About the Cover
The burning of the Rotunda and Library of the University of Virginia on October 27, 1895, caused a series of events that fundamentally changed the institution. The new architecture by Stanford White helped bring about changes in the University and propelled it into a position of leadership in the twentieth century.
The Rotunda was returned to Jefferson's original design in the 1970s.
Photograph: Rotunda ruins, Date: 1895, Photographer: Wampler, Comments: Ruins of the Rotunda and Annex after the fire, west facade.
Drawing: Library Building, Date: post-1895, Artist: McKim, Mead, & White, Comments: Rotunda Elevation.
From Corks and Curls, March 27, 1896:
...And so when on that fateful Sunday in October last the clanging bell alarmed her residents and the thick smoke rolling heavenward told of her peril, one throb of terror and of grief shook every heart. Soon the flames were located in the coving above the rostrum of the Public Hall and heroic efforts were made to stay their course. But long security had begotten carelessindifference to danger. There was no water pressure in the mains, though originally adequate, had been reduced by the roughening and rusting of the pipes till the stream was too feeble to be effectual. There was no fire engine, the only one which the University had ever possessedhaving long since rusted out in " innocuous desuetude." Telegrams were sent to all adjacent towns for aid; but even while sending the dispatches we knew that aid must come too late. The Public Hall was doomed and the Rotunda was likely to go too.
Helplessness and hopelessness fly to desperate remedies. The gallant Superintendent of Grounds and Buildings determined to stay the flames, if possible, by blowing out the roof of the connecting portico between the two buildings. The massive columns were first drilled and heavy charges of dynamite were then detonated in them until they came crashing down. But the stout roof-timbers framed into the opposing brick walls still stood. New loads of the explosive were shot off amid them, but with small effect. Smoke and flame crept pitilessly across this resinous bridge, and soon the dome of the Rotunda itself, framed of heavy pine and alike inaccessible from beneath and from above, was ablaze. The cup of our sorrows seemed full. The old home was burning -- the very dwelling-place of precious memories and honored traditions -- and neither prayers nor labors could avert its doom.
Meanwhile the throngs of eager students had not been idle. As soon as it was seen that the buildings could not be saved, abundant supplies ofvolunteers hurried to rescue their contents. The chief art treasure of the University -- Balze's superb copy of Raphael's School of Athens -- was too near the origin of the flames to be removed. But all of the readily portable philosophical apparatus, the engineering instruments, the department library of the Law School, the furniture and records of the Chairman's office, most of the books on the first floor of the library, all of the portraits, the Lee papers, the interesting framed original letters and documents, the Minor bust with its pedestal, and the life-size statue of Jefferson were saved. The brief time and the narrow exit from the library prevented the rescue of more. Much was lost, much broken in the hurry and consternation of this sudden moving; yet the value of the salvage is to be reckoned, not by what was lost, but by our great and pressing needs.
Words cannot exaggerate the dash and ardor with which these young fellows threw themselves upon their self-imposed task. Backward and forward they hurried beneath their loads, dauntless, tireless, amid suffocating and blinding smoke, the roof blazing over their heads, the plaster cracking from the glowing dome and falling beneath their feet, until at last the great skylight came crashing down, and scattered a hundred blazing firebrands about the floor. The
professors, who directed their work, called a halt, and with reluctant step and backward gaze these hardy young volunteers withdrew and sadly left the old Rotunda to its fate.
It was a tragic yet a beautiful spectacle. The massive cylinder soon filled with crackling flames, which poured from every window and soared skyward from the lofty dome. The cornice caught and wrapped the building with an ardent zone, while the blazing pediment decorated the capitals which sustained it, with fiery streamers, more graceful in their wild luxuriance than the acanthus leaves embracing their sculptured urns. Lovely even in its downfall, the Rotunda was still, the focus of every eye, until the devouring flames had wasted all that could perish in its structure, leaving the sturdy walls unharmed--true symbol of the founder's enduring work. “Ili est ignis edax summa ad fastigia vento Volvitur; exuperant flammae, furit aestus ad amas.” Men gazed on the ruin with grave, strained faces or with that little rueful smile which is the last challenge of manly courage to disaster and defeat; women stood by awaiting the end with tear-stained cheeks and lips tremulous with prayer; little children looked in wide-eyed wonder, unconscious of the sorrow and the loss; and even the old servants mourned the devastation of a structure, whose purposes soared above their minds and sympathies as high as its
dome towered above their humble heads...
"To the question of remodeling of the interior of the Rotunda, we have given most careful study. Reasons of sentiment would point to the restoration of the interior exactly as it stood, but the dedication of the entire Rotunda to use as a Library, and the unquestionable fact that it was only practical necessity which forced Jefferson at the time it was built to cut the Rotunda in two stories, and that he would have planned the interior as a simple, single and noble room, had he then been able to do so, induces us to urge strongly upon your Board the adoption of a single dome room, as presented, not only as the most practical, but the proper treatment of the interior."
(Report of McKim, Mead & White to the Board of Visitors. See Alumni Bulletin O.S. 2 :139.)