Restoring Honor: Major Architectural Institute Lauds Rotunda Restoration

The architects who worked on the renovation of the University of Virginia’s iconic Rotunda have been honored by their peers for their contributions.

The American Institute of Architects honored John G. Waite Associates, Architects, PLLC of Albany, New York, with one of the nine 2019 Institute Honor Awards for Architecture for its work on the four-year Rotunda restoration project, which concluded in 2016. Honorees were judged on an individual basis and not in competition with each other.

The Rotunda, designed by University founder Thomas Jefferson and re-envisioned by noted architect Stanford White after an 1895 fire, is the centerpiece of Jefferson’s Academical Village. It underwent extensive renovation and restoration from 2012 to 2016, which included installing a new copper dome; restoring Carrara marble capitals atop its exterior columns, as Jefferson originally designed; adding modern mechanical systems, including underground service and support rooms; and upgrading the signature Dome Room.

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A large part of the architects’ award was presented for the underground room built beneath the east garden, a room that extended under the barrel of the original building. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“The award was given for architecture, not historic preservation,” John G. Waite said. “It was one of the most complex projects in the country.”

Waite said the judges were impressed with the complexity of the construction of the underground room, which was built underneath the Rotunda’s east garden and extended beneath the barrel of the original building. The underground addition contains the building’s mechanical services and acts as a staging area for caterers.

Waite said his firm has been working with the University on Jeffersonian buildings since the 1980s and began working on the historic structures report on the Rotunda in 2006.

In a statement on its website, the institute cited the importance of the project.

“This restoration of the symbolic center of the University of Virginia – widely considered Thomas Jefferson’s single most important architectural achievement – relies on the highest level of historic preservation and building conservation care. Envisioned by Jefferson as a temple for learning, but largely relegated to administrative and ceremonial use, the Rotunda is once again a focus of university life.”

Plaster decorative capitals in the Rotunda Dome Room were replaced with intricately carved wooden capitals. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The American Institute of Architects noted Waite’s thorough historic structure report and drawings to understand Jefferson’s original design and subsequent changes. The 1895 fire heavily damaged Jefferson’s original Rotunda; famed New York architect Stanford White then re-envisioned the structure, expanding and altering Jefferson’s design. A 1976 renovation brought further changes to the building.

“It is our belief that the collaboration between the dedicated University staff, our architects and other professionals, and the many talented consultants and contractors engaged for the project is the reason for its success,” Waite said. “We are very happy to see this important project and all those who contributed to its restoration honored in this way.

“Everything came together at the right time and you can see it in the results,” he said. “To have a successful project, you need to have a good client, a good contractor and good architect. We had an excellent team and everyone was committed to doing justice by Thomas Jefferson.”

Inside UVA’s Rotunda

“It is an honor for John Waite’s firm to receive one of the nine 2019 American Institute of Architect’s Honor Awards for Architecture for the Restoration of the Rotunda,” Alice Raucher, Architect for the University, said. “This program, established by our peers in the profession to recognize excellence in a broad range of architectural achievement, acknowledges our collective commitment to the restoration of the heart of the University, the Academical Village, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

In its letter notifying Waite of the award, the American Institute of Architects cited projects that “establish a standard of excellence against which all architects can measure performance, and to inform the public expectations for architectural practice, its breadth, and its value.”

“From our founding through current day, these remain our aspirational goals,” Raucher said.

Brian Hogg, senior historic planner in the Office of the Architect for the University, praised Waite’s firm for its thoughtful approach to preserving the building’s character and historic fabric.

“John G. Waite and the University devoted several years of research to understanding the building’s complex history and to designing a renovation that respected what remains of the original Jefferson building and the McKim Mead & White renovation,” Hogg said. “Contractor Whiting Turner brought specialty tradespeople, such as stone carvers, preservation masons, plasterers, carpenters and wood carvers, whose skills were necessary to execute the project.”

Workers spread a thin layer of acoustic plaster on the ceiling in the Rotunda Dome Room. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

One focus of the renovation was to bring more students into the building. To do this, designers replaced offices and exhibit space with classrooms, and set up study lounges in the upper floors, including the Dome Room.

“While the building looks great and functions well, the true measure of this project’s success is the number of people who are now using it, particularly the students who choose to study there,” Hogg said. “The primary goal of the project, to reintegrate the Rotunda into the daily life of the University, has certainly been met.”

The $58.5 million project was funded through a combination of methods.

“I think it is important that we recognize that this project was made possible by the support of legislators in Richmond, who appropriated money for the renovation, and by the generous donations of private citizens, all of whom wanted to see this historic landmark preserved,” said Colette Sheehy, UVA’s senior vice president for operations.

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In the citation on its website, the American Institute of Architects said Waite’s firm tapped into some of the most advanced conservation measures available.

“A leaking roof was replaced with a copper one while specialist contractors cleaned, stabilized, and repointed the brick walls. The building’s exterior metal moldings, dating from the 1890s, were restored, and the deteriorated replacement column capitals on the north and south porticos were replaced with Carrara marble capitals that accurately replicate Jefferson’s originals.

“Inside, the architects restored Jefferson’s volumes, finishes and architectural details on all three floors. In the dome room, acoustic plaster replaced the perforated aluminum ceiling, while cast plaster column capitals from the 1970s were replaced by ones of carved wood, again echoing Jefferson’s original intent. The project’s least-noticed, but perhaps most important element is the construction of a new mechanical, service and storage space contained in a vault that was excavated beneath the east courtyard.”

The institute also cited workers’ rediscovery of a chemical hearth that dated back to the 1820s that was used as a pedagogical tool in the original Rotunda, but was later concealed inside a wall. Possibly the only surviving example of a chemical hearth from that period, it is now part of a historic display in the Rotunda.

During renovations of the Rotunda, an original chemical hearth, from the first years of the school, was uncovered and is now on display. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

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Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications