Revisiting the Rotunda

Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda restoration reaps rewards for University of Virginia

A 2016 restoration of The Rotunda at the University of Virginia is being widely-praised for its attention to Thomas Jefferson's original design intent. (Courtesy University of Virginia)

The University of Virginia, established 200 years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, is taking major physical strides to elevate public awareness of its historic, and also troubled past. One of its most-anticipated architectural projects is Höweler+Yoon’s upcoming memorial dedicated to the slaves who helped build the campus. The circular design references Thomas Jefferson’s nearby Rotunda, a national historic landmark and arguably the most important building on site.

Constructed in 1825, the Rotunda has always served as the centerpiece of the university’s Academical Village, a UNESCO World Heritage site where Jefferson’s original structures stand. It recently underwent a multi-year, $51.6 million restoration project by New York firm John G. Waite Associates (JGWA) and is now considered a model of 21st-century preservation. The American Institute of Architects just named the building among the top projects in the country, alongside the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Smart Factory by Barkow Leibinger in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.

Rotunda restoration University of Virginia

JWA replaced the cast-plaster column capitals from a 1970s restoration with ones carved out of wood. (Courtesy University of Virginia)

For the university, the monumental restoration of Jefferson’s Rotunda was long overdue. Most of the buildings within the prominent Academical Village were constructed well over a century ago and designed to mimic Greco-Roman architecture, hence the Rotunda’s resemblance to Andrea Palladio’s drawings of the Pantheon. The building has had a tumultuous existence since opening in the early 19th century. In 1895, it was nearly destroyed in a catastrophic fire, leading McKim, Mead and White to complete a full-scale replica of the structure for the school. According to JGWA, the interior spaces were significantly altered during this construction. Another early-1970s renovation, completed ahead of America’s bicentennial, also compromised the architect’s original intent.

JGWA addressed these issues, as well as other long-standing structural problems, throughout the four-year restoration project. The firm fixed the leaking roof, repointed the building’s brick walls, restored the facade’s metal moldings, and replaced the portico’s deteriorating column capitols with Carrara marble ones. They also meticulously restored finishes and details found on all three interior floors according to Jefferson’s initial designs. The architects removed the acoustic plaster ceiling that made up the interior dome and replaced it with perforated aluminum. Additionally, a new mechanical and storage space was built out within an excavated space in an adjacent courtyard.

Rotunda restoration University of Virginia

The historic structure now more seriously resembles Jefferson’s original plans from the early 19th century. (Courtesy University of Virginia)

The building reopened in September of 2016 as part of a larger, campus-wide effort to restore the Jefferson-designed grounds, including the university’s historic Lawn.

Related Stories