December 2009: Bob Sweeney's life in a World Heritage Site

December 2009: Bob Sweeney's life in a World Heritage Site

The first residents of Pavilion VI on the UVA Lawn were a 26-year-old professor of mathematics and his wife, transplanted in the mid-1820s from Cambridge, England. Chastened by the Virginia summers, they left after only two years. The pavilion is undoubtedly more comfortable for its current occupants—Bob and Peg Sweeney—though the demands of a semi-public life on the Lawn are still considerable. 


The couple moved in two years ago, in November 2007, and have since hosted a plethora of events at their prestigious address. Bob Sweeney, UVA’s vice president of development and public affairs, estimates that in their first year, he and Peg hosted 1,200 people in this peculiar, historic home. “My wife has been terrific,” he says. “She’s a much more private person than I am.”

Besides donors and alumni, “We do a lot with students,” he says. “The Z Society asks if they can use the pavilion for graduate students. So I get a message from ‘Mystically Z’ and I don’t even know who the person is. They come when I’m not here.” The pavilion also sometimes hosts plain old parties: “Our immediate neighbors, we invited to a barbecue. My wife said, ‘Make sure the barbecue is working!’ We ended up buying hamburgers at Boylan Heights and bringing them over here. You try to informally get together in what is formal space.”

Sweeney thinks of the Lawn as a neighborhood, and in some ways it does function as one. When Jeanette Lancaster retired as Dean of the Nursing School in 2008 and moved out of Pavilion II, some of her university-owned furniture went up for grabs. “They put a note out to pavilion residents,” remembers Sweeney: “‘See if you want anything.’”

Though their two children, Paul and Matthew, are grown, the Sweeneys are surrounded by young people. “You see these kids first thing in the morning,” he says. Because student Lawn residents must walk outside to get to their showers, “They all get together each year and buy themselves these big heavy bathrobes with the year on it. You’ll see them, the boys and the girls, in these bathrobes; you’ll see them with wet hair and towels on their heads. It really is like family.”

“Before moving in I had been at the university for 16 years and worked in the Rotunda, so I knew the Lawn very well; I knew the rhythm of it. We had a very conscious decision to make—you’re in the heart of student space. The attitude you bring is important. Their lives are on very different clocks. They will sleep in late, stay up late, so part of it is maintaining a comfort level with the fact that there is noise. Students will park in your space.

“I obviously drank the UVA Kool-Aid, because I really believe in the Honor System. We’ll leave plants and ferns outside, leave the door open…This sounds too precious, but there’s a tremendous amount of trust that my neighbors will look out for each other and for us.

“This is the most unusual room. It was the original parlor. In 1928, the pavilion was taken out of residential use and became the Romance Languages Pavilion. A Francophile, Ormond Smith, donated to the university an homage to Jefferson and Lafayette, a mural on the walls and ceiling, celebrating the French role in the American Revolution.

“Jefferson kept very meticulous records, and he recorded that each one of those [carved faces making up the frieze around the walls] cost 78 cents. That’s the donor [Ormond Smith, painted onto a panel behind a false door]. Another resident told me they had young kids and kept that door closed because it freaked them out, this guy standing there.

“There’s Jefferson and Lafayette at Monticello, there’s the French at Yorktown… From time to time we’ll have a TV [in this room]. When Paul comes, he stays in this room [across the hall], and he’ll use this room.

“Some of my colleagues [who also live on the Lawn] won’t have very many personal photos. I wanted people to know it’s also a home. I’ve chosen to have more personal stuff. It warms it up.”

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