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McKim, Mead & White



ACarr's Hills the 19th century drew to a close, the University had grown in every way - enrollment, size of the faculty, the physical plant, and the complexity of its operations.

Several buildings - Brooks Hall, the chapel, Fayerweather Gymnasium and an annex to the Rotunda - both accommodated this growth and changed the University's geographical orientation from south to north.

The Rotunda Annex in particular plays an important role in the history of the University. The rector, Joseph Carrington Cabell, and Robert Mills, an architectural disciple of Thomas Jefferson and designer of the Washington Monument, together planned a three-story building, one hundred feet in length and fifty-four in width. Lecture rooms were placed on the first, second, and fourth floors. On the second floor, there was a large public hall with a seating capacity of twelve hundred.

At the time of the construction of the annex, six hundred students and the twenty two professors who taught them overflowed the academical village. As always, money for building was in limited supply, and adding a wing to the Rotunda seemed at the time to be an economical solution to the space issue. Unfortunately, the University may have got what it paid for: an ugly and ill-fated menace to its architectural masterpiece.

The Fire

On a quiet, windy Sunday, October 27, 1895, a fire started in some faulty electrical wiring in the annex. It quickly engulfed the structure as horror-stricken professors, students, and neighbors watched the flames creep toward the Rotunda. A large crowd assembled and witnessed the fire destroy Robert Mills's annex and Thomas Jefferson's tour de force, while students and teachers, at last united, rushed into the library to rescue books. To prevent the fire from spreading to the Rotunda, engineering professor William H. Echols dynamited the bridge between the annex and the Rotunda. The dynamite blew a hole in the Rotunda, and the fire spread more rapidly.

Four hours later, the wind changed direction from south to north, and the fire stopped crawling toward the colonnades, pavilions, and student rooms. After a little while, it burned itself out. Observers stood in shocked silence, staring at the destroyed annex and broken hull of the Rotunda, a building that had stood for democratic education and the promise of freedom and prosperity.

The threat of a bankrupt university and a demoralized faculty and student body galvanized action. On Sunday afternoon, while smoke continued to drift skyward from the ruined Rotunda, faculty members met to discuss their next steps. Right away, faculty members established a building committee that was to plan for rebuilding, renewal, and funds to pay for their ambitious plans. In attendance at the meeting was the rector, Wilson Cary Nicholas Randolph, great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson. He agreed to an emergency resolution to appoint an architect who would advise the University on ways to proceed with the restoration of the Rotunda, construction of new buildings to replace the annex, and to provide for the learning and research needs of the growing university.

Starting to Rebuild

On Monday, October 28, the faculty building committee hired the firm of McDonald Brothers of Louisville, Kentucky, to advise them on the rebuilding of the University. The committee emphasized that the appointment was to be merely advisory, and that later, an architect of national reputation would be hired to carry out the design and construction for the Rotunda and new academic buildings. Stanford White and his firm, McKim, Mead & White, were chosen as the architects of the restored, expanded, and finally enclosed Lawn.

Stanford White found his usual expansive and gleaming style cramped in Mr. Jefferson's spare academical village. While in his designs for Gilded Age plutocrats there were few restrictions, in his building for the University there were two: the Jeffersonian architectural tradition and limited cash ($250,000 of cash on hand-the cost of the original academical village-and only $250,000 more, to be raised by the University).

It was his dedication to neoclassicism that attracted the University to him, but his neoclassicism was different from Mr. Jefferson's. Mr. Jefferson believed his own style to be uncorrupted by frippery, chastely classical, and designed for the furtherance of political and intellectual ideals. McKim, Mead & White, dedicated to Beaux-Arts aesthetics, designed luxurious, ornately classical houses, banks, and gentleman's clubs to create beautiful living environments for their clients and to further the clients' social fortunes.

Still, there was commonality. Just before being engaged by the University, White had worked on another college campus, the University of the City of New York (now New York University), and had encountered a budget straitened in the college way.

Conflicting Expectation

What Stanford White probably had not anticipated was the roundabout way things got done at the University, and the conflicting expectations of the University's various governing and sometimes competing bodies. While the faculty had hoped to hire a prominent architect for the reconstruction of the Rotunda, Rector Randolph apparently preferred a regional architect. The rector received the report of the faculty building committee and then appointed his own committee. Given that the chair of the faculty, William Mynn Thornton, was on the committee, and that the rector and the faculty chairman had differing views about a variety of issues-most especially about what sort of architect to hire-it was in the rector's interest to limit consultation with the committee. This is how the consultant McDonald came to be, briefly, the architect for the reconstruction.

Harry McDonald, senior partner of McDonald Brothers, had made a very positive impression on Mr. Randolph while in Charlottesville to supervise the rebuilding of Christ Episcopal Church. His affable nature and southern origins were particularly persuasive when Mr. Randolph made the decision to keep him as the architect of record after his consulting work was complete. His affability was so great that he agreed to the desperate wish of University planners that the Rotunda be rebuilt and ready for use by January 1896.

The repair of the Rotunda's wings was first on Mr. McDonald's agenda. Unfortunately for him, his first job was his last one. As their concrete roofs were being poured, the wings began to sag. Shocked at the poor results of his chosen architect, the rector asked him to resign, explaining that the University would lose state support if they did not hire an architect with a strong national reputation. He had, he said, decided to hire Stanford White, who, on January 18, 1896, was officially invited to become the architect of the University's restoration and given eight months to complete the job.

Stanford White's Design

Mr. White threw himself into the work. He added a shallow portico with six columns to the north side of the Rotunda with a flight of stairs that made a grand descent to the street below. A fireproof domed roof was built. Inside, the Rotunda's upper floor was removed, opening up a grand vaulted space. In the new two-story dome room, Stanford White erected twenty massive Corinthian columns and five levels of space for books, tiers that were placed between the columns and the outer wall.

New library rooms were accommodated in enlarged wings on both sides of the Rotunda. Then, most controversially, Mr. White constructed, with the Board of Visitors' consent, of course, two laboratory buildings (Cocke and Rouss) and a classroom building (Cabell Hall) at the south end of the Lawn, closing up Mr. Jefferson's view to the southern mountains.

To Stanford White, the addition of Cabell, Rouss, and Cocke Halls seemed imperative. He was not set on their location opposite the Rotunda, however. The Board of Visitors made the decision to turn the Lawn into a quadrangle. In the end, Stanford White's restoration of the Rotunda and the triad of buildings to its south are not ranked among his greatest work. On the other hand, his work at the University met all expectations and requirements. Cocke, Rouss, and Cabell fit seamlessly into the academical village, while the exterior of the Rotunda was faultlessly Jeffersonian.

New Management

The work had not been easy. The chaotic decision-making that led to Mr. White's appointment as the architect for the restoration and enlargement of the academical village continued throughout the six years of his employment. The job nearly drove him "crazy," he reported. Not knowing exactly who would be giving him orders and serving as a go-between for rival members of the faculty and board was not a position any architect would wish for himself.

Mr. White survived the job. The University's system of management did not. It was time that the University had a president, and in 1896, the faculty committee urged the Board of Visitors to appoint one. After first being turned down by law alumnus Woodrow Wilson, the University turned to Edwin Alderman, who had built a record of achievement as president of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Tulane University in New Orleans. He was inaugurated on Mr. Jefferson's birthday, April 13, 1905.