Construction of the University, 1817-1826

On October 6, 1817, with President James Monroe officiating, the cornerstone was laid for the first building on the University of Virginia grounds. Former presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison looked on, as did various dignitaries and many curious townspeople. The University, however, did not yet exist. The building under construction was that of Central College.[1] 

In the fall of 1814, the Board of Trustees of Albemarle Academy, a school in name only, had petitioned the Virginia General Assembly to provide funds for their school while also elevating the academy to the level of a college. Jefferson had joined the Board in the spring and played a key role in developing rules for governance of the school and obtaining monies for its construction, as well as offering an architectural plan for the college.[2] The Assembly did not vote on the Board’s petitions until February of 1816 when it approved the new “Central College,” but without providing funds. The Board would rely heavily on a personal subscription drive. By the summer of 1817 sufficient monies were available or were promised for the Board to approve purchasing land and beginning construction.[3]

In the meantime, Jefferson drafted legislation detailing a plan for a system of public education that included a state university. A watered-down version of Jefferson’s bill was approved by the Assembly on February 21, 1818. Modest funds were appropriated for a state university to be called “The University of Virginia,” but with the location unspecified.[4] A Board of Commissioners appointed by the governor and chaired by Jefferson recommended Central College as the site for the university. After much debate the General Assembly issued a formal charter for the University of Virginia on January 25, 1819.[5]

The architectural plan originally provided by Jefferson to the Trustees of Albemarle Academy called for separate pavilions, each housing accommodations for a professor and a classroom, flanked by dormitories, in an open-square design leaving the south side open.[6] Modifications to the original ground plan were made during the nine years of construction, but Jefferson’s overall scheme survived.

A Construction Timeline

Note: Sources for the timeline are found under “Primary Sources” below.

1817:  In April, Jefferson, along with Joseph C. Cabell and John Hartwell Cocke, examined possible sites for Central College. They proposed that the Board of Visitors purchase from John M. Perry two parcels of land. The Proctor, Alexander Garret, completed the deal and began preparations for construction. The building site was on the forty-four acre parcel, a ridge declining gradually south from Three Notched Road (now University Boulevard). Jefferson sought advice on his design for the College from architects William Thornton and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Both provided detailed suggestions, with the latter suggesting a large domed building as a centerpiece. Jefferson had already begun to think about a principal building on the north side and Latrobe’s ideas spurred him in that direction. In July the Board of Visitors approved the design for the first pavilion (subsequently named VII) based on Jefferson’s detailed sketches. Inspired by the work of 16th-century Italian architect, Andrea Palladio, Jefferson designed the two-story pavilions to represent different architectural motifs, with a Doric of Palladio being the first. The various motifs linked the new university with edifices of classical antiquity while providing architectural models for instructing students. Construction continued through the fall building season under the direction of John Perry, who had made his participation part of the contract for the land sale. The Board also approved the construction of dormitories adjacent to the first pavilion, as well as two additional pavilions and attached dormitories, as well as necessary terracing of the ground, all to be executed the following year. Jefferson began negotiations with brick workers, having earlier promised James Dinsmore and John Neilson, former housejoiners at Monticello, the carpentry work for the next pavilions.

1818:  The spring found Jefferson seeking stone cutters from Italy. He corresponded with Thomas Appleton, Consul General for the U.S. in Leghorn (Ital: Livorno), Italy, who recommended two workers: Michele and Giacomo Raggi. The contract was not signed with the Raggi brothers until February of 1819 and they did not arrive until July of that year. In May, Jefferson met with James Dinsmore to discuss plans for the construction of the second pavilion (III) on the West Lawn, a Palladian Corinthian design. Workers broke ground on this pavilion and the dormitories attached to the first pavilion (VII) in June.  Jefferson’s plans now revealed sketches for the West Range (hotels and dormitories with gardens), as well as a principal building on the north, the Rotunda. Work on the buildings proceeded slowly. By fall neither of the first two pavilions was finished and only one wing of the dormitories neared completion. Jefferson turned his attention once again to securing brick workers for the coming year. John Perry provided bricks and other raw materials. The year-end account of expenses showed payment to eight laborers, some of whom were slaves hired from their masters under a slave bond specifying the amount paid, time of work, and conditions of their return.

