University of Virginia, The Architecture of the


As Thomas Jefferson‘s last major contribution to American public life, the University of Virginia combined his deepest civic and personal passions: democracy, architecture, and the dissemination of knowledge. Springing from concepts developed in his early years as a politician and gentleman architect, Jefferson’s design for the university, which he called the “Academical Village,” was a large, complicated composition based in the rules and monuments of classical architecture. Tightly organized around a U-shaped, terraced lawn with a library at its head, Jefferson’s university combined faculty and student housing, classrooms, dining halls, and utility spaces into a relatively self-sustaining complex. Understood even by its founder as a place that would have to adapt to changing needs and a growing population, the university was amended and reconsidered throughout the nineteenth century, until a massive fire in 1895 allowed for a substantial reorientation of Jefferson’s initial vision by the New York architecture firm of McKim, Mead, and White. Over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, however, attempts to alter and preserve the Academical Village have been far more cautious.

The Beginnings of a University

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was concerned with issues of education beginning early in his political career. He believed that in order to sustain a viable democracy, those who voted—a group that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was limited to white, property-owning males—should have easy access to educational opportunities. In 1779, as governor of Virginia, he submitted to the General Assembly a bill for a three-tiered public education system, including primary, secondary, and university levels. Although the assembly did not pass the bill, Jefferson continued to develop his ideas about public education.

Just as Jefferson believed that public education was essential to the success of an American democracy, so too did he advocate for inspired public architecture. He deplored Virginia’s lack of high-quality public buildings in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), calling his alma mater, the College of William and Mary, a “rude, misshapen pile” that could be confused for a brick kiln. In 1786, Jefferson completed his design for the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond—his first attempt to realize the high standards for public architecture he wished for the new republic. Based on an ancient Roman temple he had studied in France, the building exemplifies Jefferson’s reverence for classicism and his burgeoning architectural talent.

Jefferson first combined his passions for education and architecture in 1804, when Virginia legislators approached him for advice on realizing a public university. In his design concept he described a layout that would be quite unlike that of William and Mary, which then consisted mainly of the structure currently known as the Wren Building. Fire and disease posed significant threats to a university housed in a single edifice. To minimize such risks, Jefferson proposed a so-called village consisting of individual buildings that served both as classrooms and faculty housing, connected by a continuous covered walkway that opened onto student rooms. He further clarified this idea in 1810, when he specified that each professor’s house should have private chambers on the second floor and public classrooms on the first and that the complex should be arranged “around an open square of grass and trees.” He dubbed his concept an “Academical Village.”

Virtual Tour of the Academical Village at the University of Virginia

In 1814, a group of Virginians that included Jefferson’s nephew Peter Carr and his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph approached him about serving as a trustee for a public secondary school, to be named the Albemarle Academy. Jefferson accepted and then solidified his existing design concept with a series of drawings. His initial plan for the Academical Village included nine pavilions, each of which contained a professor’s lodging and teaching quarters, connected by colonnades of single-celled student rooms. All this was arranged in an open, U-shaped configuration around a wide lawn. Garden spaces surrounded three sides of the complex. Over the next few years, Albemarle Academy was renamed and chartered as Central College, and a site just west of Charlottesville was selected in 1817. Jefferson presented his plan to the college’s governing body, the board of visitors, on May 5, 1817, and the cornerstone for the first building, Pavilion VII, was laid on October 6, 1817. Central College became the University of Virginia when the General Assembly chartered it as a public institution on January 25, 1819.

Planning and Construction

Thomas Jefferson’s Architectural Drawings for the University of Virginia

In part because he had not replaced many of his books on architecture since selling them to the Library of Congress in 1815, Jefferson sought advice for his design from two of the few professional architects then working in the United States: William Thornton and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Jefferson proposed to Thornton that each pavilion should be different so as to provide a range of examples from which to teach classical Roman architecture. Thornton replied with suggestions for the pavilions; both of his drawings featured second stories with freestanding columns atop arcaded first stories in order to visually differentiate between the stories’ two distinct functions. Jefferson adapted this concept for Pavilion VII, the only one of the ten to incorporate an arcade (a series of arches supported by columns). Both Thornton’s and Latrobe’s letters urged Jefferson to architecturally distinguish a central building from all the others. While Thornton proposed that the central pavilion be the only one to incorporate a pediment (the triangular section above a column-supported, horizontal structure), Latrobe suggested a building that differed even more dramatically. Perhaps appealing directly to Jefferson’s fondness for domes (Jefferson had installed one on his mountaintop house, Monticello, in 1800), Latrobe suggested a domed building at the center of the composition. Both architects also observed that the space allotted for the professors and their families—just two rooms above the classrooms—was too small.

