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Renovating the Rotunda

Written by Jody Lahendro, UVA Supervisory Historic Preservation ArchitectJody Lahendro

On this wintry afternoon in February, construction work at the Rotunda continues in the final push towards completion later this coming summer, 18 months after beginning. Whiting-Turner, the construction management firm, skillfully organized the project to have critical exterior work finished prior to this winter’s weather. Repairs to the exterior sheet copper ornament, restoration of the portico clocks, and replacement of portico roofing were all completed in early December, which allowed removal of exterior scaffolding. Major outside work is now mostly limited to hardscape in the north plaza and courtyards, activities upon which subsequent work is not dependent.

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While the snow falls, tradespeople are inside the Rotunda completing the infrastructure for new systems such as HVAC, plumbing, electrical, security, audio/visual, cellular phone, wireless media access, fire alarm, and fire suppression. Where this infrastructure has been completed, on the lower two levels, walls and ceilings are being closed with new plaster finishes.

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A major milestone was achieved with the successful installation of a new acoustical plaster ceiling in the dome room. The former ceiling was composed of large panels of perforated metal installed in 1976. Though clearly a modern intrusion, it was a reasonable choice at the time to control sound reverberation. Material improvements since then offered the present project the opportunity to replace the metal panels with acoustical plaster that more closely resembles Jefferson’s original plaster ceiling. Over a two week period in early December, a crew of 15 with the plaster subcontractor, Interior Specialty Construction, Inc., installed the two-coat acoustical plaster ceiling in a carefully orchestrated procedure. Each coat was 1/16 inch thick and had to be installed in one application without breaks over a quarter of the dome’s surface between expansion joints. It was a remarkable event to witness and the finished ceiling is beautiful.

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Meanwhile, in a studio in Richmond craftspeople with Tektonics Design Group are fabricating wood capitals to replace plaster capitals installed in 1976 in the dome room. Letters from 1824 in the University’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, between Richmond wood-carver Philip Sturtevant and Arthur S. Brockenbrough, supervisor of University construction, capture contractual details of the original capitals specified by Jefferson. Those capitals were carved of northern white pine in the Composite order following a certain book plate in Leoni’s edition of Palladio. Compared with pre-fire photographs of the dome room, the 1976 plaster capitals lack the three-dimensionality of the original wood capitals and err in many details. The 40 new capitals are being carved on a CNC robotic arm machine and then finished by hand. The first of these capitals will be installed in early March.

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As interior work reaches a heightened intensity, preparation of the new classrooms leads the way.   A major objective of this project has been to bring the Rotunda back into active daily use by students, something that has been lost since Alderman Library was constructed in the late 1930’s. Towards that end, classes will once again be held in the Rotunda with the introduction of three classrooms. Additionally, student study spaces will be enhanced (the dome room) and added (upper west oval room and the dome room lower gallery). It is critical that instruction in the new classrooms begins with the next fall semester, thus this construction receives first priority to allow time for the installation of complex audio/visual teaching equipment.

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As winter settles in around the Rotunda, construction continues without interruption and with every expectation that come August 2016, this World Heritage Site will reopen prepared for, once again, being the center of University education.


Want more Rotunda info? Check out these links:

Time-lapse Video

Watch the progress in this updated time-lapse video that captures construction from September 2014-March 2016.

You might also like the live web-cam feed!