Living in history: At UVA, residing on the Lawn is a unique privilege

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Photo by Dan Addison Photo by Dan Addison

It’s easy to say that occupying a pavilion in UVA’s Academical Village is akin to living in a museum. Which is true: The 10 pavilions, 54 student rooms, Rotunda, and surrounding grounds—in their totality, a UNESCO World Heritage Site—are dripping with significance. Every brick, every timeworn doorstep, and every garden bench is documented and preserved.

But for Nursing School Dean Dorrie Fontaine and the other faculty pavilion residents (who, these days, are chosen by the Board of Visitors), life on the Lawn is marked not only by historical pedigree, but by an intense social calendar. Standing in the living room of Pavilion IX, which she’s called home since 2011, Dean Fontaine gestured to the furniture and told a recent visitor, “I move the furniture all around. I have at least 15 events a month.”

Those are apt to include student seminars, birthday meals for nursing school staff, fundraising events, and a Christmas dinner for 300. Visiting scholars shack up in the basement. Then there are the accidental tourists. “People are always confusing us with the Colonnade Club [next door, in Pavilion VII], and walk right in,” said Fontaine.

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Photo by Virginia Hamrick

She’s incredibly sanguine about the demands on her time. “It’s just a treat to be here,” she said. “I always leave the blinds open because I know people are curious.”

As anyone who’s ever wandered into the heart of UVA has no doubt gleaned, Thomas Jefferson meant for the Lawn to be a place for students and faculty to mix. One-story rows of student rooms are interspersed with two-story pavilions, facilitating conversation and mentorship. “We’ve tried to take that to heart,” said Fontaine. She and her husband Barry, for example, make use of their front-door Lawn access. “We often sit out there in the evening with a cocktail and some peanuts and talk to the students,” she said.

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The only pavilion home to feature a concave entranceway, or “exedra,” Pavilion IX is an intriguing spot in Jefferson’s Academical Village–and centrally located. Photo by Josh Mccullar

Layers of history

Pavilion life is nothing if not quirky. The Fontaines may glance out their back door only to find a wedding in progress in the garden (which, like other pavilion gardens, is open to the public). Secret student societies conduct arcane rituals just outside the front door. And other Lawn-dwelling faculty—“We’re all good friends,” said Fontaine—may arrive for a visit via the second-floor walkways that connect the pavilions, stepping through the Fontaines’ triple-sash windows to enter their home.

Jefferson’s vision seems to be alive and well, though it has not gone unchanged over the nearly two centuries since the Village was built. Originally, the idea was for the pavilions’ lower floors to serve as classrooms, with faculty living mostly upstairs. “Very bluntly, the professors didn’t like having the students downstairs,” said Richard Guy Wilson, professor of architectural history. “It interrupted your life. Very early on there’s this move to construct an annex to the Rotunda, Brooks Hall, and the whole south end of the Lawn, to get the students out of the pavilions.”

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Photo by Robert Llewellyn

Pavilion IX must accommodate both an endless stream of visitors and the Fontaines’ everyday needs. Guest books in the entryway document the public nature of the space, while yoga mats stashed under a looming breakfront speak of normal home life. Fontaine has carved out spaces for modern pursuits: A couch in her office “is where we crash and watch stupid TV.” She spends most of her time at the table in the kitchen—a modest, cheerful room updated in a recent renovation. There’s even a kegerator in the basement.

Yet make no mistake: This is a home of serious architectural interest. “A lot of people have it as a favorite pavilion,” said Fontaine. This, as Professor Wilson explained, is largely due to a perception that Pavilion IX is a precursor to modernist architecture.

Why? The most salient feature of the pavilion’s relatively plain façade is the “exedra”—a concave entranceway that creates interesting forms and illuminations both inside and out. Many have drawn a connection between the exedra and a French contemporary of Jefferson’s, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, who has been considered part of a cadre of proto-modernists. Yet, says Wilson, the exedra may have an entirely different source.

“The design probably comes from Benjamin Henry Latrobe, an architectural buddy of Jefferson’s,” said Wilson. Jefferson had written to Latrobe seeking ideas for the pavilions, and Latrobe responded with a drawing of “a pavilion that looks very much like Pavilion IX,” said Wilson. “On [Jefferson’s] drawing for Pavilion IX, in the corner it says ‘Latrobe’s Pavilion.’”

Whatever its source, the pavilion is layered with the histories of past stewards—the kitchen occupies a rear addition dating from 1831—and filled with a mix of the Fontaines’ private possessions and objects owned by the University.

In the dining room, a massive sideboard once owned by two of Jefferson’s great-granddaughters rubs shoulders with a Cavalier portrait that’s been in Fontaine’s family for a century. Four John Barber paintings, on loan from UVA’s Fralin Museum of Art, hang in the den.

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Pavilion IX is three stories—a ground-floor public area sandwiched between the couple’s living spaces. Photo by Virginia Hamrick

Upstairs, the master bedroom features tall ceilings edged by ornate moldings. It’s a favorite space of the Fontaines, who (notwithstanding the occasional splinter from well-aged wooden floors) seem delighted, rather than awed, by their surroundings.

“It’s open and inviting,” said Fontaine. “We live in every inch of this house.”

 

Storied pasts

Brian Hogg is senior historic preservation planner in UVA’s Office of the Architect. We asked him how the University has preserved Pavilion IX, especially during the renovation that occurred just before Dean Fontaine took up residence there.

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A painting of a Cavalier that had been in Fontaine’s family for a century now hangs in her UVA home. Photo by Virginia Hamrick

What were some of the main preservation considerations with the recent renovation?

With all of our major projects in the Academical Village, we do research before starting construction. This allows us to minimize the effect of any changes on the important spaces in the buildings—in the case of Pavilion IX, the first and second floor rooms—while still renovating it to make it comfortable for 21st century living. Pavilion IX got all new HVAC, plumbing and electrical service, and lots of Internet service. There were three and a half new bathrooms and a new kitchen—all without changes to the character of the main rooms.

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Nursing school historical photos line the central hallway downstairs. “I’ve made this the nursing pavilion,” Fontaine said. Photo by Virginia Hamrick

Dean Fontaine told us that, for Pavilion IX’s first floor, she was allowed to choose paint colors from a limited historic palette. Where did these color choices come from? 

These are colors that have been found over time through analysis as other pavilions have been renovated. Most, but not all, of them appear to be from the first tenants in the buildings. Some are the second or third generation of paint. There is a lot of evidence for wallpaper use in the family portions of the pavilions, but we don’t have records of the patterns.

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”We found most of the ornamental casing for a window that had been removed from the west end of the living room at some point in the past, and were able to reinstall it to make the room more complete. We just had to use translucent glass to avoid views into the kitchen,” Brian Hogg, Senior Historic Preservation Planner in UVA’s Office of the Architect said. Photo by Virginia Hamrick.

How much do we know about the pavilion’s appearance when first built and in other eras? 

We know a lot about the general appearance of the buildings from the very first period until now. There are drawings by one of the builders that show each pavilion and most of the hotels just after they were finished. Images of the University were widely published through the first half of the 19th century, albeit with varying degrees of accuracy. The first photographs appear shortly after the Civil War and continue until today. We have to do a lot of research to get to the fine details of the exterior appearance of the pavilions when we recreate missing features like the big parapet at Pavilion X, but the University’s archives are a remarkable source of information that gives us great confidence in our work. The built interior is very intact from its construction—the floors, baseboards, cornices, walls are all original and largely intact.

We don’t know a lot about how the buildings were decorated. The individual professors were responsible for furnishing and decorating their residences, so there’s no central record of what they looked like. The paint colors Dorrie selected from are based on paint analysis of finishes that have been found and there are interior photos from a few pavilions in the late 19th century, but these really were homes to the professors and their families.

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