Jefferson’s plan for the college began to change as he considered Latrobe’s and Thornton’s suggestions, the limitations of the site, and issues that arose during construction. Heeding the two architects’ advice, Jefferson placed the university library, which he called the Rotunda, at the head of the composition. A domed building based on sixteenth-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio’s drawings of the ancient Roman Pantheon, the Rotunda was the largest and most important building of the design and appropriately formal: it was decorated according to the Corinthian order, or principle of design (considered the most ornate of the three classical orders of architecture established by the Greeks), featured a pediment, and was approached by a gradual series of marble steps. Jefferson’s decision to terrace the Lawn and colonnades (the long sequence of columns) stretching out in front of it enhanced the Rotunda’s role in the plan’s hierarchy; the Lawn regularly descended southward from the Rotunda, making the building seem larger and more impressive. Jefferson also reduced the planned length of the Lawn from 257 yards to 200 yards to suit the topography. He finished the open colonnades with the simplest order, Tuscan, while using diverse architectural strategies and sources for the five pavilions punctuating each side. Jefferson consulted assorted architecture books for the features of ancient buildings in the various pavilions. He took the Doric pediment and details for Pavilion I, for example, from the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, as drawn by Roland Fréart de Chambray and Charles Errard in their 1766 publication, Parallèle de l’architecture antique avec la moderne, while he borrowed the Ionic order of Pavilion V from Palladio. Historians surmise that now-lost drawings by Latrobe probably inspired Jefferson’s distinctive designs for Pavilions VIII and IX. The brick columns and wooden details of the various buildings were stuccoed (coated to look like stonework). Carved Carrara marble capitals imported from Italy decorated the Rotunda and Pavilion III, the only buildings in the Corinthian order on the Lawn.

West Range

Jefferson’s plan for the Lawn, Rotunda, pavilions, and colonnades also evolved from the relatively simple U-shaped concept to the more complex design that was ultimately implemented. Throughout the spring and summer of 1819, Jefferson revised the arrangement of the spaces and buildings on the outside of the Lawn. While his initial concept featured only garden spaces ringing the entire composition, in March 1819 he proposed that a road, another row of buildings, and gardens flank both sides of the Lawn’s colonnades to the west and east. Called the Ranges, these rows of additional student rooms intermittingly featured hotels, or dining halls, mirroring the relationship between the colonnades and pavilions on the Lawn. A month later, he inverted this concept, putting the gardens in between the row of buildings and the back of the colonnades. By July 1819, he had further tweaked this composition to what became its final form: serpentine walls enclosed the gardens in between the rear of the colonnades and the Range, providing a picturesque element to what was otherwise a very rigid and logical neoclassical plan. (Jefferson’s serpentine walls, just one brick thick, gained strength from their curving structure and represented an attempt to meld beauty and utility.) Rather than design the Range with columns, as on the Lawn, Jefferson opted for open arcades, much like those suggested by Thornton.

Maverick Plan of the University of Virginia

In 1822 the university printed the first published drawing of Jefferson’s design, called the Maverick Plan after its engraver, Peter Maverick. A broadside, perhaps written by Jefferson himself, accompanied the drawing to explain the plan and the functions of the various buildings. Significantly, it defined two spaces between the Lawn and Range: gardens and yards. Just as at Monticello, the Academical Village featured a variety of practical spaces intended to help the community exist with relative self-sufficiency. Hotels and pavilions each had their own semiprivate yards, marked by straight walls and accessible via the alleys running between each pavilion. The term yard was commonly understood throughout the Chesapeake in the period to refer to the plantation workspaces of enslaved African Americans. Besides housing woodyards, cisterns, sheds, and other small, makeshift buildings, the yards were where enslaved workers cared for their children as they went about their daily work. The university’s gardens, meanwhile, were more private and surrounded by serpentine walls. Jefferson halved the gardens where pavilions backed up to hotels so that each occupant could have his own private outdoor space. The garden spaces would be outfitted for the specific needs of the residents with outbuildings such as laundries, dairies, stables, kitchens, slave quarters, smokehouses, corncribs, pig pens, and chicken coops. Because Jefferson did not provide any special instructions for the completion of these spaces, he likely intended the occupants to outfit them as needed. When the faculty and hotelkeepers began to occupy the buildings, the board of visitors followed Jefferson’s lead and regarded these private spaces as the responsibility of the tenants.

Construction on the Academical Village began in 1817 with Pavilion VII and lasted beyond the arrival of the first students on March 7, 1825, and Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826. The original complex’s last building, the Rotunda, was finally finished the following September. Although he watched the project closely until his death, the aging Jefferson served as the official supervisor of construction only until March 3, 1819, when he handed over the duty to the university’s proctor, Arthur S. Brockenbrough. Over the decade of construction, the institution enlisted a number of skilled builders who had worked on Monticello, including the joiners James Dinsmore and John Neilson. The English, Irish, Italian, and American-born builders worked with freed and enslaved African Americans (most owned or rented by builders), including in the production of the tremendous number of bricks used to construct the massive project.

The Academical Village in the Nineteenth Century

Archaeological and documentary research has proven that the Maverick Plan was an ideal drawing rather than a record of the complex as built. As construction continued and the university opened to students and faculty, changes were made to Jefferson’s original plan. In February 1825, at the request of anatomy and medical professor Dr. Robley Dunglison, Jefferson designed a university building not included in his initial plan: the Anatomical Theater, a square structure with a large operating theater just opposite Hotel A on the West Range. The building’s placement suggests that Jefferson foresaw a fifth row of buildings parallel to the Lawn and West Range. (The theater was demolished in 1939 after Alderman Library was completed.)

Residents of the pavilions and hotels, meanwhile, immediately began to build or request outbuildings in their gardens. Professors made additions to their pavilions in order to accommodate their families and slaves. They altered their garden walls to increase privacy (keeping animals in and disruptive students out), often replacing walls that had been damaged or destroyed with straight walls rather than Jefferson’s inventive serpentine ones. The board of visitors also realized that the walled garden spaces were inadequate in size and granted pavilion and hotel residents permission to section off other areas of the grounds for growing food.

Jefferson’s Academical Village remained largely intact, even as the university’s population expanded and contracted, disease and the American Civil War (1861–1865) introduced new challenges, and new teaching methods developed over the course of the nineteenth century. Buildings were amended and repurposed, but the concept remained. The nineteenth-century university, therefore, largely grew up around the Academical Village.

The most significant antebellum addition made to the Academical Village was the Annex, a large “tail” added to the north side of the Rotunda between 1851 and 1853. The Annex contained a 1,200-seat auditorium intended to replace the Rotunda’s dome room for large gatherings. Considered by Jefferson to be the back of the building, the Rotunda’s north elevation did not originally feature any of the distinguished classical details of the Lawn facade. Robert Mills, then one of the premier neoclassical architects in the United States, designed the massive addition largely mimicking the style of the original Jefferson buildings.

Brooks Hall

In opposition to Jefferson’s logical neoclassical approach, new buildings throughout the nineteenth century were added in a more picturesque manner: they were not lined up in neat rows or designed in a style complementary to the original buildings (or even to each other). Two of the best examples are Brooks Hall, a High Victorian–style building added in 1876 as the university’s natural history museum, and the Italianate infirmary of the late 1850s, more recently known as Varsity Hall. One of the most controversial issues concerning additions to the university was Jefferson’s open U-shaped plan: multiple suggestions for how to “close” the Lawn and reorient its inconvenient southern entrance arose over the course of the nineteenth century. One of the most persistent was for the construction of a chapel, a building-type that Jefferson had explicitly left out of his plan for the Academical Village. A Gothic Revival chapel was finally added to the grounds just northwest of the Rotunda in the late 1880s.

McKim, Mead & White Architectural Plans

On October 27, 1895, the university suffered its only significant fire, sparked by faulty wiring. Beginning in the Annex, it quickly engulfed the Rotunda, leaving the building and its interiors largely destroyed, but sparing the nearby pavilions and colonnades. The board of visitors saw the destruction of the Academical Village’s centerpiece as an opportunity to reorient its composition. The next year, they hired the prominent New York City architecture firm of McKim, Mead, and White to rebuild the Rotunda; to redirect the university’s entrance to the city of Charlottesville, quickly expanding to the east; and to enclose the south end of the Lawn with a series of buildings that provided new academic spaces and replaced those lost in the Annex. Led by Stanford White, the design team copied the Rotunda’s south façade and constructed a Beaux-Arts-inspired forecourt on the north side of the building; rebuilt the library’s interior as a grand, double-height space to accommodate the expanding collection; and terminated the Lawn with Cocke, Rouss, and Cabell halls, three large, classical revival buildings in the red brick and wooden trim palette of the original Jefferson buildings.


Pavilion X

While the additions made to the Academical Village in the 1890s were praised as appropriate and necessary, additions and alterations to Jefferson’s design in the decades since have been more controversial. One of the most pressing issues has been preservation: how should the university’s architecture be interpreted? In the mid-1970s, the Rotunda was restored to its nineteenth-century appearance. With the library long-removed to Alderman Library, the building’s dramatic double-height interior was replaced with an approximation of Jefferson’s original design. More recently, Pavilion X has been carefully restored to its original condition: in 2008 and 2009, preservation architects reconstructed the wooden parapet that masked its pitched roof and restored its original color scheme, including the sandy-colored trim and columns. Current debates over the university’s preservation focus on the Rotunda’s roof (should it follow Jefferson’s specifications or those instituted when Stanford White redesigned the building?) and the color of the pavilion and colonnade columns (should they remain the bright white of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries or be returned to their original sandy brown?). In 1987 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized the Academical Village, along with Monticello, as a World Heritage site, a designation that marks it as a significant human achievement and heightens the discussion over future alterations to the buildings.

