University of Virginia Restores Historic Rotunda
Among the most significant historical buildings in America, the University of Virginia's Rotunda, designed by Thomas Jefferson, is receiving a $58.5 million renovation to the building that will return it to student use with the addition of three classroom and study spaces.
"Although it's part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National [Historic] Landmark, Jefferson's Academical Village is still used for what it was designed for," says Jody Lahendro Senior Project Manager for the university. "Despite moving the library from the rotunda in the late 1930s, we wanted to recapture its original educational importance in the everyday life of the students."
Jefferson intended the rotunda to serve as a center for student learning. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added Jefferson's home Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to the World Heritage list in 1987. Jefferson founded the university in 1819, planning curriculum, recruiting faculty and designing the campus, of which the rotunda serves as a centerpiece. Jefferson designed the academic village with pavilions, where faculty lived and taught students, student housing, and gardens, all still in use.
About 10 years ago, the university learned the rotunda needed repairs beyond routine maintenance and commissioned John G. Waite Associates, Architects of Albany, New York, to complete a historic structure report, which took two years to produce. John G. Waite Associates, Architects has worked with the university on various projects since 1980.
"The first step is to know what you are dealing with, what is significant historically and what is not, and what the physical conditions are," Lahendro says. "It gave us a roadmap, and we knew we had a significant capital project."
To minimize further damage to the building, the university initially replaced the roof and made repairs to Jefferson's original drum while the scaffolding was up. That $5.5 million roof and drum project wrapped up two years ago. Upon identifying additional funding, the balance of the project began in 2014. Lahendro expects the current $53 million project to be complete in July 2016.
Scope of Work
The university has worked hard to preserve all of the character-defining features of the building. It originally had three levels: ground, main and dome level, and it will again. All that remains of Jefferson's original building are the exterior brick walls and the interior brick walls at the lowest level, due to a fire that gutted the building in 1895. It was rebuilt, using some different materials to reduce the risk of another blaze, and in 1976, the university renovated it again, trying to restore it to evoke Jefferson's original interiors.
In the second, current phase, half of the construction cost is dedicated to replacing the mechanical, electrical, plumbing and sprinkler systems. It's adding new media and fire detection systems and relining the interior dome. The university built an underground concrete, mechanical vault in the east courtyard of the rotunda and below the lower east oval room. The vault connects to an elevator for use by facilities and support systems.
To ensure the original walls were protected during the excavation and construction, the university installed a $500,000 building monitoring system, with four lasers, three outside and one inside, which hit 130 targets to measure any movement.
Among the exterior work, the university is replacing the waterproofing on the terraces and the paving, replacing the 16 marble capitals atop each column on the north and south porticos, repairing the sheet-metal ornaments and painting the copper dome, replaced two years ago.
The university replicated Jefferson's original design and fabricated the capitals in Carrara, Italy, of the same marble as the originals. Sculptors carved the 6,300-pound captials, using a combination of computerized robotic machines, to remove the bulk of the stone, and hand carving to complete the process. The copper ornamentation was dismantled, shipped off site, repaired and painted, and then reassembled on site.
A Treasured Find
While researching the current construction work, architects with John G. Waite Associates, Architects discovered an unknown cavity within the original brick walls of the lowest floor level. Clay S. Palazzo, Principal in Charge of the project for John G. Waite, and Matthew K. Scheidt, Project Manager, stuck their heads through that opening to look around and discovered something more was going on.
"On our backs, looking straight up in the hole, we saw cut stone, and questioned its existence in the brick wall construction," Palazzo recalls. "Beyond a hole in the stone a large cavity was visible."
The John G. Waite Associates university team gradually removed brick to expose the cavity beyond the north wall of the Rotunda's lower east oval room. The alcove had been concealed by the brick mass between the north and east oval rooms. The arched opening of the chemical hearth was filled in with brick from later periods of renovation, first in the 1840s and subsequently in the 1970s.
"Luckily, someone bricked up the face of the alcove, instead of destroying it," Palazzo says.
The university's first chemistry and natural history professor John Emmet was assigned the rooms in the lower level of the rotunda. Letters between him, the school's construction superintendent and Jefferson exist and discussed about how to construct a chemical hearth in the rotunda. John G. Waite Associates and its architectural history consultant, Mount Ida Press, met with authorities on the history of chemistry at the Science Museum, British Museum, and Cambridge and Oxford Universities to verify that the university's chemical hearth was unique.
"That chemical hearth is spectacular," says Jack Waite, Senior Principal of the firm. He added that "it's a wonder it survived," citing the rebuilding after the fire and the renovations in 1970s.
"This is one of the few if not the only chemical hearth still in existence from the early 19th century," Lahendro reports. "It's an extraordinary find."
During the 1976 renovation, the team discovered what they thought were fireplaces, the cast-iron grates and bricks of the chemical hearth's fireboxes. That team closed the wall up, leaving it intact, except for two 18-inch square openings.
The hearth consists of a three-quarter round niche, recessed into the end of the lower east oval room. The masonry work surface consists of 4-inch thick stone and brick countertop, with four apertures cut through it, each with a space to conduct experiments. A fifth work station appears to have been a small forge. The fuel for the experiments was coal or wood burned in two fireboxes, and then the heated material could be brought to the aperture. An underground brick tunnel system provides fresh air to the fireboxes and apertures. A flue and hood system took away smoke from the fireboxes and fumes from the experiments.
"It's a very sophisticated system," Lahendro says.
Lahendro explains that it survived the fire because the opening to the chemical hearth was bricked up before the fire in the 1840s, when a new chemistry professor wanted a different space.
The university plans to remove the brick infill, recover the arched opening, clean up the hearth and place the preserved chemical hearth on display. The room will serve as a visitor reception room.
Archeologists found brick foundations for two posts or columns below ground in the large east and west oval rooms. The university also found fragments of the original steps to the rotunda, which were used as fill after the fire. Marble capital fragments also were found in the fill.
Waite praised the collaboration with the university staff with making the project a success.
"It's fulfilling its original function," Waite concludes. "The buildings are great educational tools in their own right, illustrating various architectural orders, and finding the chemical hearth is the latest discovery."