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A Reconstructed University

  Rotunda Fire

Beginning during the Civil War and continuing for decades after, the University of Virginia and other southern schools faced serious financial challenges. By the later decades of the nineteenth century, however, private philanthropy, industry, and reconstruction helped the University experience a period of recovery and growth. By the early 1890s, student enrollment had increased. Fayerweather Hall opened in 1893, its indoor swimming pool, bowling alleys, and cantilevered track earning it recognition as the South's finest physical education facility of the time. U.Va. football and baseball teams entered into intercollegiate competition. In addition, eighteen fraternities, an independent daily student newspaper, and the alumni magazine were established during the final decade of the century.

But the 1890s brought a catastrophic event that would touch the students, faculty, and larger community. On Sunday, October 27, 1895, a student noticed smoke seeping from the corner of the Rotunda Annex. The University's bell ringer sounded the alarm. Students and faculty thronged to the Rotunda, carrying and throwing precious belongings out to the Lawn. The entire community gathered as flames engulfed the Annex. Mathematics professor William H. "Reddy" Echols climbed up the dome and threw dynamite toward the fire, hoping in vain to keep the fire from spreading to the floors below.

Bell Dunnington, the twelve-year-old daughter of University professor Francis P. Dunnington, provides one of the most dramatic eyewitness accounts of the "Great Fire" in a letter to her older sister:

"I never saw a more magnificent or more awful sight than when the dome caught fire. All of the top part of it was one terrible, glowing mass of flame, and the tin had a curious reddish look, though it did not blaze, but wrinkled up. Every student in the University must have been there."

Fortunately, no one was killed in the fire, and the injuries reported were relatively minor. The outpouring of sympathy for the University from its alumni and friends was swift. They expressed not simply sorrow for the tremendous loss of the University's most famous building but also a certainty that the University would rise above the tragedy.

A student in 1897.  

Once University officials had assessed the damages, they decided to hire Stanford White, the renowned New York architect, to rebuild the Rotunda. White took the charge even further, redesigning the Rotunda interior, adding three buildings to the foot of the Lawn (Cabell, Rouss, and Cocke halls), and designing a President's House (Carr's Hill) to sit atop a hill looking down upon the newly built Rotunda. The domed building with three stories now had two, the second opening two flights up to the oculus in the ceiling, with bookshelves and study tables around the perimeter. The newly designed building also included a fireproof tile dome. Reconstruction was completed by 1899, just as a new century was beginning.