As dome nears completion, a new chapter begins for Rotunda

UVA's Rotunda. Photo: Dan Addison, UVA Public Affairs. UVA’s Rotunda. Photo: Dan Addison, UVA Public Affairs.

Jody Lahendro has led a lot of curious locals up the 61′ of creaking scaffolding that has surrounded UVA’s Rotunda for a year. Most recently, it was a group that had won a private tour at an auction to raise money for the iconic structure’s ongoing renovation. Once the visitors emerged at the lip of the 20′ dome, the Lawn stretching out below, they didn’t pay much attention to the top of the building above and behind them.

“They just wanted to see the view,” said Lahendro, a historic preservation architect for Facilities Management at the University and manager of the renovation project.

But when he climbed back up Wednesday, the day before the scaffolding started coming down, Lahendro had eyes only for the new dome.

“This,” he said, gesturing broadly, “is our copper roof.”

Repairs to the damaged dome have been underway for a year, part of a $50.6 million overhaul of the Rotunda. More than 100 tradesmen have toiled on the resurfacing project in recent months, racing to finish ahead of schedule so the building at the heart of Jefferson’s Academical Village could preside over Final Exercises this weekend in all its unencumbered glory.

Blame the weather for the fact that it will still be crowned in shiny copper when the class of 2013 graduates. It’s due for a coating of primer and protective paint, which will ultimately render it white. But the two-step process demands a totally dry dome, and the outlook at the start of last week was decidedly soggy.

“Too many resources have been invested in the project to screw it up now,” Lahendro said.

At UVA, building for the future—the current dome is expected to last 100 years or more—requires a lot of looking back. But the team of preservationists and architects in charge of the care and keeping of Grounds aren’t sure exactly what the original Rotunda dome looked like.

“We have no good photographic archival documentation of what was here before the fire of 1895,” Lahendro said, but they knew it was built with wood supports and covered with metal shingles. The infamous blaze left the Rotunda a smoking ruin, and ushered in a new era at the growing University. Renowned late 19th century architect Stanford White left his own stamp on the building, including a new copper-topped dome ringed with a series of built-in step-like supports.

“The steps kind of came down and flared out,” Lahendro said. “It was very sensuous, a lovely profile. But everyone knew it was not what Jefferson designed.”

In 1976, restorers used Jefferson’s drawings to reconstruct what they believed was a more accurate silhouette from concrete and steel. Two years ago, experts sawed downward through the tiers and layers and found the dome was rusting from the inside out. Enter Lynch Roofing, whose local experts demolished and rebuilt the lower tiers and covered the entire thing with White’s material of choice: hand-shaped sheets of copper.

Everywhere are details most people will never see up close: hundreds of carefully crimped copper seams; a new skylight with glass shaded to mimic the overlapping panes of Jefferson’s time. Such touches are just the latest in a history of changes, adjustments, and repairs that stretches back to the father of American neoclassical architecture himself. Part of the challenge and beauty of preservation work is understanding the intricacies of that history, Lahendro explained. With $42 million worth of work left to do on the Rotunda’s interior, there’s plenty of project left ahead, “and we’re still discovering things,” he said.

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