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Leading Architectural Firm Engages with U.Va. to Plot New Course for Morven

“There are no lands in this state of equal fertility and equal advantages,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to William Short, his private secretary from 1785 to 1789, when the future president was serving as U.S. minister to France. 

Jefferson was referring to a mountainous tract of land southeast of Charlottesville now called Morven Farm. The 2,913-acre estate affords a panoramic view of an area that was long ago laid out by Jefferson.

The land was bequeathed to the University of Virginia in 2001 by philanthropist John W. Kluge, who issued a charge: Use the property to position U.Va. as a global leader.

“Morven can help re-position the University in the global marketplace,” he wrote. “People will come here from around the world – bring their ideas, their culture. The University needs to decide why they will come; what they will do while they’re here.”

Heeding that call, Morven has hosted more than 500 projects and programs in the last five years. This includes the creation of the Presidential Precinct, a program for emerging world leaders who are interested in nation-building and civil society. The Presidential Precinct has been a successful partner with the U.S. State Department, bringing in more than 135 emerging leaders from 65 countries in the past year.

Now Hart Howerton, an elite, global architecture and planning firm with deep ties to U.Va., is providing pro-bono work to help the University chart a long-range vision and implementation plan for Morven that is in keeping with Kluge’s vision and the mission of the University.

A seven-member team – including four graduates of U.Va.’s School of Architecture – began its work just after Thanksgiving. Led by the firm’s chair, alumnus David Howerton, the experts conducted more than 50 interviews in preparation for an intensive three-day, on-site planning session at Morven in January. Their focus centers on current areas of academic strength in emerging leadership and self-governance, sustainability, arts and culture.

The “planning charette” took place in Morven’s Meeting Barn, where deans, administrators, faculty and Morven neighbors studied peer sites, topographical maps and physical analysis of the property.

 

Connecting by Disconnecting

As the experts in land planning, hospitality and financial management presented to the group, a common theme arose: the notion that traveling up Monticello Mountain to Morven instills a sense of peace that enables people to disconnect from everyday life.

Hart Howerton Principal Paul Milana, who provided a physical analysis of the property, said the winding entry road reveals Morven slowly to visitors and creates the feeling that the place is “otherworldly and special.” The sloping landforms and the way “the property has been built is clearly about experience and view,” he said. “The Presidential Precinct gives global relevance to the site.”

Russell Taylor, the president and CEO of National Arts Strategies, put it this way: “There is an ‘otherness’ about Morven,” that allows people to do their best thinking and work in a romantically designed environment.

Enhancing the Residential Experience

Presently, Morven provides up to eight residential rooms. Experts said adding more residential facilities would enhance the experience of visiting students, faculty, emerging leaders and scholars who could stay for days, weeks or even months.

“We have heard consistently from the State Department ‘If we could stay here, the potential is enormous. Every day when we get to the meat of the problem, it’s time to get on the bus,’” said Morven Program Director Stewart Gamage.

Reporting to U.Va. Vice President and Provost John D. Simon during the last day of the charette, Architecture School graduate and Hart Howerton senior adviser Stuart Siegel cautioned against diminishing the residential experience by over-building. “Based on what we have been told, our sense is the value of the immersive experience becomes diluted if you go north of 30 or 40 individuals,” he said.

Connecting Central Grounds to Morven and Morven to Central Grounds

Siegel, who is also a special adviser to the School of Architecture Foundation’s Board of Trustees, said the 18-minute drive from U.Va. to Morven should not be viewed as a hindrance.

“This is an extraordinary asset,” he said. “There is nothing in the debit column … It is a way to bridge the academy with the classroom and the property.”

U.Va. Vice Provost for Global Affairs Jeffrey W. Legro said Morven and the University have a natural intersection, where students can benefit from the knowledge of artists, environmental and agricultural specialists and rising world leaders.

“Morven can become the University’s site for intense experiential learning, a place where students and faculty work with visiting practitioners. The academy and the world engage with huge benefits for both,” he said. “That is quite distinctive.”

Alumni Giving Back to the University

Gamage said the project is a perfect example of dedicated alumni giving back to the University. “The work Hart Howerton is doing for U.Va. is helping to change the trajectory of Morven,” she said. “The benefits cannot be overstated.”

The team expects to deliver a conceptual plan with illustrative materials and budgets to U.Va. in March.

David Howerton said he sees great things for the future. “I am impressed that there will be no shortage of people who want a program at Morven.”

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