Like a dagger driven through the heart, an iron girder swung vertically and pierced the building under construction, plunging through four or five floors as Old Cabell Hall, then called the Academical Building, was being constructed close to the dawn of the 20th century, in the wake of the 1895 Rotunda fire.
Following its contentious origins, Old Cabell Hall might just be the most confusing – and spookiest – building on Grounds, with stairs that lead nowhere, secret rooms and floors that don’t connect, at least if you ask Joel Jacobus, director of music production. He has spent time digging into the history of the building and has lived to tell some of its strange tales.
Famed architect Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White argued with UVA leaders about changes in the Academical Building’s design and stubbornly stuck to his plans, trucking in dirt (thus creating what became Mad Bowl) to create the hillside where it was built. Old Cabell Hall’s front doors from the Lawn open to the building’s sixth floor.
Although music department employees haven’t been working in person on that floor regularly since the pandemic, they used to go to a room furnished with cubicles. Every once in a while, the strong scent of a woman’s perfume would suddenly permeate the room, noticeable enough that most people would stand up to see who was there, but no one had entered. They called it the “perfume ghost,” Jacobus said.
Some who’ve worked there for more than a decade have encountered what seem to be the antics of an angry ghost, “Mean Jean.” A hard-working housekeeper, she apparently disliked people, especially students, messing up “her” building. The story goes that she was found dead, dressed in her uniform, waiting for a ride to come to work. So some think it’s as if she still comes to work at Old Cabell, Jacobus said. They attribute doors slamming, lights going off and laughter heard to Mean Jean.