Rotunda scheduled for a $50 million makeover

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Anyone who’s been to UVA in recent months has surely walked away wondering, “What’s up with that black fabric wrapped around the tops of the columns at the Rotunda? Is UVA in mourning or something?” Turns out, it’s part of a much larger effort to completely overhaul the entire building. Stately though it may seem—architectural funeral veils aside—the Rotunda is evidently in pretty sorry condition.

Support system: In addition to fixing a leaky roof, the renovation of UVA’s Rotunda—estimated to cost $50.6 million—will address crumbling marble at the peaks of the building’s iconic columns.

The Rotunda has been renovated several times in its 185-year history, most famously and comprehensively after a devastating 1895 fire that left little intact but the walls and a Jefferson statue. But it’s still at heart a 19th century building, and University officials say that it’s showing its age. Local media has previously reported on the Rotunda’s leaking roof, but UVA Vice President of Management and Budget Colette Sheehy says that outfitting the building with a new, leak-proof copper roof (don’t worry, Jefferson purists; they’ll paint it white) is just the $4.59 million first step in a massive renovation project that’s projected to cost $50.6 million in total.

So where’s the remaining $46 million going? Sheehy explains that it’s not just the roof that’s in trouble. “The entire integrity of the building envelope is compromised,” she says. That means the walls, doors and windows may all be in need of renovations like the one the roof is facing—a lot of masonry, according to Sheehy.

Things don’t look much better inside. All the major systems in the Rotunda, from plumbing to electrical to heating, ventilation and air-conditioning to the elevators, are in varying states of disrepair. They all need to be fixed or at least brought up to 21st century standards.

“We’d also like like to explore whether we could reopen the entrance on the north side,” adds Sheehy. That’ll be the job of the Historic Preservation Colloquium, a conference of architects, historians and preservationists from within the University and from Monticello, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and other historical sites in the area. The colloquium will meet in June to make some final decisions about things like the north entrance and what design will be used for the roof.

Brian Hogg, UVA’s Senior Preservation Planner, tells C-VILLE that nothing they work up is likely to be too radical, appearance-wise. “There might be some changes to the metal cladding for the dome,” says Hogg, “but that would be all.” So while some Philosophy 101 students at the University might be disconcerted about whether the Rotunda will remain fundamentally the same after having most of its parts replaced, at the end of the six-year project, which UVA hopes to start this year, nothing about the Rotunda beyond the metaphysical realm will be noticeably different.

Of course, knowing where the money’s going doesn’t necessarily make that $50.6 million figure any easier to swallow. The University has already asked the General Assembly for $26.8 million, and lawmakers in both the House and Senate have so far been responsive and enthusiastic, but the prospect of that enthusiasm being matched with cash is currently in limbo.

In January, the Senate passed its six-year, $535 million Capital Outlay Plan that allots funding for Commonwealth-owned properties throughout Virginia. It included an unspecified amount to be spent on the Rotunda, but the House of Delegates roundly rejected the Senate’s plan in a unanimous vote. It could be weeks or even months before the House settles on a version of the plan that it likes.

The remaining $24 million will have to be raised privately. Currently, the University has about $3 million in historic preservation funds from its endowment, but as for the rest, it’s going to take a lot of alumni with deep pockets. “We’re talking about the symbol of the University of Virginia, maybe the premier building in Virginia, so hopefully that would have appeal for some donors,” says Sheehy.

Which just leaves the fabric around the tops of the columns.

“Underneath the curtains—that awful, awful looking industrial stuff—are composite capitals made of marble put up in 1897,” says Rotunda Administrator Leslie Comstock. “They’re now deteriorating and need to be replaced.” And yes, 10 Corinthian marble capitals will be expensive. That’s what a chunk of the $50.6 million is for.

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