University of Virginia

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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Jefferson was seventy-three years of age when he started the University of Virginia. He called it the "hobby of his old age". He not only picked the sight, raised the money, got the state legislature to back him, designed the buildings, oversaw their construction, but also picked the books for the library, the first professors, the curriculum, and he was the first rector. He did this all between the ages of seventy-three and eighty-three, quite a hobby for one's old age.

The Maverick engraving, done by Peter Maverick from T.J.'s original drawings, shows the Rotunda as the focal point of Jefferson's "Academical Village". The Rotunda served as classroom and library in Jefferson's day, and he places the library at the center because he believed that education was the center of everything. Most colleges at that time centered around a church, but Jefferson, although religious, did not like the organized religions that seemed to be forming at that time, so he placed a library at the head of his college instead of a church.

Jefferson called the grassy expanse the "lawn". The single story student rooms are now reserved for fourth-year leaders, voted in by peers. It is a real honor to be chosen for one of the lawn rooms, so much so that we hear no complaints about the lack of plumbing. You do see students in bathrobes running all the way down and around the lawn to get to showers or toliets. The ten two story buildings (pavilions) are faculty residences. Each of these is different architecturally because Jefferson realized tha tmost of the students would never reach Europe and he wanted them to have models of the classical architecture that they would never have a chance to see.

The back lines T.J. called ranges. They have more student rooms and three large buildings on each range. The larger buildings were dining halls in Jefferson's day; he called them hotels. He had a French hotel, a Germany, an Italian, etc. where students had to eat the food and speak the language of whatever country they were in. Unfortunately, although a great idea, it lasted only six months because everyone wanted to eat French and none wanted to eat German.

Between the lawn and ranges are the gardens, encased in Serpentine walls. In Jefferson's day these gardens had pigs, chickens and vegetables. He wanted decorative gardens, in fact he left plans for them, but he could never afford them. Thanks to the Garden Club of Virginia, the gardens are now decorative, done according to his plans. They are open to the public.

Construction began in 1817 and was finished by 1826. In 1825, the University was opened for classes and there were 68 students in the entering class. This number doubled for the next semester and grew rapidly. By 1850 we were in need of extra classroom space. In 1853, an Annex was added to the North side by the same man who later did our Washington Monument (Robert Mills) The Annex was one of the first public buildings in our country to receive electricity and it was very primitive wiring. The building caught fire in 1895 with the fire starting on Sunday morning when everyone was in church or still asleep. The nearest fire department was Richmond so we didn't stand a chance. The dome of the Rotunda quickly caught fire and caved in leaving only the exterior brick standing. After the fire the University hired Stanford White, the leading New York architect to redo Jefferson's Rotunda. He drastically altered Jefferson's design. In the 1970's, for the sake of history and for the Bicentennial of the country, the building was returned to the original Jefferson design. The Rotunda is, incidentally, half-scale of the Pantheon in Rome. Although Jefferson never saw the Pantheon, he did own a copy of this Piranesi engraving, and he felt he could improve the design.