Mr. Jefferson's University stands as a physical model of his educational ideals. He believed that a University should be a community of scholars, and to further that ideal he designed living and learning spaces around the monumental Rotunda--a classically-inspired building that served as the University's library and meeting hall.
The Roman Pantheon served as Jefferson's model for the Rotunda, which he built with red brick instead of stone. Inside, the top floor Dome Room housed the University library, which was selected one book at a time by Jefferson himself. The two floors below contained oval rooms used for classes and meetings. Begun in 1823, the Rotunda was completed in 1826.
One of Jefferson's pupils, architect Robert Mills, designed the Annex, which satisfied the needs of a growing University for more space. The Annex, built in 1851-53, contained a large public hall, classrooms, and laboratories. Mills modeled its north portico on the Rotunda's south portico, substituting cast iron capital for expensive Italian marble.
On anautumn Sunday in 1895, fire broke out in the Annex. As the University community raced to empty the Rotunda of its precious books, others fought the fire, even dropping dynamite between the Annex and the Rotunda to destroy the link between the two.
The attempt failed, and firefighting equipment from Richmond and Lynchburg arrived too late to prevent the flames from claiming all of Mr. Jefferson's Rotunda, except its brick shell.
Efforts to rebuild the Rotunda began even as the last flames died. A faculty committee ordered the building's exterior restored to its original appearance. The committee decided not to rebuild the Annex--which was never part of Jefferson's design--and instead called for three new buildings at the Lawn's south end. The center building, Cabell Hall, blocked views of the distant ridge and forever changed the character of the Lawn.
Architect Stanford White, of New York's McKim, Mead & White, supervised the rebuilding effort. His plan called for a major interior change. Instead of Jefferson's Dome Room built over two lower floors, White's plan called for a two-story Dome Room built over a single floor. It was thought that this design would best suit the building's intended use as University library. The new Rotunda opened in 1898 and would hold the University's books until 1938.
The controversy over changing the Jeffersonian interior was short-lived, and by the 1950s very few people knew that Jefferson's Rotunda and White's Rotunda were not the same. However, in 1955, at the urging of Professor Frederick D. Nichols, President Colgate W. Darden, Jr. asked the University's Board of Visitors to rebuild the Rotunda according toJefferson's design.
The Board agreed, but it took until 1973 to secure funds and complete plans. In 1976--the year of the nation's bicentennial--Mr. Jefferson's Rotunda was fully restored.