Old Cabell Column Work Exposes Some University History

June 21, 2023 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

From the outside they look the same, but historic masons and engineers examining columns from two layers of the University of Virginia’s history know they are not.

Columns holding aloft the cement pergola on the west end of Old Cabell Hall date from the 1890s and the 1950s. Both vintages have brick cores with a mortar mixture covering the outside. Engineers are examining the columns’ structures and historic masons are studying the columns’ interior brickwork and exterior coatings.

While both sets of columns are primarily brick with a mortar exterior, they are also very different. In the 1890s columns, the courses of brick are laid flat, lengthwise, but the 1950s columns were constructed of alternating sections of flat horizontal brick and bricks laid vertically, end to end. Both eras of columns were covered with a mortar that probably contains cement, which is harder and less flexible than a lime render which had been used on columns in the early days of the University.

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Wide shot view of the Cabell garden
Once a contemplative garden at the end of the Lawn, the space under the pergola on the west side of Old Cabell Hall is now a high-traffic area. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“The mortar on the 1890 columns is very hard, which indicates it probably was made with Portland cement,” said Mark Kutney, an architectural conservator at UVA Facilities Management. “The outer part of the 1950s columns are very, very hard. The lime is more giving and allows for a certain amount of movement.”

When first built in the late 1890s, Cabell Hall defined the end of the Lawn, flanked on the east and the west by two garden areas, topped with ivy-covered pergolas. The south edge of the garden space featured a wall topped with shorter columns that held up the southern edge of the pergolas. Designed by New York architects McKim, Mead & White as contemplation areas, the pergolas formed 90-degree angles and connected Cabell Hall with Rouss and Cocke halls, which were constructed at the same time. All three were built to replace academic space lost in the 1895 blaze that destroyed the Annex and heavily damaged the Rotunda.

“There was grass here and ivy overhead,” Kutney said, standing by the west pergola. “They would have been very pleasant little gardens.”  

Construction worker working on the inside of the pergola
Carlos Paz of United Painting Plus applies paint striping materials to the concrete frame of the pergola west of Old Cabell Hall. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

But the Grounds expanded. In the 1950s, New Cabell Hall was built between Cabell, now called Old Cabell Hall, and Jefferson Park Avenue, and the contemplative gardens were replaced with paved patios. The south walls were removed and new, full-sized columns were built to carry the southern edge of the pergola. Because of their locations, these patios have become some of the most traveled real estate on Grounds as students move back and forth among academic buildings.

Kutney said facilities workers periodically examined the pergola columns, checking the surfaces for cracks. Ten years ago, workers removed the paint from the columns to let them breathe better, he said; last year, workers noticed that a piece of a column capital was missing. Workers cut small holes, or windows, into the southern columns’ surfaces to examine the condition of the bricks.

“We found more cracking than we expected,” Kutney said.

Close up view of details of the pergola
A concrete pergola with cross members originally supported ivy for a garden-like contemplation area. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Workers have stripped the exteriors from two of the 1950s columns, exposing the brick work. One column was built with several layers of flat-laid bricks and then several layers of upright bricks. The other column is constructed mostly of upright courses of brick. Also exposed were cracks in the brickwork.

While the cement exteriors on the columns kept water out, the cement also prevented water that seeped in from the top of the column from escaping. Repeated cycles of freeze and thaw were creating cracks in the material.

“It’s hard to keep paint on the top surface,” Kutney said. “Water just percolates through into the masonry and it can cause freeze/thaw in the wintertime. The same thing happens with the little lips of the capitals. Water just finds a way in.”

Kutney is waiting for an engineering report on the columns.

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“Because this is a hub for pedestrian traffic, as well as Americans with Disabilities Act access, safety is our first priority,” Kutney said. “When it comes to rebuilding or repairing, we want something that is safe and lasts a long time.”

Workers have erected a network of scaffolding with I-beams across the top to hold up the pergola if a column has to be removed. Daisy Maine, the associate construction project manager, said she would like the project to be completed by August.

There are no plans to once again cover the pergolas in ivy.

“That’s probably the reason it has survived so well,” Kutney said. “In its current condition, if it gets wet, it’s not in the shade and it dries out fast. If you were to put a canopy on that, it would still get wet, but it would dry out more slowly and it would create more maintenance to keep an eye on.”

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Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications