Rotunda - Description

Although the capstone to the University, the Rotunda was among the last buildings to be designed and erected. Jefferson's original concept for the Academical Village, the Albermarle Academy design (N-309, recto and verso) did not call for a major central building. In 1817 both William Thornton (N303/352) and Benjamin Henry Latrobe (N304) recommended that the central building receive more emphasis. Thornton simply added a pediment to one of the pavilions, however, Latrobe sent a drawing showing a large central domed building (N304, July 24, 1817), and followed this up with a more complete set of drawings that arrived on October 8, 1817. This last set is lost.

That Latrobe proposed a central domed building for the University has led some scholars to assign the design to him. And certainly Jefferson always acknowledged Latrobe's influence, even placing Latrobe's name on the upper right hand of the elevation drawing (N328), and on the back of the floor plan (N331), though in the former case he crossed it out, and on the later he erased it. The reason for Jefferson's removal of Latrobe's name has caused much speculation. However, a study of Latrobe's surviving drawing (N304) shows a different building from the one Jefferson ultimately had erected. Finally, it should be noted that Jefferson proposed a similar cylindrical structure for the United States Capitol in (N388) in about 1791-92.

Jefferson's drawings for the Rotunda date from March 1819. On the back of the floor plan (N331) Jefferson wrote "Rotunda, reduced to the proportions of the Pantheon and accomodated to the purposes of a Library for the University with rooms for drawing, music, examinations and other accessory purposes." (This passage originally had the word "Latrobe" before "Rotunda.") Also on the back of N331 Jefferson inscribed that its diameter "77.feet, being 1/2 that of the Pantheon, consequently 1/4 it's area, & 1/8 it's volume." In actuality, Jefferson's design differs considerably from the Pantheon.

Construction of the Rotunda took place between 1823 and 1826. John Neilson and James Dinsmore contracted as the primary builders on the Rotunda. For the dome Jefferson specified the framing method developed by Philibert Delorme in his 1576 book, NOVVELLES / INVENTIONS / POVR BIEN BASTIR ET / A PETITS FRAIZ, TROVVEES /N'AGVERES and so noted it on drawing N332. Construction was far enough advanced that a dinner in honor of Marquis de Lafayette took place in the dome room in November 1824. Among Jefferson's last designs were a sketch for the clock (N555) and a south elevation and partial plan he sent to Simon Willard of Boston for the clock.

Although the Rotunda became the central image of the University its actual function as a library was problematic. By the 1850s the library was overcrowded and the dome frequently linked. In 1851-53, Robert Mills who had studied with Jefferson added an Annex or New Hall to the northern side. On October 27, 1896 a fire largely destroyed the Rotunda and it was subsequently rebuilt to the designs of the New York architect, Stanford White, and his firm, McKim, Mead & White. For further information see Arise and Build. Then in the early 1970s a restoration reconfigured the Rotunda closer to Jefferson's original.

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