Why Did the Rotunda’s Marble Shatter? UVA Series Explores Grounds’ Quirky History

September 8, 2023 By Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu

So you’re sauntering through the lovely Pavilion VI garden on a crisp, fall day and you spy a piece of University of Virginia property more than 570 years old.

You notice it’s seen better days, exposed to the elements since … wait, what? That math doesn’t work. The University is barely 200 years old. How did a limestone spire created closer to the time of Joan of Arc than Thomas Jefferson get plopped in the middle of a UVA garden?

Welcome to UVA Obscura, an unconventional historical examination of UVA’s quirks and oddities. It’s a product of UVA Communication’s Digital Strategy team, a group that steers the University’s social media channels, creates art and illustrations for UVA Today and performs other duties as needed.

UVA Obscura is a “project where we can dive into the backstories of objects on Grounds that you may not know about,” said Alexandra Angelich, director of digital content for UVA Communications and a 2011 graduate.

The Obscura team she leads is as varied as the objects they research. There’s Tim Robinson, a UVA history major who does the historical heavy lifting; Mitch Powers and Erin Edgerton, who capture video and photographs; Johnny Utterback, who creates animations and edits videos; and Bethanie Glover, the University’s deputy spokeswoman, who narrates the videos.

They all have other jobs at University Communications, but when there is a strange object to examine, they unite like the Super Friends.

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The team digs into the lesser-known artifacts that speckle Grounds, the kinds of things that won’t be part of the official UVA tour. Like why are so many parts of the Rotunda scattered about, and why did some of them explode? For answers, see here:

A 204-year-old university is literally filled with rarities and relics, but not all of them make a good Obscura deep dive.

“It has to be visually interesting,” Angelich said, “and it has to have an interesting backstory.”

Like Lambeth Field, which now looks like just a regular old recreational area. But did you know it was once one of the largest college football stadiums in the country? And that President Calvin Coolidge stopped by for a game? And that, in the 1900s, UVA had one of the best football teams in the nation?

When an Obscura story like Lambeth Field is finished, the team uploads the results to Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter), Instagram and LinkedIn. It’s most popular on Instagram, where comments frequently echo this one: “I love this series!”

“I would like for the people who live in Charlottesville, faculty, staff, students, to actually want to go to these places and experience them,” Angelich said. Every find gets loaded onto a map “so you can actually pull it up on your phone and walk around. I want people to go out and feel immersed in the history of this place.”

That’s something that spoke to Angelich when she transferred to UVA in 2009. And, if she looks way back, that’s also when the kernel of UVA Obscura popped, even though she didn’t know it then.

“I remember looking around at all the brickwork, the shutters, the (Rotunda column) capitals and all the architectural details, and just thinking, ‘This place has been here for 200 years,’” she said. “I’m walking around history.”

Years later, when Angelich went to work at UVA Communications, she noticed another bit of history tucked into UVA Today’s story-tracking software program. It was a folder of images from University photographers showcasing offbeat and peculiar items around Grounds. There was a notion the images could be a photo essay one day, but the folder was just sitting around collecting digital dust.

The folder’s name was “Obscura.”

“And I remember talking to (University photographer Sanjay Suchak) and telling him, ‘This would be super cool to put on a map, or blow this out like a big project,” she said. “But it was always like, ‘That would be great, but who has time?’”

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So, like the fascinating curios stashed around Grounds, she kept the idea in the background, to be explored later. That time came in the last year when Angelich was handed the reins of UVA’s social media team.

“Then, I was able to make it happen.”

Since then, the Obscura team has explored the unusual architecture of a historic dining hall, the steel cable that protects the iconic 163-year-old Pratt Ginkgo tree from lightning strikes, and a memorial to a UVA alum who perished flying biplanes for France before the U.S. entered World War I.

“People have reacted really positively,” Angelich said. “There was one post that said, ‘I really have to go back to Grounds and check this out.’ There are a lot of people reacting to the nostalgia of it.”

So far, UVA Obscura is six installments. More are in development.

“I’d like to see this go on forever,” Angelich said.

If you have an idea for an Obscura installment or have a question about a curious item at UVA, leaving a comment on Instagram is the best way to reach the team, Angelich said.

And if Obscura helps cultivate a sense of how fascinating and storied UVA is, “then we’ve done our job,” she said.

Media Contact

Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications