Convocation Address, October 27, 1995

By Richard Guy Wilson
Commonwealth Professor and Chair, Department of Architectural History


The Fire, Stanford White and the 'New' University of Virginia

President Casteen, Members of the Board of Visitors, fellow faculty, students, parents, and guests, this is an honor. Although Americans love disasters, a talk commemorating the destruction of a library is of dubious taste as an academic gathering. The fire though, helps reveal the attraction and the power of the Lawn; how it affected people in the past as well as today.

On this morning, one hundred years ago, October 27, 1895, a Sunday, Mason Foshee, a second- year student from Brewton, Alabama, skipped church, lingered over breakfast, and then headed for Fayerweather Gymnasium to work out. As he turned the corner from University Avenue onto Rugby Road he noticed smoke rising from the Rotunda Annex. The best efforts of faculty, students, and fire companies failed to extinguish the blaze, and though students saved some books and the Galt statue of Jefferson, the Rotunda burned until only the outer brick walls remained. Almost exactly to this hour 100 years ago the faculty and some members of the Board of Visitors met to consider the future.

Buildings tell stories as do books. Buildings, through size, placement, design, style, and function, can be read. Quite clearly the central building of the institution Thomas Jefferson created was the Rotunda. Symbolism radiated from the Rotunda: it stood at the head of the central space and Jefferson noted its origin as the Pantheon of ancient Rome. Its principal feature, the dome, representing the cosmos in pagan religion and heaven in Christianity, became in Jefferson's hands a dome of enlightenment, of reason. The Rotunda marked the beginning of American archetype for colleges and universities, the preeminence of the library as the central building and symbol. The modern university library brings together one of the most famous oppositions in literature: architecture versus the printed book. Victor Hugo, in "Notre Dame de Paris" of 1831, argued that Gutenberg's invention -- the printed book -- replaced architecture as the permanent record of mankind. But Hugo failed to foresee how the library, not just as a container of books but in its very form, became an icon.

The ensuing story of "a phoenix rising from the ashes," or the rebuilding of the University, is complicated, and cannot be told in detail; rather, I will make six observations about those past events and then ask you to project yourselves one hundred years in the future, the year 2095.

First: Architecture and identity: Jefferson left an architectural legacy; our identity is constructed around this space and these buildings; its quality makes us different from other institutions. Significantly, when threatened, those in the University turned -- after a brief flailing about -- to the country's leading architects, the New York firm of McKim, Mead & White. Stanford White of that firm possessed amazing talents, the best of that generation. The University authorities knew good architecture was of supreme importance.

Second: Revising Jefferson: the fire made the University recognize that Jefferson's design needed revisions. Not that the myth of "Mr. Jefferson" disappeared, indeed it intensified, but his scheme for the University was outmoded in several respects. Jefferson created an institution for 200 young men; by the mid-1890s the student population stood at about 550, and collegiate education differed considerably from Jefferson's model. Needed were new facilities with different types of spaces: large laboratories and lecture halls. Jefferson's library in the Rotunda, powerful symbolically -- overflowed, with no room to expand. How do you add to a circle? Jefferson's sketchy plan for enlarging the grounds was "by extension"; the duplication of a continuing line of dormitory rooms and pavilions which would have us stretching to Lynchburg by now.

The difficulties with Jefferson's model can be observed in the Grounds prior to the fire. Among the changes were Brooks Hall, 1876 (originally the natural history museum -- now the Anthropology Department and Art Department studios), the Chapel, 1889, which balanced Brooks on the west, Fayerweather Gymnasium, 1893 (now the Art Department), and the Rotunda's Annex, 1851, a giant tail that made it look like a polliwog. A reorientation of Jefferson's plan had occurred. Instead of entering the Grounds from down here, the south end, and progressing towards the Rotunda -- as Jefferson had intended -- most people came from the north, the rear so to speak. The point is, the Jefferson model needed revisions.

Third: The space of the Lawn: Stanford White made two proposals for the addition of new academical buildings; the other was to site them off to the side and not across the end. White had trepidations: "we should regret blocking the beautiful vista at the end of the present campus." After deliberations the Rector, William C. N. Randolph, Jefferson's great-grand-son, directed white to locate the buildings across the end of the Lawn, closing off the near view to the southwest. That Stanford white -- who respected Jefferson's architecture -- would agree gives rise to the frequent observation that architects sometimes are not their own masters. In addition to desiring a new north entry, Rector Randolph and many faculty wanted to block a view of the houses that had sprung up along the old Lynchburg Road to the south, some of which were inhabited by African-Americans.

