Architectural Accents From Rotunda Find New Life in Alderman Library Project

March 31, 2023
Image of construction working going up the stairs

Cast iron panels used in the Rotunda so many years ago are now being incorporated into the renovations of the Alderman Library. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

An element of the University of Virginia’s Jefferson-era library is being incorporated into the Alderman Library as part of the current renovations.

University founder Thomas Jefferson designed the Academical Village with focus on the Rotunda, the second library at the University after Pavilion VII. The Rotunda maintained its role as a library until the contents overwhelmed the building and Alderman Library was built in 1938.

Today’s Alderman renovation is a $141 million project that began in 2020 and is expected to be completed late this year.

After fire heavily damaged the Rotunda in 1895, New York architects McKim, Mead and White were hired to re-envision the structure. The architects designed a new, beaux-arts interior, creating a three-story, monumental Dome Room instead of the double-story Dome Room Jefferson originally designed. The design opened the interior from the main floor to the oculus.

In their version of the building, McKim, Mead and White used cast iron, rather than wood, in many applications to make the building fire-proof. This included a series of cast iron panels in the guard rail around the Dome Room gallery.

When the Rotunda underwent another renovation in the 1970s, the Jeffersonian interior was restored, including re-establishing the double-story Dome Room and wood interior. The cast iron panels were removed and placed in storage.

Black and white photo of the inside of the Rotunda

In McKim, Mead and White’s re-envisioned Rotunda following the destructive fire of 1895, the gallery guard rails were made of cast iron and decorated with a wreath or laurel motif. (Special Collections Archive)

Now some are finding a new home in Alderman Library as part of its massive renovation. Others of these panels from the Rotunda gallery were also incorporated into the mezzanine at the Fiske Kimball Library at the School of Architecture.

“We are reusing pieces of the Rotunda gallery guard rail in the library’s main stair and in the galleries on level five, under the clerestory and over the level four reading room,” said Kit Meyer, Facilities Management project manager for the library renovations.

“The Rotunda housed the University’s library until Alderman was built,” said Brian Hogg, the senior historic preservation planner in the Office of the Architect. “It was a natural connection to use features from the Rotunda library in this renovation. There are two types of panels from the Rotunda gallery – the wreath motif and an all-fish-scale panel. We are using both in prominent spaces.”

The Alderman Library renovations include creating a new north entrance, featuring a terrace and a set of doors leading into a spacious second-floor lobby. The new design will bring more natural light into the building with more windows and skylights, and the renovation will add exterior and interior connections between Alderman and Clemons libraries. The new design, by HBRA Architects with Clark Nexsen, will also include upgrades on the fire and life safety features and mechanical elements.

It's closer than you think. University of Virginia Northern Virginia
It's closer than you think. University of Virginia Northern Virginia

“The design of this addition does so much for the library and for the University,” said Alice Raucher, architect for the University. “The addition beautifully builds upon the logic of the original historic plan – it opens spaces up to natural light and allows views through the building that didn’t previously exist. All of this connects the building to Grounds as if it had always been this way.

“The use of artifacts from the Rotunda strengthens that connection even more through a tangible, historical artifact.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications