Two Architects Examine History, Future of U.Va.'s Structures

November 11, 2009

November 11, 2009 — Two architects examined the past and the future of the University of Virginia's Grounds at a community briefing at Newcomb Hall on Tuesday.

The briefing, 'Building on Jefferson's Legacy,' sponsored by U.Va.'s Office of Community Relations, featured Richard Guy Wilson, Commonwealth Professor of Architectural History, and David Neuman, University architect, putting a historical perspective on founder Thomas Jefferson's original design for the University and its evolution over the years.

Wilson outlined the growth of the University from 1825 to 2002, showing the original footprint of the original Academical Village – the Rotunda, Lawn rooms and pavilions, gardens, and ranges and hotels – and compared that to the University as it exists today.

Citing Jefferson's vision, Wilson said the most important element of the design is the overall plan, with all the disparate elements combining into a comprehensive package of aesthetics and functionality.

The Academical Village does not fully conform to the rules of architecture, Wilson said, but Jefferson knew the rules he was violating to create an overall design to teach the students.

"The experience of the buildings around them was as important as what was being said in the classes," he said. "It is a matter of how the space it used. It is a public communal space."

But institutions age and change, Wilson said, citing alterations that had been made and those that had been contemplated but never executed. He said Robert Mills' 1851 annex to the Rotunda was controversial, but was accepted because Mills had studied architecture with Jefferson and had designed the U.S. Treasury Building. There had been failed plans to erect a chapel in the middle of the Lawn and to put an archway honoring the Confederacy at the south end of the Lawn, he said.

And there had been controversies at the times of construction of the current chapel and Brooks Hall, which originally housed a natural history museum.

"There was an attempt to tear down Brooks Hall, but that is part of the history of the University and it shows the attitudes of the times," Wilson said.

Wilson talked about his own dislike of New Cabell Hall, which is due for renovation, until he understood its purpose was to keep classes on the Lawn.

Neuman talked about Jefferson's legacy as a planner, with an eye toward sustaining the institution as it evolved.

"The University was designed to sustain the United States as a democracy, to sustain this grand experiment," he said.

While there is discussion now of interdisciplinary learning, he said that existed in Jefferson's vision of the Academical Village, with the colonnades linking the Rotunda, the brain of the University, with the students' and professors' rooms and the classrooms.

Neuman cited the 2008 Grounds Plan, designed to make U.Va. sustainable within its environment. There have been several attempts over the years to move the University farther away from its core, he said, but had this happened it would have been harder to sustain the institution. Even now, the University is divided into three precincts — North Grounds, Central Grounds and West Grounds, which includes the Observatory Hill area. He said expansion was inevitable with the growth of the student body.

Neuman said the current focus is on redevelopment instead of expansion, using existing infrastructures as the University absorbs about 150 new students per year.

"This is growth on a larger scale than we prefer," he said. "We are making land-use density decisions of how many people can we have in an area."

The University is looking at how buildings can be expanded above or underground without increasing their overall footprints, he said. As examples, he cited the project to replace some Alderman Road dorms with taller residence houses that will serve more students, and the underground construction of much of the Special Collections Library.

Following the presentations, several of the roughly 200 people in attendance asked questions about preserving trees and the University's relationship with downtown Charlottesville. Neuman said construction and renovation plans take into account existing trees, though he noted that some, such as the two magnolias removed from in front of Garrett Hall, were planted in the wrong place, were too large for the space and were damaging the building.

He said the University is collaborating with the city on its connections with downtown, such as coordinated bus systems and recent zoning that allows for more concentrated student populations around the University. He also said there has been more emphasis on on-Grounds living.

— By Matt Kelly