The University of Virginia’s iconic Rotunda, designed by UVA founder Thomas Jefferson and closed for two years while undergoing renovation, will be open for visitors on Saturday and Sunday.

On both days, the building will be open for community members to tour from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with student ambassadors available to answer questions.

“We want to have a low-key open house for people who want to sneak a peak before we open for business as usual on Monday,” said Sheri Winston, the interim Rotunda manager.

Visitors will see the new historical display room on the ground floor, which includes an exhibit of the chemical hearth found in the wall of the Lower East Oval Room and artifacts uncovered during the renovation. John Emmet, the first professor of natural history at the University, designed and used the hearth. In the Dome Room, they will see an open gallery level, carved mahogany capitals on the interior columns, a new acoustic plaster ceiling, and a new oculus in the copper dome roof.

Classrooms in the southeast wing and the Lower West Oval Room will also be open. Combined with the study lounges in the Dome Room and on the main floor, these spaces are designed to increase student activity in the Rotunda.

Below, see some of the images from the restoration process. 

In 2010, hardware cloth covers were placed over the capitals atop the Rotunda’s columns because the marble was crumbling and pieces were in danger of falling off. While Jefferson’s original capitals had been carved from marble quarried in Carrara, Italy, architect Stanford White, of the New York firm McKim, Mead and White – hired to oversee the rebuilding of the Rotunda after an 1895 fire – commissioned capitals made of more porous domestic marble, which lasted about 115 years before succumbing to the elements.

Archaeologists excavated a cistern from the 1850s in the east courtyard of the Rotunda, catalogued its details and preserved the writing of some of the original workers who carved their names in the hydraulic cement that lined it. After the cistern was documented, the courtyard was dug up in February 2015 to build an underground utility room that extends underneath the barrel of the Rotunda and houses new mechanical systems and a small staging area for caterers servicing events in the building.

Scaffolding around the Rotunda supported full working platforms for the workers repairing and restoring the building.

The marble capitals that had been on the building for 115 years, since the aftermath of the 1895 fire, had started to crumble and required replacement. Workers had wrapped them in black cloth to prevent pieces from falling off and shattering on the terrace 23 feet below.

Craftsmen carved marble capitals – replicas of what Jefferson commissioned for the Rotunda – in Carrara, Italy, and they were installed by Rugo Stone LLC of Lorton. The tradition at UVA has been for graduates to march down the south steps and the length of the Lawn for graduation. Only one class, the Class of 2015, was unable to march down the steps, but the graduates still walked the Lawn.

The Moses Ezekiel statue of Thomas Jefferson stands guard on the north terrace of the Rotunda in June 2015, while workers install the new capitals to support the north portico.

The marble capitals, carved by craftsmen at Pedrini Scupltors of Carrara, Italy, weigh about 6,300 pounds each. A crane lifted each onto a custom-built, railed structure, where workers directed them into place.

The Rotunda was almost completely obscured by scaffolding during some phases of the renovations, though the work was carefully timed so the scaffolding would be down during Final Exercises weekends. This photo was taken in October 2015. 

Master clockmaker Bob Desrochers of Lititz, Pennsylvania, performed an extensive facelift on the Rotunda clock, the central timepiece of the University, in November 2015. Jefferson commissioned Boston clockmaker Simon Willard to construct the original Rotunda clock, and New York architect Stanford White commissioned E. Howard and Co., clockmakers of Boston, to recreate the timepiece.

Jefferson’s original dome was a wooden structure covered with iron shingles dipped in tin as a waterproofing. After the 1895 fire, architect Stanford White used copper for his dome; as part of the renovations, copper returned as the dome material.

In the Dome Room, workers replaced ceiling panels with acoustic plaster, returning the room to an appearance closer to what Jefferson envisioned. A crew of 14 plasterers from Interior Specialty Construction Inc. of Providence Forge performed the delicate task of applying the new plaster to the ceiling. They applied two layers of plaster, a base coat and finish coat, in four days, doing a quarter of the work each day. Acting with a practiced rhythm, the five teams of plasterers set to work on that day’s quadrant, slathering the plaster onto the sound-absorbent backing boards, spreading it, smoothing it, ridging it, and smoothing it down to the prescribed 1/16 of an inch.

A complex scaffolding structure constructed in the Rotunda Dome Room provided workers access to the underside of the oculus in January 2013.

William Wylie, a professor in the McIntire Department of Art, took photographs at the Pedrini studio in Carrara, Italy, where new capitals were being fashioned for the Rotunda’s exterior columns, and they were used as illustrations on the south construction fence at the Rotunda.

The renovated Rotunda contains several student study areas, including a previously unopened gallery in the Dome Room and one on the main floor. The Rotunda also has three classrooms, one in the barrel of the building and two in its southeast wing. The study lounges and new classroom spaces are designed to return the Rotunda to the center of student life.

The Lower East Oval Room contains historic displays and artifacts from the history of the Rotunda, including a chemical hearth that was rediscovered inside the wall of the room. The hearth, designed by John Emmet, the University’s first professor of natural sciences, has two fireboxes and several work stations and may be the last surviving example of a chemical hearth from the 1820s.

The Rotunda will be open for visitors on Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with student ambassadors available to answer questions.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications