UVA spending $450K to give Rotunda that ’70s look

The copper-topped Rotunda is getting a paint job. Photo: Laura Wagner The copper-topped Rotunda is getting a paint job. Photo: Laura Wagner

The Rotunda is the central structure of University of Virginia’s present and past. It’s a neoclassical architectural masterpiece designed by the founder, Thomas Jefferson, that has become so revered that the UN named it a World Heritage Site. And now, as part of a $52-million renovation, it’s getting a rooftop paint job costing over $450,000.

The irony is that the paint will cover copper, a metal that can last 100 years uncoated and which seems to gain little from paint but maintenance issues, according to general contractor Kevin Stevens.

“I think it’s pretty stupid,” he says. “It is akin to painting mahogany furniture or putting wall-to-wall carpet on a hardwood floor. You’re hiding the beauty of what’s already there, and you’re not making it any better.”

On that last point, Robert Weed of the Copper Development Association agrees: “The painting really does not affect the lifetime of the roof. In fact, it does often introduce a maintenance component. My guess is they will only get a 15- to 20-year life out of the coating, so they will have to go up there, scrape the coating, prepare the surface, and recoat it again.”

However, David Neuman, who recently departed his post as the university architect, defends the expenditures.

“I think that in the context of a $52-million restoration project that that’s a modest amount,” he says.

Neuman notes two reasons from history to paint it white. Number one is that the original roof was tin-coated iron, which weathers to a chalky white appearance. The second is that after the building was gutted by fire in 1895, Stanford White, the Gilded Age architect who oversaw reconstruction, recommended painting it white—something not done until 1976.

And now there’s a reason from more recent history: alumni expectations. Aaron Ojalvo, who recently lived on the Lawn as a fourth year student, understands.

“I’ve seen people that like this copper, but I think for most of us our first impression is what we keep,” he says. “When I got to UVA, it was a white dome, and I think that was the way I first internalized it and remembered it, and so I’d like to see it go back to the way I fell in love with it.”

As for Thomas Jefferson, the record shows that he delegated this construction decision to the university’s first chief executive, Arthur Brockenbrough, who obtained roofing prices for zinc, copper, as well as the cheapest option: the chosen tin-coated iron (which, incidentally, began leaking while Jefferson was still alive).

Molly Schwartzburg works nearby in the special collections library where archival photographs show an ever-evolving dome.

“It started off tin, it’s been painted white, it’s been black, it’s been all different colors over time.”

By the time of the devastating fire, at least part of its dome was painted red. That’s judging from a contemporary drawing as well as from fragments found buried during the current renovation.

Schwartzburg recalls how the university had a copper-domed Rotunda for most of the 20th century, and she felt hopeful two years ago when shiny sheets of copper were once again installed.

“When the roof first went on, I had this amazing moment of feeling like I was looking at a building in Paris from the late 18th or early 19th century, and suddenly the Rotunda felt Jeffersonian in a completely different way,” she says. “It felt like it was an artifact not just of Palladio and the classical tradition but of Jefferson’s Paris.”

Like many at UVA, Schwartzburg heard the rumor—false as it turns out—that a copper roof will stain the brick below. She was was looking forward to watching the new copper gain its a patina that would morph from black to brown to dark green to a pale green.

Says Schwartzburg: “Accepting that it’s not static, that it’s not something that’s captured in a single moment and unchanging—that’s an important element of how historical artifacts live their lives.”

If locking the dome into a permanent appearance from when disco balls and bell-bottomed pants were all the rage rubs some the wrong way, university officials point out that the chosen color, Benjamin Moore’s Swiss Coffee, will be softer than, say, refrigerator white.

UVA conservators learned how powerful alumni opinion could be in 2010 when they repainted a few columns along the Lawn in their true historic hue: a tan or sandstone color. While nearby Monticello recently did the same thing with no controversy, at UVA some alumni vowed to stop donating, and the following year the Board of Visitors demanded consultation on color choices within the Academical Village.

“The board’s really trapped in the thinking of 1976,” says Charlottesville architect Brian Broadus.

UVA’s restoration architects, such as Jody Lahendro, however, offer no complaints about the board’s decision to whiten the dome: “The Board of Visitors has directed us to paint the roof, and we shall do that.”

That painting began on Monday, June 15.