By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter
In the context of an over 200-year-old campus, 50 years may not seem so important. But for the University of Virginia Law School class of ’73, 50 years was significant. It was my husband’s 50th reunion; it was a big deal. Tobin and I wanted to be there. We were married in 1970, just before Tobin joined the class of 1973, so we both have many CharloUesville memories. Colleges and universities are smart about reunions. They schedule them in the spring when most campuses are at their most beautiful. UVA is no exception. I fondly remember the dogwood and azaleas in May, and we were not disappointed.
Charlo’esville azaleas in full bloom
The core visual draw of Charlottesville, though, is the stunning architecture of the original university, founded and designed by Thomas Jefferson after he left the White House in 1809.
Jefferson had begun building his splendid home, Monticello, in 1768 on top of a small mountain outside of the town of Charlottesville on land he had inherited from his planter father. Founded in 1762, the town was named for the English Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of George III. (Yes, the queen featured in Netflix’s Bridgerton and its prequel Queen Charlotte.)
Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello
A graduate of the College of William and Mary, Jefferson demonstrated a passion for both for learning and architecture, evidenced in his extensive library and decades of work on Monticello and later his university. His interest in founding a university emerged as early as 1778 in bills he submitted to the Virginia General Assembly in support of public education in Virginia. His final plans and construction of UVA would have to wait for his retirement years.Recounted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation which manages Monticello today, Jefferson’s architectural inspiration was Andrea Palladio, the 16th-century Italian architect, who devoted much of his practice to designs incorporating classical forms, such as the temple front and dome, in domestic architecture. Jefferson reportedly began collecting books about architecture, including those of Palladio, while at the College of William and Mary.
Palladio drawings xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx RIBA British Architectural Library
Most visitors to UVA do not realize that years of wrestling with the political factions of the Virginia legislature would pass before the University was approved and finally funded, first as Central College, and later as the state’s university. By 1824, the major elements were in place if not completed. The Foundation reports, however, that “By November the Rotunda was sufficiently completed to allow Jefferson and James Madison to entertain there the Marquis de Lafayette and four hundred guests.”
The “Lawn” of the University of Virginia with student and faculty residences flanking the Rotunda.
When the first students arrived in March of 1825, the complex was still incomplete. The student and faculty rooms along the ranges were ready but the Rotunda, the university’s library based on the Pantheon in Rome and the focal point of the great lawn, was unfinished. The Foundation reports that “Numerous repairs and final touches were needed. The Rotunda roof leaked. The Carrara marble bases and capitals did not arrive until spring, and while the portico was completed, the front steps were not and would not be built for several more years.”
Students enjoy the sun on the steps of the Rotunda
Tobin contemplates the Lawn, standing in front of the room where he spent his last undergraduate year at UVA
Jefferson introduced the English serpentine wall design (called Crinkle Crackle) defining faculty gardens
Guides at Monticello showed us the spot on the Monticello veranda where Jefferson was said to set up his telescope to look down from the mountaintop at the construction site several miles away. Given the growth of trees in the intervening 200-plus years, we could not see the university but could imagine how satisfied Jefferson must have been to see what he called his “Hobby in my old age” come to fruition. Sadly, Jefferson would not live to see the Rotunda completed. He died July 4, 1826. Coincidentally, the country’s second president, John Adams, once Jefferson’s bitter political opponent but a close friend in their old age, died in Quincy, Massachusetts on the same day.
Graduating seniors celebrate with photos on the Rotunda portico.
The Rotunda had always been the defining building on the grounds. It had been renovated in a devastating fire in 1895 and then in 1976 returned to Jefferson’s original design in time to host Queen Elizabeth II during the American Bicentennial. Elevators, catering facilities, air conditioning and other accommodations to modern life have been thoughtfully added. One of the traditional highlights of the 50th Law School reunion was honoring the class with dinner held in the Rotunda, historically a black-tie event. We had packed accordingly, my husband sporting his formal kilt, a favored choice for such events.
Ready for the “black-Ve” dinner at the Rotunda.
Only when we boarded the bus bringing classmates to the dinner did we discover that the committee this year had downgraded the code to business dress. Just three gentlemen were wearing black-tie, as we thought all would have been and frankly should have been. The change must have been in very fine print in the reunion materials. I was not personally upset; Jefferson and his guests would have approved of our 21st century interpretation, I’m sure, of our more appropriate dress.
Statue of Jefferson in the Rotunda
Rotunda reception room
Being in the Rotunda for an event rather than just a tour was a real treat. We had cocktails in one of two large oval reception rooms on main level; the other is a conference room where the Board of Visitors (the University Trustees) meets.
On the stunning upper floor where dinner was held, the ceiling has been recreated as Jefferson intended but had never executed as a planetarium with the constellations etched around the central oculus. A recent renovation added the charming star-studded figures. Handsome columns surround the dome with restored bookcases and study areas of the original library. Knowing that dignitaries from the Marquis de Lafayette to Queen Elizabeth II were entertained here made the evening unusually memorable.
Rotunda oculus surrounded by the constellations
A 50th reunion means one will not see all one’s classmates…we honored those who had died and missed seeing others. Our friends Chuck and Lynda Johnson Robb were not able to attend; nor was Linda G. Howard, the lively class president; nor was the notable classmate Robert Mueller, former FBI Director. But other friends made the weekend delightful, even if we didn’t always recognize each other!
One does not tour the University of Virginia and Monticello without remembering that these magnificent buildings were built by enslaved labor. A dramatic memorial has been added near the Rotunda to recognize and acknowledge these individuals. Names are included where they are known. It’s sobering to read the many first names not recorded with last names, unrecorded or unknown at the time. One cannot ignore the irony of our festive celebration of our founding fathers whose wisdom and political acumen created our democracy in handsome surroundings that accommodated only the privileged white landowners of the era.