The closure of the Lawn brings up the facts that this great space of the Lawn had made many people uncomfortable. Over the years numerous proposals were made to build chapels, a Confederate Memorial Arch, and other structures in the middle of the Lawn. White's placement of Cabell saved the Lawn: White turned the focus from outward into the space itself, though he attempted to preserve the distant view by sinking Cabell Hall.

White's recognition of the space of the Lawn as central can be seen in his design for Cabell Hall. The volume of the auditorium in Cabell Hall is one quarter of the Rotunda's sphere. On the interior facing the Rotunda White placed a copy of Raphael's "School of Athens," duplicating the one destroyed in the fire. One enters one either side, turns and sits facing the "School of Athens." Its two central figures, Plato and Aristotle, stride toward you from the Rotunda. In form and iconography White's design for Cabell Hall focused attention back to the great central space of the Rotunda.

Fourth: The new buildings: Cabell, Rouss, and Cocke halls and the rebuilt Rotunda not only gave the University badly needed new space, they allowed it to compete with the larger -- and richer -- northern institutions. These buildings indicated a new beginning: Rouss for physics, Cocke for engineering. One should keep in mind that in spite of Jefferson's grand national ambitions for the University -- to equal Harvard and Yale, for instance -- it had not achieved that stature. The library was pitifully small in comparison with the others, and the fire had decimated it. Yes, we stood tall in the South, but nationally, we were second-rate. The new buildings marked the re-emergence of the University on the national stage.

Fifth: Sex: of course many of you know that Stanford White id frequently known for his activities other than architecture, principally his liaison with Evelyn Nesbitt, a New York chorus girl, and his violent death at the hands of Harry Thaw. He proved that architects lead more exciting lives, which many tried to imitate. But White never brought Evelyn Nesbitt to the Grounds, she would have been 11 years old in 1896; nor is she represented in any of the buildings. However of note, the models for the figures in the pediment of Cabell Hall were recruited from the local bordello when the sculptor George Zolnay could not convince any Charlottesville ladies to pose in the nude.

Sixth: Conflict: if I am giving the impression that it all went smoothly, that is wrong. Mutual suspicion existed between the faculty and the Board of Visitors, and also faculty love nothing better than to feud among themselves! I will not detail all the conflicts -- construction was ragged. The mess caused the University to shift from Jefferson's loose management to a chief executive. Woodrow Wilson was first approached, and then in 1904 Edwin Alderman became the first president. The intent was to allow faculty to do what -- we hope -- we do best: teach and research and be concerned with governance, not management.

Conflict also revolved around Stanford White's design for the University library in the Rotunda. He sought an aesthetically dramatic solution and made one great space resembling the Pantheon in Rome, Jefferson's original model. He maintained the Rotunda as the library though it in time became overcrowded and in 1938 Alderman Library was built.

But the removal from the Rotunda of the library in 1938 made the building redundant. It has been restored to the Jefferson configuration, but it sits there a hollow symbol used for dinners, dances, and the occasional talk. I am not going to propose what should be done, but to note that the emptiness of the Rotunda speaks of a greater issue, that architecture can lose meaning with loss of purpose.

Let me know ask you to imaging the future one hundred years from now -- October 27th, 2095. Will our new buildings be held in high regard? More significantly, will our successors need this place, this academical village? The opposition noted earlier of Victor Hugo's architecture versus the book, may become architecture versus cyberspace, or whatever we call the new technology of the future. The electronic academical village is a new type of place located in the telephone line or the satellite dish, wherever you plug in. I am not arguing a Luddite view of technology, for technology is us, we create it, it expresses our values; however, those values may be at odds with the spirit of personal interchange and activity that is central to the academical village. Certainly in 2095 the academical village will exist in "Virtual Reality," or one can visit and take a tour orchestrated by some giant corporation that will reenact the fire. Such a chilling scene will never come to pass -- we hope.

People and the institutions they create are personified by the buildings they inhabit. Architecture is created by people acting as either individually or in concert, and buildings do more than contain activities, they shape and inspire ideals. To Jefferson, architecture, the institution and the purpose of the university were one: they were inseparable. After the fire the faculty and the Board of Visitors possessed the good sense to realize architecture was the medium for renewal. Today, we are an international institution with a reputation to match, but we are still rooted here. It is our job not to create the Jefferson look but to meaningfully continue his intentions and ensure that 100 years from now this will still be a village in which important intellectual activities take place.


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