Since McKim, Mead, and White’s additions, however, there has been little discussion about whether to add to the Academical Village. For example, the 110,000-square-foot South Lawn project—designed by Moore, Ruble, Yudell Architects & Planners and constructed in the first decade of the twenty-first century—extends the Lawn southward to a series of buildings that echoes Jefferson’s Lawn concept, but cannot be seen from the Lawn itself. As the new home of the College of Arts and Sciences, the South Lawn is a concerted attempt to re-center university life at the initial nineteenth-century site without disrupting its composition.

The palette of Jefferson’s design, meanwhile, has and continues to dominate construction elsewhere on the sprawling suburban campus. Even buildings that eschew the blatantly classical features of Greece and Rome usually boast red brick, light-colored trim, and the organizational tenets of Jefferson’s initial concept.

A group of Virginia legislators approach Thomas Jefferson regarding the creation of a public university.
January 5, 1805
In a letter to General Assembly member Littleton Waller Tazewell, Thomas Jefferson responds to Tazewell's request for advice about founding a public university.
May 6, 1810
In a letter to the Trustees for the Lottery of East Tennessee College, Thomas Jefferson shares his vision of his ideal public university, describing it as an "Academical Village."
Thomas Jefferson makes his first drawings for a college. His design concept includes nine pavilions, each of which contains a professor's lodging and teaching quarters, connected by colonnades of single-celled student rooms.
March 1814
Thomas Jefferson joins the governing board of Albemarle Academy, an institution that exists only on paper, but will later evolve into Central College, and then the University of Virginia.
April 8, 1817
The site for Central College (later chartered as the University of Virginia) is selected just west of Charlottesville.
May 5, 1817
Thomas Jefferson submits his plans for Central College (later chartered as the University of Virginia) to its board of visitors.
October 6, 1817
The cornerstone is laid for Pavilion VII, the first building of what will become the University of Virginia.
January 25, 1819
The General Assembly charters Central College as a public state university; the institution is now to be known as the University of Virginia.
March 3, 1819
An aging Thomas Jefferson resigns his position as official supervisor of construction of the University of Virginia, handing over the duty to the university's proctor, Arthur S. Brockenbrough.
The University of Virginia prints the first published drawing of Thomas Jefferson's designs for the school. The drawing is called the Maverick Plan, for its engraver, Peter Maverick.
February 1825
Robley Dunglison joins the faculty of the University of Virginia as a professor of anatomy and medicine. He soon asks Thomas Jefferson to design him a separate classroom space for dissections, or what will come to be known as the Anatomical Theatre.
March 7, 1825
The first class of forty students, guided by nine professors, matriculates at the University of Virginia.
September 1826
Construction of the Rotunda, the final structure in Thomas Jefferson's design for the University of Virginia, is completed.
The Annex, a structure designed by Robert Mills that contains a 1,200-seat auditorium, is added to the University of Virginia's Rotunda.
October 27, 1895
A fire breaks out in the Annex of the University of Virginia's Rotunda. The conflagration destroys the Rotunda building and interior, but spares the rest of the Academical Village.
The University of Virginia board of visitors hires the New York City architecture firm McKim, Mead, and White to rebuild the Rotunda (without the Annex), redirect the university's entrance to the city of Charlottesville, and construct new buildings to enclose the south end of the Lawn.
April 13, 1976
The Rotunda of the University of Virginia reopens on the completion of a restoration of the interior led by Frederick D. Nichols.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adds Monticello and the University of Virginia to its World Heritage List, a register of buildings and sites deemed to have outstanding universal value.
The South Lawn project, a series of buildings that extends the University of Virginia Lawn southward, is completed. Construction on the project, which was designed by the California architecture firm Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners, began in 2006.
Preservation architects at the University of Virginia restore Pavilion X to its original appearance.
  • Frank, Marie. “It Took an Academical Village: Jefferson’s Hotels at the University of Virginia.” The Magazine of Albemarle County History 59 (2001): 30–68.
  • Wilson, Richard Guy, ed. Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village: The Creation of an Architectural Masterpiece. Rev. ed. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.
  • Wilson, Richard Guy and Sara A. Butler. The Campus Guide: University of Virginia. New York City: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.
APA Citation:
Brandt, Lydia. University of Virginia, The Architecture of the. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/university-of-virginia-the-architecture-of-the.
MLA Citation:
Brandt, Lydia. "University of Virginia, The Architecture of the" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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