As the Architect for the University of Virginia, each day I’m reminded of the privilege of working in such magnificent surroundings. The Jeffersonian Grounds, or the University’s core historic precinct, were designed by Thomas Jefferson as the embodiment of his ideas for an educated citizenry as a cornerstone of democracy. In fact, Jefferson cited the University (in his phrasing the ‘Academical Village’) as one of his proudest achievements, along with writing the Declaration of Independence and Virginia’s statute for religious freedom. He sought recognition not only for two documents fundamental to American freedom but also for the institution through which those freedoms would be preserved.
That’s why the Jeffersonian Grounds, with the Rotunda as the centerpiece, have been designated a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage site along with Monticello. In short, Jefferson’s Academical Village is recognized as an architectural masterpiece.
This historic heart of the University of Virginia is not set aside as a museum. It is a bustling place filled with top-notch teachers, world-class researchers, and bright, striving students. In addition, it is heavily trafficked each day, attracting thousands of visitors annually. As such, it presents special preservation challenges. The needs are continuous, costly, and urgent for the 17 historic structures, 103 student rooms, and 40 acres of gardens and landscape that comprise the Jeffersonian Grounds.
In these spaces, students and faculty continue the shared pursuit of knowledge as they have for nearly 200 years. If I may be so bold to say it, the Jeffersonian Grounds are the physical and emotional core of the University of Virginia—the place where our beliefs reside, where we commit every day to the expansion of knowledge, freedom of inquiry, and open dialogue.
That’s why I and so many others are determined to accomplish a landmark program to restore, renovate, and repair Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village. The Jeffersonian Grounds Initiative is our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure that this historic precinct remains a thriving academic center for both U.Va. and visiting students and faculty, as well as a vital cultural heritage site for the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world.
We cannot afford to wait. Time, the elements, and constant use have taken a toll on the Jeffersonian Grounds. Marble column capitals on the Rotunda are crumbling. Cores of the Colonnades are eroding. Air conditioning units hang from Jeffersonian windows. The ranges must be sand-bagged in rainy weather. A fire nearly destroyed Hotel A, and only a chance discovery led to a $4 million emergency repair of chimneys and installation of a fire-suppression in student rooms.
The total cost of maintaining a masterpiece is high, in the many millions of dollars. Yet the opportunities are unprecedented. Restoring the Jeffersonian Grounds opens the door to new discoveries in archeology, history, landscape architecture, and conservation. We’re already making great strides:
- Phase I of the Rotunda renovation was completed in 2013. The project included installing a new oculus and copper roof, making extensive masonry repairs, and refurbishing the window sashes and architraves. Phase II has just begun. Work to replace the marble column capitals and to provide all new building systems is part of this phase.
- The University has contracted with award-winning landscape architect Laurie Olin, of OLIN, to create a design for the Rotunda courtyards and North Terrace. Patricia O’Donnell, principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, led the creation of the University’s first-ever Cultural Landscape Report to document the conditions of the Lawn, gardens, and other landscapes, and guide decisions within the World Heritage site’s boundary.
- The University is developing plans for a new interpretive center that will enhance the visitor experience, complement the University Guide tours, and provide interactive displays for rotating exhibits and tour highlights.
With our unique situation—as a living, breathing, constantly evolving institution of higher learning—comes a tremendous amount of responsibility. We have an obligation to our national heritage, the students and faculty, and to future generations. That sense of duty is what drives me each day to ensure that we’re giving the appropriate care and feeding to these nearly 200-year-old buildings and grounds. It’s what drives everyone involved in the Jeffersonian Grounds Initiative.
The restoration of the Academical Village gives the University a chance to renew its commitment to our community of learners and to educate visitors from around the world about Jefferson as the architect of American democracy and higher education.