University of Virginia Historic Preservation Framework Plan, Report

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Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia is the seminal achievement in American campus
planning. The clarity of its composition, the integration of the buildings’ designs into the whole of the
Academical Village experience, the role of the landscape and the site in defining the relationship among
buildings, and the utopian academic program which integrated student, faculty and academic life have
rarely been equaled. The Academical Village defines the image of the University of Virginia, and the
University has taken great care to ensure that these buildings and their associated grounds are well
maintained and preserved in their historic uses.

Every building or landscape which followed Jefferson’s as the University grew has attempted to respond
to them. The earliest – the Monroe Hill Ranges and the ill-fated Rotunda Annex – essentially imitated
Jefferson. Later, as the Romantic Movement swept the country, picturesque landscapes and buildings
like Varsity Hall contrasted with the earlier classicism. The Eclectic Period gave us the Chapel and Brooks
Hall, neither of which recalls Jefferson in style, but which are both sited on his grid. Beaux Arts and the
Colonial Revival resonated especially strongly at the University, and it is from these late-19th and early20th century movements that much of the current appearance of the Central Grounds derives. The postWorld War II building boom began a conversation about what mode of expression – modern or classical
– best suited the growing institution. This important conversation continues vigorously still today.


From Thomas Jefferson’s time down to our own, the demands of fulfilling the mission of the University of Virginia–to develop through education leaders who are well prepared to shape the future of the nation –have required continual changes on Grounds. While the construction of new facilities enables the University to provide for present needs, the thoughtful preservation of existing structures promotes an immediate connection to our shared past. Such a tangible, everyday connection is vital both to safeguarding the distinction of this place and to strengthening the direction of its mission.

The Lawn, the original ensemble of buildings that continues to act as the heart of the institution, is clearly fundamental to the identity of the University. This legacy of Jeffersonian architecture is without question the single most important factor to consider in any proposed change to the University’s environment. All construction subsequent to Jefferson’s time has of necessity entered into a dialogue with the University’s original design, with its siting, and with the ideas about education they embodied. In this sense, the entire campus, not only the small part touched personally by Jefferson’s own hand, bears the founder’s legacy.

The dialogue with Jefferson’s legacy has taken different forms through time. Each of the buildings on Grounds contributes to this ongoing story. In the following concise history of the construction and preservation of the University, the sequence of building on Grounds will be divided into five sections. The dates 1830, 1860, 1890, 1920, and 1950 will define periods of building that responded to the changing nature of the University and its larger social and cultural contexts. First, however, it will be helpful to review the creation of the Lawn and the ideas behind it.

Jefferson’s Legacy

Jefferson had ruminated for many years over the exact form a new institution of higher learning might assume. As early as 1810, he wrote:

I consider the common plan followed in this country, but not in others, of making one large and expensive building, as unfortunately erroneous. It is infinitely better to erect a small and separate lodge for each professor, with only a hall below for his class, and two chambers above for himself, joining these lodges with a barracks for a certain portion of the students, opening into a covered way to give a dry communication between all the schools. The whole of these arranged around an open square of grass and trees would make it what it should be in fact, an academical village instead of a common den of noise, filth and fetid air.

As far as we know, Jefferson’s first visualization of this ideal was the group of drawings he prepared for Albemarle Academy, a predecessor of the University, in August of 1814. His site plan for the Academy reveals that there were to have been at least nine pavilions for professors, distributed among student dormitories on three sides of an open square. When Jefferson began to realize his conception at Central College–what would become the University of Virginia– he found that the contours of the actual site were ill suited to this form. The proposed open square with pavilions and dormitories on three sides became a pair of parallel ranges, defining two sides of an elongated rectangle. At the suggestion of his friend Benjamin Latrobe, the northern end of this rectangle was to be filled by a domed building.

Ranges were added to the east and west, including dormitories and “Hotels,” in which the students would board at separate “messes.” Gardens would be placed between the ranges and the pavilions. Jefferson observed that this design, in which each range faced a back street, formed “the commencement of a regular town, capable of being enlarged to any extent which future circumstances may call for.”

In its completed state, Jefferson’s University neatly summarized his social vision and educational philosophy. The system of pavilions with student dormitories between them, as opposed to one large building, would encourage paternal, mentoring relationships between professor and student. Each representing a professor and thus a field of study, the pavilions together would function as a of the curriculum. Both the curriculum and the compound serving it could be extended indefinitely, as circumstances dictated. Instruction would be the best available: the benefit of a self-contained gentleman’s house for each professor, with the genteel accouterment of a garden enclosed by serpentine brick walls as well as the use of larger plots for subsistence gardening and pasturage for horses and cattle, would be a strong inducement to the best minds of Europe to join the faculty of the University. Finally, as specimens of architecture, the pavilions would provide exemplars of correct taste for a new generation of architects and patrons.

If the University was to consist of sub-communities formed around meals or professors, its larger unity as a place of learning was evident in its distribution around a single green space, and in the rough equivalence of all pavilions and of all student rooms. Centering this unity was the building at the head of the Lawn, the Rotunda. Jefferson had imagined the University as essentially secular, dedicated entirely to the pursuit of knowledge; his domed library, a temple of reason, was an appropriate crowning element.

The University’s rural location had also been Jefferson’s deliberate choice, reflecting his hope that a cloistered center of learning would protect students from the vices endemic to towns and cities. Jefferson envisioned the University as a kind of Elysium, an ideal place of virtue and felicity, a concept that resonated with the classical images that nourished his imagination. More than any American of his time, Thomas Jefferson appreciated the symbolic importance of public architecture, its capacity to embody and promote social ideals. Through all the changes to come, the conviction of the inescapable relationship between architecture and social values, particularly as these pertained to education, was a part of Jefferson’s legacy that was never cast aside.


These years saw developments that Jefferson could not have anticipated, including significant growth of the student body and social movements that worked against the close relationship Jefferson had envisioned between students and professors. Although new construction maintained the classical style of the buildings Jefferson had designed, changes to the pavilions, the gardens, and the Rotunda altered the appearance as well as the nature of the University.

Jefferson’s final plan for the University was intended to allow for change: he noted that the compound he had designed could be enlarged as “future circumstances may call for.” The future circumstances of the University, however, were to go beyond anything Jefferson could have foreseen. The University’s design, wonderful as it was, has continued to create challenges for planners and administrators seeking to respond to the changing conditions of the University and the world around it.

One of the earliest challenges was the growth in the student population beginning in the 1840s, attributable not only to the University’s reputation but to the expanding prosperity of the South generally and to the development of the railroad network, which now included connections to Charlottesville. Between 1842 and 1856, the number of students enrolled rose from 128 to 645. This burgeoning population created a need both for more housing and for more lecture halls.

Across the road defining the southern boundary of the Lawn, the ground fell away rapidly, allowing an unobstructed vista toward the Southwest and Ragged Mountains, but rendering impractical Jefferson’s idea of an indefinite expansion of the Lawn in this direction. The Lawn was girded by the fenced plots of ground set aside for the use of professors, creating an agricultural zone around and contiguous to the institution; from the base of the Rotunda to the north the land fell in a steep slope, planted with Scotch broom. Expansion inevitably required some violation of the ideal of community embodied in the Lawn.

Countering Jefferson’s intention to foster close mentoring relationships between professor and student, officials now encouraged students to find room and board in the hotels and “outboarding” houses of Charlottesville. The ongrounds housing created in 1848 by the construction of two ranges of scholars’ rooms, embracing a total of twelve units, was located apart from the Lawn, on Monroe Hill. The State scholars who occupied these rooms and boarded at Monroe Hill House all received financial assistance, thus creating a social stratification Jefferson would not be likely to have approved. This segregation paralleled a growing tendency of University men to divide themselves along social lines, as evidenced in the emergence of fraternities and secret societies. To accommodate lectures and other activities, in 1853 a new wing, designed by Robert Mills, was added to the Rotunda. The new assembly hall housed in the Rotunda Annex was large enough to seat the entire University, again contrary to Jefferson’s conception of the University as a series of smaller communities.

The pavilions saw their own changes. The movement of lectures to the Rotunda Annex, a consequence of the increased size of the student body, was propelled as well by shifting social patterns. The tendency of University youths– sons of slaveowners in a time of hardening views on slavery- -towards violent resistance of any measures for discipline contributed to hostile relationships between students and professors, including the pelting of the pavilions with rocks and foul substances, and culminating in the 1840 murder of Professor John A. G. Davis. A mentoring relationship would have been difficult to sustain in these conditions. The emerging idea of domesticity, in which the home was represented as a refuge from an impure world, would also have discouraged the practice of holding lectures under the professor’s roof.

As the function of the pavilions changed, professors came to regard their homes and gardens with strong proprietary feelings. Some pavilions were enlarged by rear extensions or expanded into adjoining student rooms, in order to provide more spacious quarters. Other professors closed up doorways, inserted or demolished interior walls. Meanwhile, roofs of some pavilions as well as student rooms were reconfigured from flat to sloping to address the problem of leakage. The ornamental gardens behind the pavilions were gradually diminished by the encroachment of numerous outbuildings to accommodate expanded domestic services. Present-day survivors from this early expansion include the Mews, the Cracker Box, and McGuffey Cottage.

The effort to counteract violence–which accounts for the institution of the Honor Code in 1842–may have contributed to the University’s participation in a nationwide shift at college campuses away from training in personal combat to non-competitive sports. In 1851, the University abandoned boxing, fencing, quarter staff, and broadsword, sports then called “gymnastics,” for the activities now associated with that name. In Edward Sachse’s famous view of the University in 1856, a collection of athletic equipment, corresponding to today’s parallel bars, pommel horse, rings, and balance beam, is shown in a grove of trees across the road from the south entrance to the Lawn.

Despite these alterations to Jefferson’s plans–and to his ideas–the architectural style of new building during this period was in large part faithful to the Jefferson idiom, thanks to the oversight of Visitors John Hartwell Cocke and Joseph Carrington Cabell, collaborators with Jefferson in the original design of the Lawn. The Visitors’ guardianship of the founder’s tradition even as they approved changes that moved the University into the national mainstream is perhaps the first instance of the dialogue with Jefferson’s legacy that innovators at the University have continued to enter into.


The popularity of the picturesque in architecture led to the re-design of the University’s landscape and to new styles, calling on varied historical models, for new construction. Despite their allusions to Italian, French, and medieval Gothic styles, the new buildings embodied the University’s new concern with broad- scale technical advances that had begun before the Civil War and accelerated in the war’s aftermath: a forward-looking infirmary, a natural history museum honoring Darwin, a state-of-the-art observatory.

The University’s architecture and landscape design of this period marked a sharp break with Jefferson’s classical style. The creation of meandering paths and on occasion even the siting of new buildings showed a similar freedom from allegiance to the Lawn’s orthogonal grid. These stylistic changes were in accordance with national trends in architecture and landscape design. At the same time, developments in society and culture, particularly in the emerging idea of the American university, informed the nature and purpose of this new construction.

Pre-Civil War: Pratt and Picturesque Architecture

The appointment of William A. Pratt as Director of Buildings and Grounds in 1858 ushered in a new era in the University’s physical development. During the 1840s and 1850s, architects and patrons had begun to abandon the cool reason of Roman classicism in favor of an emotionally charged, romantic architecture, calculated for picturesque effect. The romantic styles popularized by New York architect Alexander Jackson Davis and his friend, landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, were intended to evoke another time or place and in doing so to call forth particular longings and sentiments. As a devotee of this tradition, Pratt set out to remake the University, preparing a master plan to guide the development. Judging from the age of the trees, he seems to have planted many of the trees that now shade the area north of the Rotunda, having cleared away the fenced plots of the professors in the Brooks Hall triangle. Most notable, however, was a lacy network of serpentine paths laid out at the periphery of the Grounds and ignoring the orthogonal pattern of Jefferson’s earlier plan. The implications of this scheme were far-reaching, for in creating these new walks, Pratt moved to a more remote location the utilitarian gardens and pastures, agricultural plots which had surrounded the University for a quarter century.

Two 1857 buildings designed by Pratt exemplified the architectural styles that would come to characterize this period. One of these buildings was the University’s first indoor athletic facility, Squibb Gymnasium (now Levering Hall). Following the national trend to house athletic activities in purpose-built gymnasia, this structure, created by extending Pavilion F with a two-story addition, was built in the Italianate style, one of the approved manners of picturesque architecture.

The same style was employed in a new infirmary (now Varsity Hall) constructed in the same year. Pratt followed the principles of the picturesque in fixing the building’s orientation, taking his cue from the topography of the hillside on which it stood and from the informal geometry of the new landscape he was creating. Situated down the hill from East Lawn, Pratt’s infirmary fronted northeast, and so became the first significant structure to violate the geometry of Jefferson’s original plan.

The infirmary’s siting apart from the pavilions and dormitories was determined by hygienic concerns as well. From its inception, the University had been beset by epidemics of typhoid and other diseases; the laying out of the University Cemetery in 1828 was directly attributable to the resulting deaths. Measures for cleanliness and ventilation of student rooms had been instituted in an effort to promote health, and a new water system had been installed in 1854. Still, the epidemics had persisted. In constructing the infirmary, the University not only responded to but actually helped set in motion a national trend. This was the first purpose-built infirmary on any American campus. To ensure a healthful setting for the care of ill students, no trouble was spared in procuring for the structure all the latest in heating and ventilation technology. Large windows admitted more light and air, for which sliding shutters allowed precise control. From the basement, a convection furnace delivered heat to the rooms, free of combustion’s noxious byproducts. The University’s continuing effort to modernize its provisions for sanitation would eventually lead to the construction of a general sewage system in 1886.

Post-Civil War: High Victorian

The University’s building program was interrupted by the Civil War and the enormous distress and dislocation of the post-bellum years. No major building project was undertaken between 1858 and 1867. When construction began again, it was often funded by philanthropists both northern and southern, enriched by the rapid growth of manufactures and the consolidation of key industries. This construction reflected yet another architectural shift, this time towards the florid, polychromed richness of historical styles that offered opportunities for novelty and adornment. The juxtaposition of diverse materials, textures, and colors was a special source of delight. Architects gloried in ornaments and textures that bespoke the role of handwork in their creation. Brooks Hall, the gift of Rochester philanthropist Lewis Brooks, was a herald of these new ideas. Constructed in 1876-77 according to the design of architect John Rochester Thomas, this French-inspired building’s vertical massing, mansard roof, contrasting materials, and provocative detail made it unique among University buildings.

 Brooks Hall reflected then-current cultural as well as architectural trends, in particular the prominence of Darwin’s ideas. After the Civil War, natural history museums were created on a number of campuses across the country, some illustrating the new theory of evolution. Reportedly, the museum’s contents were arranged to illustrate this controversial new concept of nature. On the building’s exterior were displayed the names of important naturalists and thinkers, including Darwin.

Source Citation:

Neuman David J. 2007. University of Virginia Historic Preservation Framework Plan. Report. Charlottesville: University of Virginia.

Cite this page:

Neuman, David J.. 2007. "University of Virginia Historic Preservation Framework Plan, Report." History of Higher Education.