A Year In, Rotunda Renovation Reveals Clues to Past, Promise for Future

Beyond the scaffolding, hard hats and perimeter fencing, what exactly is going on at the University of Virginia’s Rotunda? A lot, it turns out.

The two-year, renovation that will ensure the Rotunda thrives as an educational and historic asset into another century is on schedule to be completed in the summer of 2016. The ongoing work prompted logistical modifications to Final Exercises, with ceremonies this year spread out over three days instead of two, due in part to the space limitations linked to the Rotunda work.

The first phase, completed in 2013, included installing a new roof on the Rotunda’s dome, repair of the windows and brick repointing on the drum of the building. The current phase – which has the building closed for two years – includes replacement of mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire, life safety and information technology systems; extensive exterior repairs; improved access; and programming changes to expand student use of the building.

One visible highlight of the work so far has been the installation of 10 new marble capitals atop the columns on the south, Lawn-facing side of the Rotunda.

Craftsmen in Italy carved University founder Thomas Jefferson’s original capitals from Carrara marble in the spring of 1825. They were shipped to Richmond via Boston, then hauled overland and installed by September 1826.

Those capitals were mostly destroyed in the 1895 fire that heavily damaged the Rotunda. Three-quarters of one capital still survives on the front patio of The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, as well as about 18 smaller pieces of the original capitals, which are preserved in storage.

Architect Stanford White, of the New York City firm of McKim, Mead & White, was hired to re-envision the Rotunda following the fire. He commissioned new capitals, made from domestic marble, for the building. The capitals were rough cut before they were installed in 1897 and the final carving was not performed until 1902, by the firm of Pompeo Coppini and John Grignola of New York City.

Fast-forward more than a century. One day in 2009, Historic Preservation Project Manager James Zehmer and Mark Kutney, a conservator in the Office of the Architect for the University, were walking under the Rotunda’s south portico when they noticed a small pile of what appeared to be sand. It turned out to be a piece of one of the capitals that had dropped the 23-foot height of the columns and shattered upon impact on the marble terrace. Further inspection revealed that the capitals were beyond repair, and they were wrapped in black hardware cloth to keep any more pieces from dropping as officials mapped a new course of action.

University officials returned to the craftsmen of Carrara to recreate the Jeffersonian capitals. Workers from Pedrini’s Sculpture Studio of Carrara made laser scans of the surviving capital at the art museum, along with the several smaller pieces. They combined the scans with sketches and photos of the originals to create templates for the new columns.

A computer-controlled carving machine removed the first 90 percent of each huge block of marble, creating a roughly-formed capital. Skilled craftsmen then handled the intricate finish work. The first new capitals were delivered to the University in February.

“They are fantastic, beautiful, stunning,” Senior Historic Preservation Project Manager Jody Lahendro said. “At one point, we had an old and new capital sitting next to each other on the ground, and the differences between the two were shocking – not just their condition, but also the accuracy and level of detail in the carving.” 

Workers from contactor Rugo Stone LLC of Lorton assembled a track system to move the capitals into place and the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., the contractor on the project, built shoring to support the roof of the portico. The old capitals were carefully removed; workers erected a metal cage around each one, then rolled it out of position along the track and out to a platform, where a crane lifted it out. Once all the old capitals were removed, the new ones – each weighing about 6,300 pounds – were installed.

With the new capitals in place on the south portico, crews plan to complete work on the portico roof and sheet metal ornament. Already they have begun shoring up the roof of the north portico, where its six capitals are scheduled for replacement this summer.

Less visibly, workers are completing construction of an underground vault in the east courtyard garden that will house the mechanical systems for the Rotunda. The vault was covered last week and the mechanical equipment will be installed during the summer.

Inside the Rotunda, workers have completed excavation in the Lower East Oval Room, where a new basement mechanical room will connect with the underground vault. A passageway will connect the underground vault with the new basement room, and a new, small structure by Pavilion II, which will be the new entrance for systems support and catering staff.

The renovations also include replacing the elevator to improve access to all floors of the Rotunda. The previous elevator’s usefulness was limited; its replacement will connect the support systems in the basement with the Dome Room, where various functions are held throughout the year, and also will provide handicapped access to each floor.

While excavating in the Lower East and West Oval rooms, workers found original footings that supported wooden pillars that in turn supported the floors above. According to Lahendro, historians suspected that the pillars had been there from an early 19th-century documentary reference, but the footings provided the first physical proof.

Workers also found 8-inch-square brick tunnels underneath both oval rooms that date to Stanford White’s work on the building. The tunnels probably enclosed hot water pipes running to radiators in the building, Lahendro said. Rivanna Archaeological Services mapped the pillar footings, tunnels and other historic underground features, as it had done with a cistern uncovered beneath the east garden courtyard as renovations began.

While digging in the east courtyard, workers also found remnants of a brick walkway that extended around the curve of the barrel of the Rotunda to the Rotunda Annex, an addition built in the 1850s and destroyed in the 1895 fire.

“We knew it had been there because we have post-fire photos of it,” Lahendro said.

On the north side of the building, crews excavating utility tunnels found some of the foundations of the annex, which extended north from the Rotunda toward what is now University Avenue. The annex contained four floors of offices, classrooms, labs and an auditorium.

Jefferson’s original design for the Rotunda featured the Dome Room as the University’s library, with classrooms on the lower floors. It included the southern wings on the building, originally open spaces used for exercise that later were enclosed for classrooms and a chapel. Following the 1895 fire, White added the north wings, and all four wings were constructed as open classrooms; later the library expanded into the wings. 

When the library moved from the Rotunda to the newly completed Alderman Library in 1938, a new round of Rotunda renovations – presided over by the late School of Architecture professor Stanislaw Makielski – converted the wings into office space. Makielski also oversaw the replacement of McKim, Mead & White’s deteriorated concrete portico steps and terrace balustrades with sturdier marble. Today, workers are replacing the leaky concrete base of the north portico steps; the marble steps have been stored and will later be reinstalled.

The primary programmatic objective of the current renovations is to encourage greater use of the building, particularly among students. This includes adding two permanent classrooms in the southeast wing. A third room, the Lower West Oval Room, will be used part of each week for teaching as well. Other rooms are being refitted for multi-purpose use. The Dome Room is also being modified by opening the lower gallery as a study and workspace for the first time since a 1970s-era renovation.

The state is providing about half of the approximately $50 million cost of the current renovations, while the University’s portion is drawn from philanthropic support. No tuition dollars are being used.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications