Slideshow: Richard Guy Wilson, architectural history professor and curator of Village to Grounds, describes the scope of the exhibition.
September 9, 2009 — The University of Virginia has presented the same challenge to many distinguished architects: How does one build upon a masterpiece?
As the University has grown, Thomas Jefferson's vision has been tried and tested, adapted and interpreted. A new exhibition, "From Village to Grounds: Architecture After Jefferson at the University of Virginia," explores the solutions to the architectural challenges posed by adding to the Academical Village – from 19th-century picturesque ideals to the classicism of McKim, Mead & White and the modern architecture of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The exhibition opens Tuesday at the Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections Library and runs through June 30. It is part of the University's 2009 celebration of the centennial of Carr's Hill, the president's residence and the last of the buildings designed for the University by the prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White.
Also as part of the celebration, the U.Va. Art Museum will host "Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village: The Creation of an Architectural Masterpiece," a new version of the groundbreaking 1993 presentation of the same name, from Saturday through Jan. 3. And the museum and the departments of Architectural History, Art History and Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections Library will present a scholarly symposium, "Jefferson, Palladio, Art and Architecture and the University of Virginia," on Nov. 20 and 21, to consider the Grounds in the context of architecture, landscape design and art.
U.Va.'s architecture stems from a creative tension Jefferson embodied, according to architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson, curator of both exhibits and the University's Commonwealth Professor of Architectural History.
"He balanced a belief in classical precedent with a passion for innovation and the technology of his time," Wilson said.
"From Village to Grounds" is organized in a series of chronological sections, ranging from the additions made in 1825 for the University's 123 original enrollees to today's South Lawn Project, a contemporary response to the needs of a growing institution with more than 21,000 students.
The exhibition is "the most comprehensive look ever at our built environment," said Mercy Quintos Procaccini, the library's exhibits coordinator, who worked with the curatorial team to assemble original blueprints, floor plans, photographs and architectural fragments to represent the various periods.
"From Village to Grounds" presents chapters of an evolving effort to respond to – and in some cases, react against – Jefferson's design. In the romantic picturesque period (1826 to 1895), the University Chapel and Varsity Hall (originally an infirmary called "the Retreat for Sick Students") were constructed without reference to the style or location of the Academical Village.
After the 1895 Rotunda fire, attention returned to the Academical Village as the prominent New York firm of McKim, Mead & White was called upon to "restore" the Rotunda and to close off the Lawn with a new series of academic buildings – Cabell, Cocke and Rouss halls.
"I'm scared to death," Stanford White said of the challenge, according to Wilson.
White and his firm re-imagined the Rotunda and responded to the University's more contemporary needs, including those for a dining hall (Garrett Hall) and a home for the University's new president (Carr's Hill). The 19th-century master managed both to embellish Carr's Hill with Greek capitals – a personal touch – and to respect elsewhere the Jeffersonian vision.
The 1895 Rotunda fire, the arrival of cars, the postwar influx of students and the admission of female undergraduates, the shift from intimate classrooms to lecture halls and labs – the architecture in "From Village to Grounds" reflects all these changes. Visitors will "see with new eyes a campus that they may now take for granted," Quintos Procaccini said.
"Sights that might now seem like just a pretty background will re-emerge in the foreground in very vital ways as their history and the architects' intentions are explained and displayed," she added.
In one section of the exhibition, Wilson and his team focus on the post-World War II modern-suburban university, more dependent upon the automobile. The Law School and Darden School of Business moved to satellite campuses on the North Grounds removed from the Academical Village. McCormick Road residence halls (1946-51), the original Newcomb Hall (1958), and Observatory Hill Dining Hall (1974) were built to cater to a growing student population.
All were constructed, Wilson said, with another Jeffersonian principle in mind: Landscape is just as important as buildings for achieving an inspiring environment.
"All in all, Jefferson saw that it wasn't only the lectures given inside them, but the site and the very buildings themselves that could be ennobling and serve an educational purpose," Wilson said.
As new construction continues, the exhibition underscores the Jeffersonian combination of new and old – a fusion akin to the postmodern mix of innovation and homage. The best buildings spotlighted, Wilson said, reflect that approach: "You don't want just imitation, nor only extremely modern work," he said. "You need an exciting balance."