========[WASHINGTON POST, 19 FEB 1995, p. G5]========================
AT U-VA., LAWN & ORDER
"Thomas Jefferson's U-Shaped Campus Done to a T"
By Benjamin Forgey, Washington Post Staff Writer.
ANYONE who has ever visited the Lawn
at the University of Virginia in
Charlottesville knows the spell--or rather, spells-- it can cast. This is
a potent space. Moving through it, one feels intensely alive.
In part, this is a matter of physical sensation--the body reacts to
the variety of spaces and materials. The long, terraced green field,
defined by a procession of trees and classical brick buildings, is open
to the sky. The old hardwoods tower above. The buildings seem distant.
You can feel alone there, small.
Yet the architecture is reassuring. Your eyes acknowledge the
orderliness of the simple rows of white columns that frame the field. As
you move toward one side the other, you begin to take in the differences
in the family of two-story pavilions peeking above the low colonnade.
Closer still, the details of doors, windows, shutters and bricks exert a
tactile appeal: You want to touch them.
The nobility of the conception can take your breath away. The
ensemble is commanded by the Rotunda--a domed classical building, bigger
than the pavilions but, like them, put together with baked Virginia clay
and chiseled Italian stone. The balances between intimacy and openness,
architecture and nature, man and the chilling universe, speak of a
Then, too, the place is rich in associations. Adding to the
experience of the Lawn is knowledge that the Rotunda was intended to
house the university library--a center of humankind's intellectual
efforts to know, and control, its fate. And that this building, based
upon the Pantheon of the Roman Republic, was intended as a symbol linking
the American democracy to its ancient progenitors.
And that the whole was conceived by Thomas Jefferson.
"Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village: The Creation of an
Architectural Masterpiece, 1817-1826," an exhibition at the OCTAGON
museum, is a superb introduction to the subject. Organized by the
university's Bayly Art Museum, it contains a treasure trove of more than
50 original Jefferson drawings and many related items: letters by and to
Jefferson, architecture books he consulted during the design,
hand-written lists of materials and design specifications, and prints and
photographs attesting to nearly two centuries of fascination with the
To examine Jefferson's original drawings and documents is, as
always, a privilege and a thrill. It brings the great man close--in
particular, his passion for this, his last project. In his final year he
was still issuing long, admonishing lists about everything, from minor to
major. The ditches dug in the mountainside for water pipe must be just
so, he cautioned. "Make haste in finishing of dome and dome room," he
urged. Completion "is to be pushed by every possible exertion...by
employing all the hands which can be got."
Understandably, Jefferson considered the university one of his
greatest achievements. It was a manifestation of his conviction that
education was the key to the stability of the democracy. "No other sure
foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and
happiness," he wrote, than "the diffusion of knowledge among the people."
And it was a testimony to the centrality of architecture in
Jefferson's life and thought. ln a letter penned shortly before his
death, he confidently stated that "it will be a splendid establishment,
would be thought so in Europe, and for the chastity of its architecture
and classical taste leaves everything in America far behind it."
But the "canonization" of the Lawn, a architectural historian Richard Guy
Wilson recounts in the show's excellent catalogue, is mainly a
20th-century phenomenon. Through much of the 19th century the great
campus was ridiculed for presumed architectural defects, and resented on
religious grounds. Its inhabitants, including professors, were perceived
as "a most godless set" and its creator was despised for his deism. The
"Almighty is angry" at the pagan Rotunda, thundered one Episcopal bishop,
predicting the university's "destruction."
Wilson writes that though Jefferson "explicitly allowed for
religious services in the Rotunda," his conception of the University as
fundamentally secular went against the American grain at a time when most
such institutions were branches of this or that church organization.
Yet in many other ways Jefferson the educator and architect was
typical of his time and place. His originality lay in his ability to
extend or elaborate on existing national norms. Even the concept of the
college "campus" was basically an American invention--the Latin word,
meaning simply "field," was first used to describe a college by a
Princeton student in the late 18th century.
In his book "Campus: An American Planning Tradition," historian Paul
Venable Turner notes the enduring traits of this American creation.
Unlike its models in medieval England, the campus on North American soil
was not enclosed and cloisterlike. Rather, it almost always was situated
in an open, green space. Unlike its counterparts in continental Europe,
the American university habitually was located in rural or countrylike
settings. And it presumed a close, continuous, almost familial
interchange between faculty and students--it was a separate, live-in
Jefferson's university was all of these things, brilliantly. And it
was something else. The retired president spent most of the last 15
years of his long life perfecting the design and getting it built; he
tolerated very little opposition. In 1816, before a university bill was
taken up by the state legislature, he made sure that old friends James
Madison and James Monroe (the sitting president and the president-to-be)
were appointed to the institution's first board of visitors.
A LETTER-PERFECT U-SHAPE
Taking advantage of the extensive scholarship of the last 70 years
or so, the OCTAGON's exhibition lays out the evolution of the design from
the first raw site plan of 1814 to the results a dozen years later. Each
of the many changes, large and small, contributed to the meaning and
beauty of the whole.
Jefferson was a master of supple adjustments to the terrain, to the
limitations of the builders' craft, and to the ideas of others. When the
actual site proved too small for the original plan, he greatly reduced
the Lawn's width and thereby greatly improved its final effect. When the
land proved too hilly for the flat greensward he envisioned, he carefully
reconciled the design to the necessary terraces. When speed required that
a skilled builder use a different pattern book for certain details, he
conceded the point.
Though Jefferson eagerly solicited advice from talents he respected,
he retained possession of the design. As shown in an original letter, the
brilliant Benjamin Henry Latrobe contributed the concept of a central,
larger domed building to give the composition hierarchical focus.
Jefferson recognized the aptness of the idea. But he tinkered with it
until he could call the result his own, even crossing out or erasing
references to Latrobe in one of his Rotunda drawings.
The design as realized is by far the fullest embodiment of
Jefferson's special architectural skills. From beginning to end he held
to his vision of a U-shaped campus bordered by pavilions for classrooms
and faculty residences, these connected by a colonnade and rooms for
students--a self-sufficient "academical village." He constantly refined
the plan, adding, for instance, the outer "ranges" of "hotels" and
dormitories, connected to the Lawn by gardens and his beautiful serpentine
walls. He struggled successfully to make each pavilion a model of "taste
and good architecture," so that the ensemble, drawing on many sources, is
quite different from anything else in the world.
Of course, there were flaws in the ointment. African Americans were
not welcome on the Lawn, except as slave labor. Women were welcome as
servants and as pretty guests. The familial relationship of professor
and student was an ideal more often honored in the breach. The university
spread out in other directions, so that the Lawn became no more than its
But what a symbol! With the Declaration of Independence and other
deeds and writings, Jefferson helped build a philosophical foundation for
all Americans ultimately to enjoy full citizenship. Similarly, with his
university Jefferson provided architectural and educational ideals to
emulate. "The Lawn presents itself as a picture of what we could be,"
architect William Hubbard observed. "Realizing this, we are grateful that
the Lawn is the way it is."
THOMAS JEFFERSON'S ACADEMICAL VILLAGE will remain on view through April
16 (1995) at the OCTAGON, 1799 New York Ave. NW. [Washington, D.C.,
USA]. Closed Mondays, the museum is open all other days from 10 a.m. to
4p.m. Admission is $2.
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