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Jefferson's Design

DesignThe Rotunda at the University of Virginia was designed by Thomas Jefferson as the architectural and academic heart of his community of scholars, or what he termed the "academical village." As the phrase implies, learning was for Jefferson an integral part of life. The academical village is based on the assumption that the life of the mind is the pursuit of all participants in the University, that learning is a lifelong and shared process, and that interaction between scholars and students enlivens the pursuit of knowledge.

The final 1975 rendering of the Rotunda restored to Jefferson's original design and the way you see the Rotunda today.

The Rotunda is the focal point of the academical village, which includes the Rotunda at the north end; the Pavilions, which house faculty; and the student rooms along the Lawn. From the Lawn, Jefferson's academical village appears as he intended it.

With the books Jefferson initially selected, the Rotunda served as the library, demonstrating Jefferson's belief that a university should have as its focus a collection of academic achievements. The library remained in the Rotunda for more than a century when the much larger Alderman Library was constructed.

Jefferson modeled the Rotunda after the Pantheon in Rome, reducing the measurements so that the Rotunda would not dwarf the Pavilions. Construction began in 1822 and was completed in 1826 at a cost of almost $60,000. Jefferson did not live to see the completion of the Rotunda, the last building on the Lawn to be finished. Shortly after the Rotunda's completion, many classes were moved from the first floors of the Pavilions on the Lawn into the Rotunda's oval rooms.

Annex and Fire

In the decades following the opening of the Rotunda, a growing need for more classrooms and a large auditorium prompted the University to commission Robert Mills to build an annex, completed in 1853, onto the north facade of the Rotunda.

A fire, caused by faulty electrical wiring, started in the annex on October 27, 1895. In a dramatic attempt to save the Rotunda, engineering professor William H. Echols tried dynamiting the bridge between the annex and the Rotunda. Unfortunately, this blew a hole in the Rotunda, and the fire spread more rapidly. Before it could be brought under control, the annex, dome and interior of the Rotunda had been destroyed. Only the Rotunda's charred circular brick walls remained.

Stanford White of the renowned American firm McKim, Mead, and White reconstructed the Rotunda after the fire as an elaborate Beaux Arts interpretation in the Roman style. In an effort to expand the library as well as emphasize the ceremonial space of the Rotunda, White increased the height of the dome room by eliminating the entire middle floor of lecture rooms, widened the skylight (oculus), and replaced Jefferson's slender double pillars with large single columns with Corinthian capitals. He also added a portico on the north face of the Rotunda and utilized new building methods to improve the durability and fire resistance of the structure. The building remained this way from 1898 to 1973.

For more information visit "Arise and Build!" A Centennial Commemoration of the 1895 Rotunda Fire.


RestoredIn 1973, Professor Frederick D. Nichols of the School of Architecture with the assistance of Francis L. Berkeley, Jr. supervised the restoration of the Rotunda to Jefferson's original design. The $2.3 million project was financed by the Cary D. Langhorne Trust of Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. On April 13, 1976, the date of the U.S. Bicentennial and the 233rd anniversary of Jefferson's birth, the restored Rotunda was dedicated. In this same year, the American Institute of Architects recognized the academical village as the most significant achievement of American architecture in the past two hundred years.

The Rotunda's ground floor and main floor now have their original oval rooms and hourglass-shaped halls. The dome room once again occupies only the third floor. Cornices in the four ancient architectural orders (Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian) have also been restored to Jefferson's design. The fifth architectural order (Composite) was used for the dome room columns. Though current needs require heating, cooling, and air circulation systems, the equipment is housed inconspicuously. Cables for electricity, telephones, and television are concealed behind wall paneling. The exterior brick walls are original, while the marble was replaced after the fire. Thus, the Rotunda appears today essentially as it did when it was built.

In 1987, the University of Virginia Grounds were named a World Heritage Site on UNESCO's prestigious World Heritage list, which includes the Taj Mahal, Versailles, and the Great Wall of China.