Historical hangout: UVA renovates Rotunda to fit student study needs

UVA’s historic preservation architect Jody Lahendro says the construction work is 76 percent done and the changes are meant to reinstate the Rotunda as a center for student life. Staff photo UVA’s historic preservation architect Jody Lahendro says the construction work is 76 percent done and the changes are meant to reinstate the Rotunda as a center for student life. Staff photo

Driving down University Avenue, you might notice the Rotunda’s usual cluster of scaffolding has decreased considerably. Although the UNESCO World Heritage Site is still under construction, UVA’s design team has completed the majority of its renovations, and the project is on schedule to be finished by the end of July.

The first phase included installing a new oculus and copper roof. The second phase began in spring 2014 and expands classroom space in the Rotunda, increases access and enhances programming options at a cost of roughly $42.5 million.

UVA’s historic preservation architect Jody Lahendro says the construction work is 76 percent done and the changes are meant to reinstate the Rotunda as a center for student life.

“What all of us, and the university design team, hope this project does is to bring students back into the Rotunda to have it become an active part of the daily life of the students, a daily part of the education experience,” Lahendro says,

In Thomas Jefferson’s original 1821 designs for the Rotunda, the building was meant to be the university’s main library, a natural hub for student activity. When Alderman Library became the main library on grounds in 1930, it slowly shifted student study space outside of the Rotunda.

The renovations to the Rotunda’s interior add several new areas specifically designed for student use.

“We’re opening three new student classrooms, new study spaces, and the hours will be extended for students to use,” Lahendro explains. “And we’re enhancing the Dome Room for the students to use as a study space—it will be set up for that purpose.”

While the inside of the Rotunda will remain a construction site for the next five months, Lahendro says that final exercises for the Class of 2016 will not be affected. For the big day in May, the construction team will take down the fences on both sides of the Rotunda and students will be able to process up the north portico steps, around the terraces of the Rotunda, and down the south portico steps.

The two-year-long renovations have not been all smooth sailing. Some of the outdoor work on the utilities between the Rotunda and University Avenue caused unexpected trouble.

As part of the second phase, four new utility lines had to be added, running perpendicular to utilities that had been installed as early as the 19th century. Difficulties with installation pushed this part of the project back by six months.

“We found many of the utility lines in different locations than the maps had shown,” Lahendro says. “We had to eventually go underneath all of those existing utilities and when we did that we hit rock.”

The construction team most recently has been working on closing up ceilings and walls inside the Rotunda, putting brick in the Rotunda’s new elevator, cleaning up the marble balustrades and paving the terraces. Although much of this work was planned to safeguard the historical site, Lahendro stresses again that the students are at the heart of the renovations.

“They are the most important part of this project,” Lahendro says, “Our hope is to make the Rotunda part of the students’ educational experience and get them back in there again.”

“What all of us, and the university design team, hope this project does is to bring students back into the Rotunda to have it become an active part of the daily life of the students, a daily part of the education experience,” UVA’s historic preservation architect Jody Lahendro says.

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