Historic Architect Jody Lahendro Has the Past in His Future

Historic Architect Jody Lahendro Has the Past in His Future

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Jody Lahendro stood by a young Shumard oak – his long, chiseled face reminiscent of Gary Cooper’s (though now partially obscured by a mask) – and listened to friends and co-workers say nice things about him. Lahendro is retiring from the University of Virginia’s Division of Facilities Management, and his friends donated a tree, planted between the Rotunda and Brooks Hall, in his honor.

Peers, teammates and University administrators praised Lahendro, bedecked in his usual uniform of a bow tie, tweed vest and an orange Virginia baseball cap, for his dedication to historic preservation and to the University. He was embarrassed by the attention.

“Famous for his larger-than-life presence and an affinity for bow ties, Jody has made an indelible mark on the University and the Charlottesville communities during his tenure,” Sarita Herman, historic preservation project manager at Facilities Management, read from a plaque she presented to Lahendro. “He is notorious for his love of getting dirty and going where others would not dare, finding himself in crawlspaces and attics where he could learn the secrets of old buildings.”

“I’m overwhelmed,” said Lahendro, who had been a preservation architect at UVA for 16 years, starting in December 2004 after 18 years of operating his own architecture firm specializing in preservation and restoration.

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Lahendro’s friends and colleagues donated an oak tree that recently was planted on Grounds between the Rotunda and Brooks Hall. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Fittingly for Lahendro, his introduction to the complexity of the University’s historic fabric started below Grounds.

“The first project that really opened my eyes was the Central Grounds water lines replacement,” he said. “That was interesting because I learned quickly that we have as many, if not more, historic resources below Grounds as we do above ground. Archaeology was a huge part of that.”

He has spent quite a bit of time underneath things – for instance, The Mews, a dependency behind Pavilion III where workers found the foundations of a Jeffersonian serpentine wall underneath the floorboards; and Lawn rooms, where workers have been adding utilities since the 19th century.

“University workers dug trenches; they broke through the brick walls separating the dorm rooms, they created drainage pits where water sits now, and we have added utilities to it to the point where there are some real problems in the crawlspaces that must be addressed,” Lahendro said. “And they are so difficult to work in because of how tight they are and filled with utilities. That is an area I am sorry I did not make better inroads in, getting the attention for those areas.”

“Crawlspaces and attics are the best places to learn about how historic buildings were constructed, and how they changed over time,” James D.W. Zehmer, a historic preservation project manager at Facilities Management, wrote in an email. “I have fond memories of crawling under the Lawn and Range rooms with Jody documenting needed repairs. These are areas that are ‘out of sight, out of mind’ to most people, and Jody has made a point to bring attention to them.

“In fact, he is still at it, crawling under the West Lawn just a few weeks ago.”

Lahendro did not spend all his time at UVA underground or crawling. Of his above-Grounds projects, moving Varsity Hall was one of his favorites.

Lahendro checks out a pocket door found at the Carr’s Hill renovation project. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“I loved the project,” he said. “That building is one of my big surprises over the years. That is such a great building, because it was state-of-the-art science and health at the time it was built in the 1850s. And that meant central heating, central ventilation, exercise balconies, indoor plumbing fed by cisterns that caught rain from the roof – and all those things are still there, and it is just extraordinary.”

For Lahendro, Varsity Hall’s construction reflected the University’s reaction to the death of around 20 students from typhoid fever.

“They had a to shut down the University,” he said. “It just reminded me of COVID, and they shut down the University and they built Varsity Hall. They got the parents to send [students] back by saying that they have the state-of-the-art, first purpose-built student health building in the United States. This is an underappreciated historic resource here.”

Among his other favorites are Garrett Hall, now the home of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, the last full building designed by Stanford White of the New York firm of McKim, Mead & White at the turn of the 20th century as the University’s first refractory, or dining hall; and Carr’s Hill, the president’s official residence, also a McKim, Mead & White project.

The crown jewel of his career at the University was the renovation and restoration of the Rotunda, designed by University founder Thomas Jefferson and re-imagined by White after it was heavily damaged by an 1895 fire.

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“It is not just because it was the Rotunda,” Lahendro said. “The Rotunda was a special project because it was such a good collaboration – between the designers, the University staff who managed it and the Office of the Architect of the University and Facilities Management, the contractor, all the subcontractors, our Central Grounds crew that supported the work, the archeologists – everybody was working toward the same things, doing the best job we could and protecting this historic resource.”

They discovered more of the original Jeffersonian fabric of the building than they had expected.

“The building has been through one catastrophic fire that gutted it, then through a complete renovation in 1976 that gutted it again,” Lahendro said. “And we found the original chemical hearth that professor John Emmet had designed for Jefferson and proctor Arthur S. Brockenbrough. That was there and archaeology discovered the foundations for columns that were in lower-level rooms and found debris from the fire. It was just extraordinary. And there were the cisterns that were out in the courtyards from the 1840s and 1850s. It was just amazing how much we were able to find and document.”

In excavating the cistern underneath the east courtyard, archaeologists found the names of the workmen who built it carved in the parging inside, so there were names to connect to the craftsmanship. Much the same was the chemical hearth, found inside the wall of the ground level of the Rotunda, designed by Emmet, the first professor of natural sciences at the University.

“I had seen Emmet’s drawings of the hearth and the bars that formed the bottom of the fireboxes upon the top of which they would burn the wood, and seeing it right there, in place, where it hadn’t been seen for nearly 200 years – that is the immediate tangible connection to the beginning of the University and how important that building is to the development of architecture in the United States,” he said.

The Rotunda is the central focus of the Academical Village. Lahendro noted the challenge of preserving the precinct’s historic fabric, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, while maintaining its original purpose: housing students, students who now require the most modern conveniences. Accommodating those requirements without damaging the structures is “an incredible challenge,” Lahendro said.

Zehmer said Lahendro was zealous about teaching the historic preservation of the Academical Village, from presentations to students in the Architecture School to conducting tours for alumni during Reunions Weekends.

“I will always treasure working closely with Jody on the Academical Village chimney and sprinkler project in 2012,” Zehmer said. “The project involved 180 tradespeople, repaired and relined 62 chimneys, ran 1.5 miles of sprinkler pipe, and was completed in only five months. It was, area-wise, the largest construction project in the Academical Village since the University was originally constructed.”

Zehmer said Lahendro taught him not just about preserving the buildings, but also the experience of living in them through artifacts, such as the original fireplaces.

“Walking along the colonnade in winter would be much a different experience without the smell and sound of a crackling woodfire and the congenial gatherings a fire can bring,” Zehmer said. “Jody has instilled in our team the perspective that the Academical Village is not a museum, but rather a space still used for its original purpose, which sets it apart from many other historic sites.  It’s a guiding principle in our preservation philosophy.”

Zehmer said he learned many lessons during the 13 years he worked with Lahendro, such as the importance of relying on team members’ expertise, asking for help, delegating when necessary and coordinating the right minds to resolve an issue or solve a problem.

“Listen before you speak, and don’t interrupt,” Zehmer cited as a lesson learned. “Just because you are the project manager, it doesn’t mean you have to know everything about the project. In the process, you will learn a lot.”

Zehmer said Lahendro included the tradespeople in the decision-making process and did not lose sight of the big picture.

“He often says, ‘Perfection is the enemy of good enough,’” Zehmer quoted. “Don’t get so bogged down in the details that you lose sight of the overall success of a project. This was a lesson that took me awhile to learn, and has only come with time and maturation.”

Herman said Lahendro works for the benefit of his client.

“Jody’s motivation is always to do what is in the best interest of the University, his team members, the City of Charlottesville, his many pro-bono clients. He is never self-serving and he puts his ego aside when it matters,” she said. “Through his mentorship of project managers and tradespeople, Jody has fostered a culture of historic preservation within Facilities Management that will continue long after he is gone. I will dearly miss his support and friendship.”

Brian Hogg, the senior historic preservation planner in the Office of the Architect for the University, agreed.

Lahendro points out some of the historic dependencies adjacent to Carr’s Hill, UVA's presidential residence. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“He has a remarkable ability to establish great personal and working relationships with everyone involved in his projects, from tradespeople to designers to contractors,” Hogg said. “This has made him both an effective manager of projects and a compelling advocate for them. His care for and support of the Historic Preservation team at Facilities Management is really remarkable. He has led them to have the same standards as he does, and in doing so has inspired true commitment, loyalty and affection.”

