Jefferson in the Round

Jefferson in the Round

The University of Virginia is preparing to restore its iconic Rotunda, designed by Thomas Jefferson and later rebuilt after a fire by Stanford White.
Courtesy John G. Waite Associates

The Rotunda at the University of Virginia is arguably one of the most important buildings in early American architecture. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Latrobe, and Robert Mills, the architect of the Washington Monument, all contributed to the design of the structure, which was completed in 1828, two years after Jefferson’s death.

Adding a significant twist to the Rotunda’s provenance, a fire in 1895 destroyed most of the building—including its timber Delorme dome—leaving only the outer shell. In the aftermath, the eminent Beaux Arts architect Stanford White rebuilt the Rotunda, retaining much of Jefferson’s exterior form, but changing the interior and adding a new north portico, reorienting the building to the campus.

Now the university is at work on a phased restoration of the Rotunda, exploring this unusual collaboration across time and hoping to reconcile the contributions of Jefferson and White. “The building is representative of the works of two of America’s most significant architects,” said Clay Pallazo, a principal at John G. Waite Associates, the firm that has completed a 300-page report on the building and has been engaged in its restoration. “As a piece within a collection, the Rotunda is Jefferson’s,” he said. “As a single building, it’s White’s.”

The university’s $60 million restoration will have to contend with still other historical layers. Following the fire, the Mills wing, added in the 1850s, was removed. And though White left his mark on the building, his renovation was unusually sensitive for the time, according to university architect David Neuman. “Jefferson’s architecture was not all that appreciated one hundred years ago,” he said. “White was, in a way, a preservationist. Everything he did was sympathetic but distinct. He suppressed his Beaux Arts exuberance.”

The rotunda during the 1895 blaze.
Courtesy Special Collections, UVA Library

The building was last renovated in the 1970s, when much of White’s interior was removed in an effort to return it to Jefferson’s design. The structure of the building, including a masonry tile dome designed by White, remained. In replacing the timber dome with one made of masonry, however, White added eight inches to the thickness of the interior walls, so the 1970s renovation was an approximation of the original interior. On the exterior, a new turn-coated steel roof was added in place of the painted copper that White had specified.

With so many overlapping hands in the Rotunda’s design, there is unlikely to be a decisive resolution to the competing historical layers, and much of the scope of work has yet to be fully determined. So far, though, the restoration will include upgraded mechanical systems, a new roof, reset exterior masonry, and, in what may be the biggest change, a historically appropriate landscape design.

“It will take a trained eye to see the changes on the exterior, but the landscape will likely be noticeably different,” Neuman said. “Right now, the landscape is neither Jefferson’s nor White’s. It’s just what grew up around the building,” he added. “Jefferson was a master at integrating landscape, site planning, and architecture.” White’s thinking was much more formal and Beaux Arts– inflected, so the north side will retain that sensibility, according to Neuman, while the south side will likely follow Jefferson’s informal approach.

Elsewhere, the plan will defer to White. “We have recommended a painted copper roof as specified by Stanford White,” Pallazo said. Replacing the roof may be a simple task, or, if water has damaged the tile dome, it could require a more complex reconstruction. “You really can’t tell for sure until you go into investigative mode,” Pallazo said.

Work is expected to begin in earnest in the fall, and a final project team for the restoration will be announced in the coming weeks.