Some University of Virginia Lawn Roofs Return to Jefferson's Original Design

July 2, 2010 — Roofs on part of the University of Virginia's Academical Village are being restored to their original appearance: flat.

The University's founder, Thomas Jefferson, designed the roofs over the student rooms and colonnades that span the distance between the pavilions, which were both learning spaces and faculty housing. Built beginning in 1817, the roofs were flat-topped over metal and wood channels to divert the water that flowed through gaps in the decking into gutters and cisterns. Professors could use the flat roofs as an elevated walkway to move from one pavilion to the other.

"Flat roofs were popular in France while Jefferson was living there," said Joseph. D. Lahendro, historical architect, referring to Jefferson's time as ambassador to France from 1785 to 1789. "When he came back, he was determined to design them."

While the basic designs of the roofs were similar, there were subtle differences in each of Jefferson's roofs as they were built.

"There are many different types," Lahendro said of Jefferson's roof designs. "They would know from the mistakes. They would do one and then make improvements on the next."

Jefferson's roofs, however, leaked and were replaced within 10 years by peaked roofs, which encapsulated and preserved Jefferson's original channeling system.

"The original roof still existed under the gable roof," Lahendro said.

Now the original visual impact is being returned to the Lawn, using modern roofing technology to fulfill Jefferson's dream while preventing the leaks that bedeviled the original design.

"This is part of an effort to recapture Jefferson's original intentions," said Brian Hogg, senior preservation planner in the Office of the Architect. "He made the roofs connecting the pavilions wide horizontal blocks from one pavilion to the next. This is an effort to restore the proper relationship of the buildings."

The new roofs also preserve and encapsulate Jefferson's original water channels. A rubber-membrane roof is installed over a wood structure, then a top deck, made from ipe, a South and Central American hardwood, will comprise the deck.

"We had to raise the back of the deck higher than the original to encapsulate the old roof," said Walter Harris, the lead carpenter on the job.

Jefferson's vision included professors moving easily from one pavilion to the other, and Hogg said some early drawings of the Lawn show the roof being used for recreation, such as walking, by the professors and their families.

"The pavilions were designed with two front doors," Hogg said, indicating the ground-level door and then another door on the roof level. "The upper door opens onto the professor's parlors and the idea was for them to move back and forth between the pavilions."

The restoration work is being done by carpenters from Facilities Management, with employees of W.A. Lynch Roofing Co. – the only outside contractors – installing the rubber membrane, Lahendro said.

"This is a learning experience, because we don't see stuff like this every day," said Harris, who described as "neat and amazing" Jefferson's concept of the roof drainage system. "It is impressive what they did with what they had."

"We're working with history," said Greg Bugg, second lead carpenter on the roof project, who worked on a different roof section last summer and the summer before that renovated Range rooms. "I learned about all these things that Jefferson did. I read a lot of history to learn more about what they did back then."

While replacing the roofs, crews are also erecting new Chinese railings over those rooms. The new railings will be taller, again reflecting Jefferson's original design. The new railings will be 44 3/8 inches high, while the current railings are 36½ inches tall.

"The original railings were taller and aligned with the balcony railings," Lahendro said.

The original railings were featured on the Lawn and the garden sides of the flat roofs. They were removed in the 1830s when the original roofs were replaced with peaked roofs, according to Hogg. He said a second generation of wooden Chinese railings was replaced in the mid-19th century with iron railings and then shorter versions of the wooden railings were restored in the mid-1970s.

The new roofs and railings should be completed by mid-August.