Hogg noted that Lahendro’s focus is not just on the University.

“I admire his work with causes outside the office, from providing architectural and preservation support to not-for-profits with historic buildings, to his ongoing role at Camp Holiday Trails, to his service on the City Planning Commission and Board of Architectural Review, and his involvement with St. Paul’s Memorial Church,” Hogg said. “He has at least one wonderful project ready to go once he leaves UVA, so his departure is less a retirement than a redirection of his efforts, which will be a benefit to the entire community.”

Through this work in the city, Lahendro developed a relationship with the First Baptist Church on Main Street and assisted it in landing a $240,000 grant to help replace the roof. He is also committed to the conversion of a historic school building.

“I am working with the Building Goodness Foundation to adaptively reuse a Rosenwald School, which is an African American school built in the 1920s, part of a philanthropy program run by Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington to build more than 5,000 schools in rural areas of the South for educating African Americans,” Lahendro said.

“This particular school is a modest school in northeastern Albemarle County, and we are converting it to a community center. I have decided I am going to be focusing my efforts on helping African American organizations that have historic buildings. I can provide pro-bono preservation architectural services to them. I am going to be documenting some of those buildings that are just falling apart in all different rural areas of Virginia. I am excited about that.”

Lahendro has spent his career bridging the past and the present. When he was an architecture student at Virginia Tech, he spent two months in 1974 traveling Europe with family members, absorbing the historic ambience. Already a history and Civil War buff, having grown up near the Manassas National Battlefield Park, seeing European history preserved triggered something in the young architect.

“I came back here and started going to historic houses, such as Mount Vernon, and just fell in love with it,” he said. “I decided to do my thesis in architecture school in historical preservation, which was completely unheard-of at the time at Virginia Tech, and so I started being a preservation architect in college.”

After graduation he took a job with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, now called Preservation Virginia, the nation’s oldest statewide preservation organization, documenting historic buildings and making repairs.

After several years there, Lahendro sought more education. “I had fallen in love with preservation, but this time I wanted to just study architectural history, and the two disciplines are really distinct,” he said. “The architectural history is rooted in history, read in reports and theses, and preservation is rooted in architecture, more visual. I came to UVA and spent two years doing my master’s in architectural history and loved it. I graduated from here and worked with a firm in Richmond for awhile before going out on my own and specializing in historic preservation, restoration and adaptive reuse work, which I did for 18 years.”

Lahendro talks to a student group about the original features of the Academical Village. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

When he was working on his own, Lahendro became a perfectionist, doing a full range of architectural services himself, working for customers such as the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond and for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Lahendro came to the University in 2004, fed up with Richmond’s congestion and looking for a change. He took over from Murray Howard, who had served for two decades as architect for the historic buildings and grounds.

“Murray Howard really set the foundation for historic preservation at the University,” Lahendro said. “But after he retired, the University took a couple of years to rethink how it was going to do historic preservation here. And instead of just one person, they ended up hiring three people and covering historic preservation in the Office of the University Architect, in the planning side of it, and in Facilities Management, in the implementation side. So this was a reformulated position, but it was taking care of the University of Virginia, this incredible resource, this incredible place.”

In retirement, Lahendro hopes to discover more of the past.

“I am still going to have my hands in historic buildings, and the part of it I really love is driving the back roads and discovering historic buildings and getting in the attics and the crawlspaces and finding evidence, doing the forensic search, to determine how things were constructed and the periods of construction,” he said. “I will miss the beauty of being on Grounds every day, but I am not going to be far away.”

But Lahendro said he will miss the people.

“I am going to miss coming here in the morning, just walking across the parking lot chatting with the tradespeople and chatting with administrators and other project managers and engineers and in working with the historic preservation team, the Central Grounds Zone tradespeople and Brian Hogg,” he said. “That has really been a joy, to work collaboratively with other people and that is especially important for us. That is one of the things I have emphasized with the team, and why I have such a good team, because they are this way naturally. No one wants to be unilaterally making decisions about a historic resource here at the University. We need to have input from others and do it in a collaborative way, so we can be sure we are making the right decision. And I have discovered that I enjoy that and I will miss that probably more than anything.”

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