantly improve notification and alert times.

“Any smoke in the Dome Room would rise toward the skylight and break the detection beams, immediately alerting the security system,” Lahendro said.

Quick-response sprinkler heads will be installed to improve suppression reaction time, and the smoke-detection system will be installed throughout the building to quickly alert occupants and responders to a potential fire – not a small consideration for a building that burned to its shell in 1895.

Once the Rotunda reopens, visitors will be able to use a larger, more convenient elevator that provides access to each floor, including the main hall. To use the outdated elevator currently in operation, visitors must flag down a Rotunda staff member to accompany them into the cryptoporticus running underneath the Rotunda’s Lawn-facing steps.

Slideshow: A Historic Look at University Life
“Disabled visitors will no longer require a staff person to unlock the elevator, accompany them in the cab, unlock another door when they reach their floor and let them out,” and then repeat the process on the way out, Lahendro said. “We’re changing the elevator so that everyone can have unassisted usage of it via public spaces at each floor.”

One substantial portion of the renovation will involve replacing mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. The current temperature-control system was shoehorned into confined space in 1976, limiting its functionality and maintenance. The rudimentary system does not allow the temperature or air volume to vary from space to space throughout the Rotunda, sometimes resulting in uncomfortable rooms, mold growth and wasted energy.

A new underground vault for the Rotunda’s infrastructure systems will be constructed in the east courtyard, with an underground tunnel connecting the addition to a service elevator and stairs next to a service lot east of the building.


T.J. Medalist to Re-Envision Rotunda’s Setting

The University has hired famed landscape architect Laurie Olin, the 2013 recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture, to redesign the architecture around the Rotunda.

“This includes the north terrace, which will be dramatically improved,” Neuman said. “When the courtyards are re-landscaped, they become much more accessible, useful and attractive.”

Neuman said there may be some additional outdoor programming changes.

“Emphasizing that when we are complete here, we really return the Rotunda to the heart of the Grounds, both literally and physically,” he said.