The Lawn Is UVA’s Red Carpet for Finals Weekend

May 9, 2024 By Matt Kelly, Matt Kelly,

Finals Weekend is the big show on the University of Virginia’s Grounds and the people in Facilities Management’s landscape and maintenance crews are making sure the Lawn is looking its best.

But the Lawn is more than a showplace for graduation. It’s also a lawn.

“It’s the front yard and the backyard of the University, all together,” Rich Hopkins, associate director of Grounds, said. “It wants to be something we brag on and looks really good for those nice pictures, but it’s also the backyard for the kids who want to play volleyball and football and soccer and croquet and lay out in the sun and throw flying discs. There are more games of football played on the Lawn than there are at Scott Stadium.”

Related Story

94% On-Time Graduation Rate Pleases 100% of Parents, to be great and good in all we do
94% On-Time Graduation Rate Pleases 100% of Parents, to be great and good in all we do

Finals preparations on the Lawn start in March, with fertilizing and aeration.

“This year we put down 1,600 pounds of seed,” said John Racey, turf supervisor. “We used a blend of tall fescue, rye and bluegrass this year. We haven’t used this blend of grass yet, so we’re waiting to see how this works out.”

“We’re lucky that graduation is in the spring,” Hopkins said. “We’re fighting Mother Nature to keep the grass mowed, as opposed to struggling to try to keep it green, as we would have to if graduation was in August.”

The Lawn is not managed like a traditional patch of grass or recreational turf because of how it’s used.

“It’s its own little environment, basically blocked on three sides from typical air circulation. You have heavy shade in some areas, full sun in others. It’s definitely its own little complicated environment,” Hopkins said.

A landscaper drives a John Deer vehicle toting wood to prepare for Final Exercises
Facilities Management landscapers prepare the University’s iconic Lawn for the guests coming to UVA for Finals Weekend. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

“It gets more use than most places, and it’s in this good ol’ Albemarle County red clay. We struggle with it and we keep amending it. It’s a whole lot better than it used to be, but it is still a work in progress.”

The condition of the Lawn is largely dependent on the weather. Hopkins, who has worked about 20 graduations, said there were times when hard rains left standing water on the Lawn. When landscapers completely reworked the Lawn about 10 years ago, they put a crown in the center so the water runs off to the sides and into drains. 

“On Finals Weekend, it gets pretty beat up,” Racey said. “We get 20,000 people up there each Saturday and Sunday, and if it’s rained heavily just before or during that, it gets pretty mucked up. You end up with however many rows of chairs on the green grass and then, where everyone’s feet were, is a mess.”

With graduations taking place over two days, the Grounds crew needs to clean up between ceremonies, frequently aided by visitors who pick up after themselves.

“We’re at the mercy of what happens on the first day,” Hopkins said. “You want both days to have the same feel and same experience. If Mother Nature was rude to us on the Saturday event, it takes a lot more effort to get it back together again, so that Sunday looks like Saturday never happened. The effort is larger.”

Cabell hall in the distance while Facilities Management sets up the first ramp
Facilities Management workers begin the weeks of preparation of the Lawn, which will be filled with people during the graduation ceremonies for Finals Weekend. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

The attention is not limited to the grass. Arborists and contractors climb the trees to prune dead wood and make sure the trees are healthy.

“We do that throughout all of the major portions of Grounds, the Academical Village and the major thoroughfares,” Hopkins said “It’s part of graduation, but it’s also part of our tree care program to check everything, such as our heritage trees – especially the old ones – for how they’re doing. And we’re mulching everything, we’re edging everything and we’re pruning everything.”

As graduation approaches, crews intensify their work. On the Monday before graduation, landscapers will mow, followed by crews laying out 21,300 chairs for guests. Then, according to Ryan Taylor, assistant director for maintenance, Facilities Management crews put up around 8,000 feet of green fencing; 7,000 feet of blue roping; 350 metal barricades; 1,800 white fence posts; 200 brown crosses; 100 concrete ballasts; 2,500 signs; 250 sandbags; six water dispensers for guests; and greenery placed on the main stage.

Facilities crews install 18 tents for Americans with Disabilities Act seating, information booths, bag checking, diploma ceremonies and digital ticketing help desks.

Next come 45 metal detectors from the Athletics Department to screen visitors.

Tractor holds stacked ramps as it moves up a small hill toward the Rotunda
Facilities Management workers move sections of ramps around in anticipation of students walking the Lawn during Finals Weekend. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

Ramps and steps, several thousand feet of extension cords, two 16-foot-by-9-foot LED screens around Pavilions IX and X, and 10 Lawn speakers are also placed. And, of course, comfort is included.

“Facilities Management rents and directs placement of 69 portable toilets that are sited strategically around the Academical Village,” Taylor said. “And we ensure they are serviced during off hours over the weekend to avoid any disruptions.”

Despite all the effort to build up, set up and tear down, Finals Weekend is not the final weekend for the crews.

“We’ve got two weeks to prepare for Reunions Weekend,” Hopkins said. “By the time we get the Reunions, it’s looking pretty good.” 

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications