Historic Preservation Colloquium Explores Future of U.Va.'s Academical Village

April 11, 2011

April 11, 2011 — The Rotunda's roof is leaking, the capitals are crumbling, and more repairs are on the horizon for the University of Virginia's Academical Village and other historic buildings.

But renovations and restorations to such a storied landscape – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – are fraught with a complex history and many questions. At the most basic level, the question is: For buildings with more than one significant historical era, which era should be represented in a renovation?

As the University embarks on substantial renovations and restorations with potential to significantly alter the appearance and interpretation of its buildings and Grounds, a colloquium was held Thursday and Friday in the Rotunda and Brooks Hall to evaluate the best way to approach decision-making and help set guidelines. Attendees included leading historic preservationists who shared their experiences, members of the University's Board of Visitors, faculty, students, staff, representatives from the National Park Service, Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and members of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

"One important aspect of the Academical Village to keep in mind is the near-constant evolution," President Teresa A. Sullivan said in her welcoming remarks. "The Academical Village today reflects both Jefferson's vision and the adaptations to keep it vital over time."

Just two weeks ago, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and the General Assembly agreed to $2.69 million in state-funded bonds for the roof and dome renovations, the first part of a Rotunda project expected to cost $4.69 million.

University Architect David Neuman said the colloquium was conceived to generate "thoughtful and lively discussion in the spirit of an academic exchange of ideas."

The discussion was framed by the University's requirement that the original uses be maintained and even expanded.

The roster of presenters included experts from other institutions, who shared their restoration and renovation experiences, and University experts and outside consultants presenting research findings.

Richard Longstreth, professor of American studies and director of the graduate program in historic preservation at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., set the tone with his talk, "The Parts and Their Whole." Despite changes, he said, "the essential qualities [of Jefferson's complex] remain dominant, and essential functions remain the same." 

But, cultural changes have made "the Lawn a more sacred place than a century or a century-and-a-half ago, and it no longer is the sole center of activity at the University because of growth," he said.

He discussed architect Stanford White's restoration of the Rotunda following the 1895 fire and his addition of the north portico and steps, an acknowledgement that the University was no longer in a rural landscape as it was when Jefferson designed it. Longstreth praised White's pioneering restoration, an effort he described as "cutting edge" for its time. 

White's addition of Cocke, Rouss and Cabell halls to the south end of the Lawn "developed an ensemble that is completely related but clearly different – a new interpretation of classical architecture that could not be called Jeffersonian," Longstreth said.

The University's Historic Preservation Advisory Committee will begin meeting in two weeks to consider preservation and restoration design options.

The Office of the Architect is seeking input into the development of the design guidelines for the future treatment of the Academical Village. Questions and comments regarding the colloquium can be sent to uarch@virginia.edu

. Put "HPC" in the subject line.

A video of the colloquium will be available soon on the Office of the Architect Historic Preservation Colloquium website and on YouTube.

He chronicled numerous other additions, including the design and creation of the pavilion gardens by the Garden Club of Virginia, which were created in the "spirit of what Jefferson would have done, but would hardly be called accurate."

"There are so many disparate parts that today seem seamless. Differentiation can enrich without compromising the whole. The original conception remains the one of transient importance," Longstreth said. "With careful knowledge, deliberation and stewardship, change can enhance the parts and with the parts, the whole."

Sharon Park, chief of the Architectural History and Historic Preservation Division at the Smithsonian Institution, shared recent lessons from the restoration of The Castle, the Smithsonian's first, iconic building. Throughout its history, the building underwent three periods of additions and adaptive reuse, as the institution expanded into other buildings and needs changed.

The Smithsonian embarked on a rigorous process of exploration and evaluation, resulting in a plan for The Castle that allows for contemporary use while addressing the core mission of the institution and its founder, James Smithson: to increase the diffusion of knowledge.

Architect James Renwick Jr.'s original design, later additions and renovations by Adolf Cluss, and Cluss' addition of the Arts and Industries Building are integral to the history and development of The Castle and its uses, Park said. Examples of early sustainable features – natural ventilation and light, under-floor heating, vented cavity walls, dual-glazed windows and some polychrome and color glass decorative features – were documented and studied. Concept studies for rehabilitation were undertaken.

The decision was to follow a rehabilitation mode incorporating concepts and design based on the original, but using today's materials and technology – not a one-for-one restoration to replace what existed earlier, Park said.

She called upon the University to "respect the past but not dwell on the sentimentality of it. Great institutions remain great through thoughtful implementation of their mission."

John Fidler, a consultant with Simpson Gumpertz & Heger and former conservation director at English Heritage, has extensive experience with buildings and landscapes that span many periods of history.

England's history "is deep and wide," he said.

Change is inevitable, Fidler said, and cultural and natural heritage values should play a part in the decision to sustain, reinforce or enhance historic sites. Multi-period sites raise the question of which values are to be respected, he said.

He also cautioned that "preservation is cheap; renovation is expensive, both monetarily and politically. Being a hybrid does not detract. Being a pragmatist, deal with what you have. Jefferson and White are firmly built into the culture."

U.Va. Commonwealth Professor of Architectural History Richard Guy Wilson summed up the first day by identifying a dozen themes, including greatness or importance of the buildings and landscapes; importance of values, including architecture, technology, events and people; how decisions made today will be perceived in the future; and research and documentation – what we know and what we think we know and understand.

The day's event concluded with questions and comments. Concern was expressed that the 1970s restoration of the interior of the Rotunda was not up to Jefferson's standards of craftsmanship. And consideration was given to the idea of bringing the building to life by making it integral to the University's academic mission and intellectual life.

Wilson said a campaign started in 1995 to put classrooms back in the Rotunda is gaining some traction.

Recent architectural and archaeological findings were part of the discussion on the second day – for example the research that went into the decision to rebuild a parapet on Pavilion X, which had been removed when it crushed its way into the roof.

Although little pictorial history was available, one historic photo clearly showed a parapet. A list of Jefferson's own specifications for the building indicated the parapet and refers to a drawing by Palladio, the 16th-century designer who was his inspiration. During construction, signs of a parapet were uncovered. The new parapet was engineered to meet contemporary load requirements.

The pavilion columns have been the focus of extensive study that not only includes their color – which was identified by studying the layers of paint that had accumulated over the years – but also how they rested on the brick paving in front of the building. Archaeological research showed a stone border that was no longer in evidence.

Also, the Chinese railings that ran between the pavilions atop the roof of the Lawn rooms were restored on Pavilion X to Jefferson's specifications; research found the height was a continuous, simple and elegant line, with the placement of the posts coinciding with the supporting columns underneath. A 1970s-era installation of the Chinese railing did not follow these Jeffersonian details.

U.Va. architectural conservator Mark Kutney said Pavilion X would probably remain an example of restoration, while other pavilions would be renovated.

The restoration of the Pavilion X roof helped answer many questions and posed new ones, said John Waite of John G. Waite Associates, who heads a team that is preparing historic structure reports for a number of the buildings on the Lawn. As the workers removed the slate, they uncovered Jefferson's original tin plate roof, which was of a unique and innovative design.

"It showed Jefferson was just as interested in building technology and innovative materials and ways to put them together," Waite said. "One problem was it leaked."

The roof was replaced using Jefferson's design, but incorporating modern technology.

When it came time to talk about the Rotunda roof and dome, Waite said his team used a computer-enhanced 1868 photo to study the stepped roof. By the 1880s the steps were gone, and by 1892 there was a cupola on top, which was leaking at the time of the fire in 1895.

Two different dome types have graced the Rotunda, of which the only Jeffersonian remains are some masonry walls that survived the fire. White's dome, which incorporates a different structural system, sits higher atop the building than Jefferson's on an added tier of bricks. "That dome is holding the building together right now," Waite said.

Physical evidence and research show that questions of restoration and reconstruction are extremely complicated. Change is present everywhere.

Archaeologist Ben Ford's presentation focused away from the buildings, on the intervening spaces. Jefferson intended the south end of the Lawn as the main entrance, but the north end was closer to a road and to conveniences.

Other events, including a typhoid epidemic in 1856 that killed 10 students, led to the raising of floors and additional ventilation below the rooms on the ranges.

Garden walls were in various places at differing periods and were constructed of a variety of materials. By the mid-19th century, the "impact to the landscape is just as significant as the impact of the architecture," Ford said.

Advances were made in water supply and storm and sanitary drainage to respond to the continuing functional needs of the University and to incorporate new advances and technologies.

Wilson shared a draft of four periods the University has identified as being of architectural significance. The Jefferson, or Neoclassical, period runs from 1814 to 1828. He referred to this as the "hallowed period that we think we know."

The Romantic or Picturesque period, from 1830 to 1880, includes the addition of Varsity Hall, Brooks Hall, the Chapel and significant changes to the landscape.

The University Beautiful period, from 1890s to 1950s, part of a movement that was taking place on campuses across the U.S., was a time of rediscovery of Jeffersonian architecture at U.Va. with the addition of Fayerweather Hall.

Jefferson's architectural accomplishments were not widely known at the time of the fire in the late 19th century. Although White, who was in awe of Jefferson's design, was reluctant to close off the southern end of the Lawn, Wilson said other designs being proposed at the time – a chapel and a Civil War memorial arch – would have drastically taken Jefferson's concept of an Academical Village in another direction.

The modern era, from the 1950s through the 1980s, constitutes a Jeffersonian revival. It includes the garden work in 1952, renovations of the pavilion interiors and the 1976 restoration of the Rotunda.

"The University is a very complex, non-static and ever-changing place and will continue to change," Wilson said.

"Regardless of change, this is still Jeffersonian," Fidler said. The Rotunda "is a mixed-period building that contains laudable architecture by Jefferson and White. The parts complement and are intact."

L.F. Payne, a member of U.Va.'s Board of Visitors, which will have the final say over the design of the restorations, said, "We appreciate what the team has done in researching and keeping us informed. There are no right answers, but we do want to provide framework as we move forward."

Neuman said changes to the design of the Academical Village were taking place before it was built, and change has continued. "Work will continue to evolve over a long time just as it has in the past. It needs to be thoughtful; and made with the best research," he said.

— By Jane Ford

Media Contact

Jane Ford

Senior News Officer U.Va. Media Relations