June 11, 2008 — Some of the University of Virginia's original student housing is being touched up.
This summer, workers from Facilities Management are mending and patching several of the rooms on the East Range, part of Thomas Jefferson's original "Academical Village."
"This is not just about improving their appearance, but their function," said Brian Hogg, senior preservation planner with the Office of the University Architect. "We are freshening up, not doing a major intervention."
The "freshening up" includes replacing all of the mantels, fixing holes in the plaster and replacing windows with more historic replicas. While keeping them in the 21st century, Hogg wants to get the rooms closer to their original appearance. Since they were first built in the early 1820s, electricity, telephone lines, cable television, in-room sinks and Internet service have been added, but Hogg said they are essentially the same small rooms they have always been.
"If a time traveler came out of the past, he would still recognize them," Hogg said.
The time traveler would also recognize the working fireplaces in each room, though Kate Meyer, the project engineer, said all the rooms are connected to the University's central heating plant. "But the students can choose to have a fire if they want," she said.
When a student moves in, aside from the fireplace, the room contains a desk and a bed, as well as a small closet with a sink in it. Meyer said the University used to supply a half-bookshelf, but found the students were replacing them with full-sized ones.
The renovation of the Range rooms is an extension of the work started on the Lawn rooms in the 1990s. Hogg said the University is following the restoration plan laid out the by late J. Murray Howard, who oversaw the Academical Village and the Lawn for more than 20 years.
Some of the work involves restoring features changed in earlier modifications. "We are putting back pieces that have been taken out," Hogg said.
In some cases, windows that had been replaced in the 1950s are themselves being returned as close as possible to the original windows. While the windows will be single-paned glass, Hogg said they would fit tighter in their tracks, which will conserve energy.
Meyer said there are Leadership in Energy and Design standards for historic renovations and restorations under consideration. While some older buildings may be less energy-efficient, Meyer said restoring them complies with the spirit of the standard because it reuses an already existing structure.
The current renovation work is made easier by the quality of the original craftsmanship, workers noted.
"These rooms are built the way we were taught to build," said carpenter Greg Bugg, 53, who is among about 50 people who work on the Range rooms renovation. "There's a lot of tradition here, and it is like working behind Jefferson's craftsmen."
While following Jefferson's craftsmen, the carpenters have unique challenges. The rooms are more than 185 years old. The buildings have settled and shifted and there is seldom a plumb line.
"There are a lot of things here that are not true," or not level, said Linwood Marshall, 59, another carpenter on the job. "It takes a higher skill level because it is harder than working on new construction. It is enjoyable if you take pride in your work."
Marshall showed a recent visitor the challenges in placing a mantel over the fireplace, getting it level and achieving a tight fit. The fireplace façade had to be shimmed and trimmed to make it level. A movement in one direction can upset the balance elsewhere.
"It takes a little trial and error," Marshall said.
"You need to be thinking in two dimensions whenever you do something." Bugg said.
Marshall and Bugg estimated that much in each room, such as the floor, most of the plaster, the doorjamb and the door are probably original. Some of this preservation is credited to the students.
"Most of them take good care of the place," Marshall said. "It's an honor for them to be here."
"They know they are living in a national treasure," said Bugg.
The two carpenters are pleased with the work they do and where they do it.
"I've always been intrigued by the old buildings," said Bugg. "This is emotional work for me, like making art or playing music. I'm doing exactly what I want to do for a living and I'm getting paid for it."
Marshall sees his work joining the craftsmen who have come before him.
In addition to being craftsmen, Bugg and Marshall occasionally serve as University guides.
"Five to six times a day we get tourists coming through here," Marshall said. "We meet some interesting characters and people want to know what we are doing."