Several hundred people – including Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, former Gov. George F. Allen and College alumni and supporters who helped raise money for the long-sought project – watched as David E. Gibson and John L. Nau III, benefactors for whom the complex's two main buildings are named, snipped a blue ribbon with gleaming, oversized shears.
Though it became fully occupied at the start of the fall semester, the South Lawn – all 109,000 square feet of it – was, ceremonially at least, open for business.
Locke Ogens, president of the College Foundation Board of Trustees, said that the trustees had promised the Board of Visitors that it would raise $61.2 million toward the $105 million cost of the project. "Because of three substantial gifts that have come in in recent days, we have now fulfilled our obligation to the South Lawn," she announced.
The South Lawn was 10 years in the making. One catalyst was a tour in 2001 on a sweltering June day when President John T. Casteen III and Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Leonard Sandridge led the Board of Visitors through New Cabell Hall.
"Board members walked the un-air-conditioned corridors and saw the decades-old desks bolted to the floors in the classrooms," University Rector John O. Wynne said. "I am told that after seeing the worn-out classrooms, they were convinced of the need to provide better learning environments for our students in the College." University resources supplied $43.8 million of the South Lawn cost.
Thomas Jefferson, U.Va.'s founder, was never far from people's thoughts, as the speakers linked the South Lawn to Jeffersonian ideals of knowledge, wisdom and freedom.
Meredith Jung-En Woo, dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, recalled Jefferson's original design for the Academical Village. Jefferson, she said, "wished to leave open the southern end of the Lawn, a dramatic vista looking out toward the mountains, to remind us of our indefinite and incessant quest for truth."
After the 1895 Rotunda fire, famed architect Stanford White decided to expand U.Va.'s footprint by building Cocke, Rouss and Old Cabell halls, which closed off that vista.
"The South Lawn," Woo said, "in our mind’s eye opens up the Lawn and, with it, the future."
Nau remarked that the South Lawn reflects "Mr. Jefferson's ideas about the relationship between faculty, students and space." Gibson noted that the University is "Thomas Jefferson's continuing enterprise to carry knowledge and freedom to all generations."
U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan also invoked Jefferson, quoting from his letter to John Adams, "I prefer the dreams of the future to the history of the past."
"Here at the South Lawn, as is our practice across the Grounds, we are mindful of our past while always looking ahead to the future," Sullivan said. "Our University is one with a unique history and a place with great traditions – but the work we do is for the future."
Sullivan also took note of the memorial site at the South Lawn dedicated to Catherine "Kitty" Foster, a free African-American woman who lived near the University in a mostly black community known as Canada from 1833 to 1863. "Kitty Foster and her neighbors and family members were a part of a community that was both separate from the University and strongly tied to it," she said. "Men and women who lived in Canada worked on the Grounds and provided services for students and faculty.
"By creating the Kitty Foster memorial site here at the South Lawn, the project architects have designed a place that pays tribute to the women and men who lived and worked here while promoting thought and discussion about University and Charlottesville history."
In his remarks, Gov. McDonnell acknowledged the shortcomings of state funding for higher education. "While the state has done some things to contribute to the capital projects at its universities, we have not been as generous or as good a partner in providing operational support," he said.
Finding a new funding model is imperative, he said, if Virginia is to meet the goal of granting 100,000 more degrees and ensuring good jobs for its citizens, he said, noting, "Higher education is the great equalizer."
While the ceremony – followed that evening by a gala dinner under a huge tent spanning the terrace over Jefferson Park Avenue – celebrated the South Lawn, it also laid out challenges.
Nau said that the bricks and mortar "will meet the needs of faculty and students by creating a safe, engaging environment that will stimulate intellectual curiosity."
But, he added, "There is still a challenge in front of us: to reduce the faculty-student ratio. An investment in intellectual capital is needed to fulfill the promise of the South Lawn."