Lawn Room Architecture: Preservation and Change

Jefferson thought the concept was revolutionary, but it worked: an Academical Village abuzz with the free exchange of ideas, intermingling student living quarters, professors' residences, and classroom space. The 108 rooms, 54 on the Lawn and 27 on each of two Ranges, began as doubles, with sparse furnishings, fireplace heat, and "facilities" around the corner. Over the years, the University has sought to preserve the rooms' Jeffersonian character, updating them only with electricity, radiator heat, and running water.

The rooms appear much the same as always, with many early elements, including the wide pine doorsills, well worn after 17 decades, and the window shutters, many of which have a Roman numeral carved in a corner, evidence of an early prefabricated construction system.

The doors themselves may look like antiques, but they are not original. Only East Lawn 36's double door differs in style, constructed like the faux-grained double doors of some Pavilions.

"That door is likely from an earlier period," says James Murray Howard, FAIA, curator and architect for the Academical Village, noting that the louvered blinds or shutters that flank each doorway "could be very old indeed. They are made more richly than the doors, and seem to have their early metal hardware."

There are many unknowns when it comes to determining which elements are original, Howard explains. In its first hundred years, the University made changes without concern for historical accuracy, and not all changes were documented. Still, there are Jefferson's plans to go by.

More sensitive renovation began in the mid-1950s, continuing through the next decade. "There was a fairly widespread modernization of the rooms," says Howard. "They received new lighting and electrical service and a reworking of the mantels and fireplaces." By the mid-1960s, furnishings, too, had been modernized. In 1995, the installation of state-of-the-art fiber-optic cable brought these historic rooms into the computer age.

Sometimes the students themselves have made additions, carving their names and years into the mortar, woodwork, and glass. Rarely are students as bold as the one who, in 1981, handcrafted a walnut mantel and left it behind for posterity.

After nearly 200 years, the Lawn remains a living part of the University. "My position is that you try to make sure the place can survive," Howard explains, "not that you exclude uses, but that you try to tame down uses that are too hard, and to encourage uses that are appropriate."