Looking Ahead, Board Prepares To Debate Academical Village Restoration

November 01, 2010

November 1, 2010 — The Rotunda is ready for another round of restoration, and the big question is: How far back do you turn the clock?

That question was not decided Friday, when the Buildings and Grounds Committee of the University of Virginia's Board of Visitors met inside the University's landmark structure – the only UNESCO-designated World Heritage site at an American university. But the committee did agree upon a process for making that decision, which will direct future exterior and landscape work at the Rotunda and the rest of the Academical Village.

Under the schedule discussed Friday, the Office of the Architect will complete reports on the history and condition of the buildings that Thomas Jefferson designed for the original University, and then will  make recommendations to the board.

On April 7 and 8, the University will convene a colloquium of as many as 100 experts in historic preservation to debate the plans. David Neuman, the architect for the University, hopes the experts will arrive at some semblance of consensus, leading to a final board vote in June.

Neuman said the appearance of the Academical Village has gone through four distinct eras. 

The first was Jefferson's original design, beginning with the laying of the cornerstone of Pavilion VII, the University's first building, in 1817.

In the decades that followed, an intermediary period saw a series of incremental changes – additions here, alterations there. Pavilions grew out toward their gardens; hotels were changed.

The third period began on Oct. 27, 1895, when a fire consumed the original Rotunda (and its much less-beloved northern annex). That led to "the Stanford White era," when McKim, Mead and White architects redesigned the Rotunda and added Old Cabell, Rouss and Cocke halls to the south end of the Lawn (and a new presidential residence atop nearby Carr's Hill).

Finally, there was what Neuman identified as "the Garden Club era," from 1948 to 1964, when the Garden Club of Virginia led the restoration of Jefferson's original gardens and planted trees on the Lawn.

Neuman said his office is unlikely to recommend that the entire Academical Village be restored to its appearance in any one of the eras. More likely, all of the eras will be represented in the final plans, which he said would be best described as a "framework" to guide restoration efforts.

But which elements – including the Rotunda – will be restored to which time frame?

The board members in attendance were clearly aware of the implications of their upcoming deliberations.

"We're all stewards," Mark Kington said. "We serve, we leave, then we die – and these buildings are still here."

Some work has already begun. At Pavilion X, a $2 million restoration included reinstalling a rooftop parapet similar to the one Jefferson designed, and returned the building's columns to their original sandstone color, which contrasts noticeably with the gleaming white columns that frame the rest of the Lawn.

Helen Dragas agreed with Kington's sentiments about the board's stewardship responsibilities. "It's clearly an issue of great significance," she said, "and not just a matter of what color the columns are."

The Academical Village restoration discussion also was in stark contrast to the landscape plan the committee viewed earlier in the meeting.

That's when the board members had their first look at drawings of how the new Drama Building addition, with its Ruth Caplin Theatre, will alter the Arts Commons landscape.

As conceived, the addition of the "thrust" theater – where the stage is pushed out into the audience, which surrounds it on three sides – provides an opportunity to transform the brick-and-dark-glass façade of the current drama building, which also houses the Culbreth and Helms theaters. As drawn, the building will be fronted by a new two-story faceted glass curtain wall, with the Caplin Theatre built into a hillside on the building's south end. The northern end will house a skylit lobby area.

The Caplin Theatre's roof will be covered with 18 inches of soil and grass, and may serve as a sculpture garden.

The outdoor terrace in front of the lobby could host a variety of events – including film screenings and fresh-air concerts – and perhaps seat as many as 1,600 for commencement ceremonies.

As part of the project, Culbreth Lane will be realigned to intersect Rugby Road farther south, creating more space for a future music building between the new intersection and the railroad tracks to the north.

Another future Arts Grounds project, to expand the Drama Building to accommodate the drama and dance programs and additional faculty offices, is about six years away, Neuman said.

The board is scheduled to vote on the plans later this month.

— By Dan Heuchert