Capital improvements: Craftsmanship defines UVA’s Rotunda renovation

Master craftsmen in Italy used photos from 1870  to recreate the Rotunda's original capitals. Photo: Dan Addison/ UVA University Communications Master craftsmen in Italy used photos from 1870 to recreate the Rotunda’s original capitals. Photo: Dan Addison/ UVA University Communications

A structure as history-soaked as UVA’s Rotunda has many chapters to its story. And, having served as a symbol of the university for nearly 200 years, it’s layered with meaning, too. The Rotunda is currently undergoing a major renovation; much of the exterior will be finished this month, allowing graduates to process around the building during final exercises.

Set to be finished by August, the Rotunda renovation has major practical benefits, certainly: updated utilities, 6,000 square feet of new underground space and better infrastructure so that, for example, Board of Visitors members can get a decent cell signal during meetings.

Photo: Tektonics
Photo: Tektonics

But this is no ordinary building. Famously designed by Thomas Jefferson, and nearly destroyed by a fire in 1895, it has been imagined and reimagined many times. Current planners are in some sense returning to the source: They aim to make the Rotunda, as Jefferson originally intended, a center of student life.

That might mean bringing it down to earth—for instance, replacing museum-quality antiques with “functional study furnishings” in one meeting room, according to project coordinator Sarita Herman. The Rotunda will host more classes and events, and students will be encouraged to study in the Dome Room on the top floor, previously a rather sacrosanct space.

But the restoration also represents a big boost in quality. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the replacement of the capitals, those carved decorative tops on the Rotunda’s famous white columns, both on the exterior and inside the Dome Room.

Why had the exterior capitals been covered with black fabric for the last several years? It wasn’t to protect them; it was to keep passersby from being hit by falling fragments. “They were really unstable,” says Herman. Installed in the late 19th or early 20th century, the capitals didn’t measure up to the originals, says Brian Hogg, senior preservation planner. “The fine detail was never present, and the way they weathered only exacerbated it.”

New ones were carved by master craftsmen in Italy, who used circa-1870 photos and surviving fragments to recreate the Rotunda’s original capitals.

As stunning as they are, the exterior capitals will never undergo the scrutiny that will greet the ones in the Dome Room. That’s because the public will now have access to the gallery level in that space, putting folks at eye level (and within touching distance) of the new capitals, which are being created by Richmond-based firm Tektonics Design Group.

Made of mahogany, which stands up well to both machining and hand-carving, each new capital is constructed of multiple pieces. “That allowed more detail,” says Tektonics’ Christopher Hildebrand. “We applied advanced manufacturing techniques without having that be evident.”

The process involved building clay models, then digitally scanning them to create programs for milling machines. After the machines complete the first stage of carving the acanthus leaves and other decorative elements, artisans finish and assemble the capitals by hand.

The Dome Room also sports a new plaster ceiling (an upgrade from the existing acoustical tile) that, despite its historically correct appearance, also has sound-absorbing properties. That’ll come in handy if, indeed, students adopt this room as their own.

INTERIOR CAPITALS BY THE NUMBERS

Tektonics is the Richmond- based company charged with building the new Dome Room capitals. It’s no simple task.

7 Number of capitals Tektonics is building per month

40 Total capitals in the project

250-300 Hours each capital requires to build

10,000-12,000 Total hours to build all the capitals

5 People hired for this project

2,000 Total parts to complete the job

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