New Rotunda Dome to be Painted White

May 02, 2013

Once again, a white dome will glisten over the University of Virginia’s Lawn.

Crews have spent the past year replacing the roof on the University’s centerpiece Rotunda, the first phase of an extensive restoration and repair project. The roof work is done, several months ahead of schedule, and the scaffolding that has bracketed the Rotunda for the past year is coming down, leaving the final touch of painting the dome.

Applying the paint to the metal surface will be a sticky job.

“If the weather allows, we will start painting next week,” said Jody Lahendro, supervisory historic preservation architect for Facilities Management. “It is all dependent on the high moisture content in the air and the rain.”

The painters, E. Caligari & Son Inc. of Norfolk, will lightly sand the copper to prepare the surface for the paint, then apply a primer coat.

“Once we put down the primer, we have three to seven days to put on the finish coat,” Lahendro said.

The paint is a fluoropolymer mixture from PPG Paints. Mark Kutney, architectural conservator in the Office of the Architect, said the paint contains Teflon, making it more resilient and dirt-resistant. He estimated that the paint job should last 10 to 15 years.

“It is a shade of white,” he said. “The dome will be the same color as the trim. Shades of white paint can vary subtly. In Jefferson’s time, they did not have a pure white. They made it with linseed oil, and that gave it a yellowish tone.”

When selecting a color for a historic building, Kutney said the idea is not to duplicate the original paint.

“We imitate the sheen, but with modern materials,” he said, using paints with contemporary ingredients such as urethane.

The choice of white for the dome continues the color choice made in the 1970s, but the dome has been different colors over the years, starting with the original dome, designed by University founder Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s Rotunda was covered with tin shingles, Kutney said.

“Jefferson never painted it,” he said. “The tin shingles could take on a white corrosion, so it would look light colored.”

The shingles were replaced over the years as they rusted or were damaged. After the Rotunda burned in 1895, renowned architect Stanford White designed a copper dome for the rebuilt building. According to the University records, that dome was supposed to be painted white, but it never happened.

The copper dome was left as it was and weather aged it.

“The corroded copper roof was a very chalky light green,” Kutney said. “In some of the color photos from the 1960s, it almost looks white, but then in others, depending on how the light is hitting it, it could have a green cast.”

The Rotunda last underwent major restoration in the 1970s, and the new dome, then made of steel panels with lead and tin coating, was painted white.

“They put up samples of many different colors, including red and green, and they decided on white,” Lahendro said.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications