U.Va. Celebrates Carr's Hill Centennial and Jefferson's Architectural Legacy

September 30, 2009

October 1, 2009 — The University of Virginia is celebrating the centennial of Carr's Hill, the home of the University's seven presidents since it was constructed in 1909.

Foremost a home, it also has been a symbol of change at the University. Until Edwin A. Alderman was appointed U.Va.'s first president in 1905, the head of the Faculty Senate functioned as the lead administrator, part of Jefferson's vision of a democratic institution.

But growth called for dedicated administrative leadership. "What had worked when the University of Virginia was an academical village ceased to work as it became an academical city," wrote Margaret Gutman Klosko in "Carr's Hill: The President's House at the University of Virginia, 1909-2009." (The book can be ordered here.)

Betsy Casteen, the wife of current University President John T. Casteen III, conceived of the "idea of producing a book that would present Carr's Hill as one of a series of buildings reflecting the structural and demographic changes that have occurred at the University from the time of its founding to the present," as she and John Casteen wrote in the book's foreword.

The book celebrates the history of the University; the presidencies of Alderman, John L. Newcomb, Colgate W. Darden Jr., Edgar F. Shannon Jr., Frank L. Hereford Jr., Robert M. O'Neil and Casteen; and their leadership and contributions to the University. It also celebrates the families and their lives at Carr's Hill.

The book chronicles the creation and design of Carr's Hill. The University turned to McKim, Mead & White, the preeminent architectural firm of its day, to design the residence for the new president on Carr's Hill, just a few steps away from the Rotunda and The Lawn. Stanford White and the firm were no strangers to the University and Thomas Jefferson's architectural tradition; they reconstructed the Rotunda after the 1895 fire, and also designed Cabell, Rouss and Cocke halls at the south end of the Lawn.

Jefferson's Academical Village is recognized as an architectural and educational icon and was named a World Heritage site in 1987. But Jefferson's unique use of classical architecture to symbolize both links to the Old World and a new way of looking at the world through the eyes of a new democracy was not always recognized as the enduring symbol it is today.

It wasn't until McKim, Mead & White began designing buildings at U.Va. that Jefferson's work was widely acclaimed, said Richard Guy Wilson, Commonwealth Professor of Architectural History.

"McKim, Mead & White in a sense discovered, or rediscovered, Thomas Jefferson and the Academical Village, which were really unknown and not mentioned prior to the Rotunda fire," Wilson said.

"Jefferson had validated classicism as the American architectural language, and they altered it."

Jefferson had called upon Roman and Italian Renaissance use of classical architecture in his design of the Academical Village. McKim Mead & White turned to classical Greece for their inspiration as they built on Jefferson's vision.

"McKim, Mead & White saw that Jefferson was using classical sources, but they did not want to use the same sources," Wilson said. He also noted that Jefferson might not have had access to Greek classical precedents since Greece was "opened up after Jefferson's time."

White's design for Carr's Hill was a mixture Jefferson's architectural legacy, the classicism espoused by the firm and the vision of Alderman and his wife Bessie. The Aldermans favored a New Orleans style they had come to love while he was president at Tulane University. They wanted the carriage drive in the front of the house.

White did not agree. With the choice of the site atop Carr's Hill as "an Athens or Monticello, if you will, as being significant and symbolic of the role of a new president," Wilson said, White felt a more grand entrance was in order.

In the end, the carriage drive was moved to the west portico and the main, south-facing entry boasts a stately columned two-story portico with a Palladian window in the pediment. Although "distinctly non-Jeffersonian," Wilson wrote in the introduction to the book, "McKim, Mead & White used it, no doubt because it was of 'the period.' Also the architects probably believed that such an important house needed an impressive entrance door."

Both architect and client envisioned a house designed for entertainment as well as show.
They agreed that the first-floor rooms were to be the public spaces and the upper floors private family space, echoing and reinterpreting Jefferson's design for the Lawn pavilions.

William Lambeth, professor of medicine and chairman of the Department of Physical Education, was superintendent of buildings and grounds at the time. He wrote of McKim, Mead & White's design: "The President's House resulted from an effort of Stanford White to give the University an example of a lighter, more airy type of classic form than any left by Mr. Jefferson. Jefferson's types, from the beginning were romanticized. Weight, predominating, gave nobility and dignity. The President's House is more graceful than dignified, more beautiful than noble, yet the structure breathes both nobility and dignity."

The design for Carr's Hill, like other buildings designed by McKim, Mead & White, incorporates elements of Jefferson's architectural vision but reinterprets it, a challenge that architects have encountered in design for other buildings over the years.

"McKim, Mead & White were very influential in creating the architectural image that today we see as Jeffersonian," Wilson said.

Since the beginning, Carr's Hill has served the University, the seven presidents and their families as a warm and inviting home. They opened their home to the University community, welcoming students, faculty, staff and alumni as well as community leaders and special University guests for events and celebrations. It has aptly been described as a "working house."

As part of the centennial celebration, two exhibits celebrate Jefferson's legacy.

"Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village: The Making of an Architectural Masterpiece" will be on view at the U.Va. Art Museum through Jan. 3. The exhibit traces Jefferson's influences through original drawings, prints and letters that he exchanged with his colleagues as the plan for his iconic Academical Village took shape.

"From Village to Grounds: Architecture After Jefferson at the University of Virginia," runs through June 30 at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture. The exhibition provides a comprehensive look at the University's built environment and includes buildings designed by architects who responded to Jefferson's foundations and those who did not.

Wilson curated both exhibitions.

A symposium, "Jefferson, Palladio, Art and Architecture and the University of Virginia," on Nov. 20 and 21, will consider the University in the context of architecture, decorative arts, landscape and art. Scholars will explore the impact of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio as part of the 500th anniversary of his birth, Thomas Jefferson's involvement in architecture and the other arts, and the development of the University in its architecture and art from 1825 to 2009. For information and to register, visit the Art Museum Web site.