1819: Jefferson continued work on the design of the Rotunda, modeled after the Roman Pantheon, as well as on the general plan for the University. Gardens enclosed by serpentine walls were situated between the pavilions and the proposed ranges of hotels and dormitories. Although Jefferson made detailed sketches of the building exteriors, much of the interior work was left to the initiative of the craftsmen employed. Advertisements for workers in the Richmond and Philadelphia newspapers, as well as word of mouth, drew many responses. The carpenter Richard Ware of Philadelphia played an important role in the building of Pavilions II (Ionic) and IV (Doric of Albano) on the East Lawn, as did the carpenter James Oldham of Charlottesville of Pavilion I (Doric of the Diocletian Baths) on the West Lawn. Contracts were signed with brick workers for the hundreds of thousands of bricks needed to be made and laid. Materials generally were obtained locally, although glass came from Boston and window weights were ordered from a firm in New York. The Raggi brothers arrived in June to carve the capitals, but quickly found the local stone inadequate and the Board later decided to import Carrara marble from Italy. The Italian sculptors never lived up to expectations, but fortunately another stone cutter, the Irishman John Gorman, proved quite capable. The summer saw a flurry of activity with dozens of workers engaged at the site, including additional slaves hired from their owners. The hiring of an experienced contractor, Arthur S. Brockenbrough, as Proctor greatly facilitated oversight of the building process. Plans were begun for the difficult task of bringing water to the buildings. By October, seven pavilions (two nearly completed) and three dozen dormitories (15 nearly completed) were under construction. The building of hotels and attached dormitories was postponed until the following year.

1820:  The Board of Visitors on April 3rd approved the construction of the last three pavilions and the hotels on the East and West Ranges. Jefferson designed each of the hotels, six in number, using chiefly the Tuscan order, the overall ground plan making allowances for the contours of the land. As winter diminished, John Neilson and George W. Spooner, Jr., worked on Pavilion V (Ionic of Palladio) while the Corinthian pavilion (III) on the West Lawn was made ready for interior plastering. Spring and summer found the reliable Brokenbrough leading the construction efforts, and Jefferson hoped that three ranges of buildings would be completed by the end of the year.

1821:  John Neilson drew a ground plan for the University revealing for the first time a coherent view of the Lawn and buildings as they were emerging. The Rotunda was pictured with “wings,” descending steps on each side with rooms beneath. Work was slow during the winter months but picked up somewhat in the spring when advertisements brought workers to finish the western row of hotels and dormitories. In April the Board of Visitors voted to begin building the library (Rotunda) when and if it did not interfere with the completion of the other buildings. Jefferson anticipated construction to take three years.

1822:  The Board announced in October that all the proposed buildings except one (the library) were completed. However, work during the building season had been slow and there was still much to do in the way of plastering, building the serpentine garden walls, placement of capitals not yet arrived from Italy, finishing ornamentals, putting on gutters and drainpipes, laying some flooring, and various miscellaneous tasks. The seemingly endless debates in the legislature over financing continued to hold up construction on Jefferson’s principal building. The Board decided to postpone opening of the University until all buildings were complete. Nevertheless, visitors to the University expressed awe at the four rows of buildings of the Lawn and the East and West Ranges which now stood on the ridge west of Charlottesville.

1823:  As early as 1818 Jefferson had drawn plans for the Rotunda. Although influenced by Latrobe, the design was similar to that Jefferson used in 1791 when he proposed a building for the U.S. Capitol. Only when the legislature approved a loan in February of this year, however, could work on the University’s principal building begin. Brick workers were quickly contracted for and John Cocke sent six boys, most likely slaves, to help carry bricks. John Neilson and James Dinsmore were hired to complete much of the carpentry. Actual construction began in April and continued quickly with the walls reaching the second floor by the end of the summer. Because the heavy dome would press outward from the walls this feature could not be begun until the following year after the walls had cured. Italian marble capitals for pavilions arrived and in November Jefferson ordered marble Corinthian capitals to be carved in Italy for the Rotunda.

1824:  Work on the Rotunda continued with Jefferson’s addition of a gymnasium beneath an arcade running along the Rotunda terrace to the pavilions on either side, thus providing cover for students to exercise in bad weather and be protected when moving from east and west sides of the Lawn. By late spring Neilson and Dinsmore had framed the Rotunda roof and a Frenchman, Anthony Bergamin, was contracted to cover the dome. He previously covered the dome of Richmond’s City Hall. Tin plates and copper sheathing were ordered from New York City. Bergamin arrived in July and by the end of the summer the dome was covered. Brickwork on the Rotunda occupied the workers and Jefferson ordered marble squares from Italy for the portico.  By November the Rotunda was sufficiently completed to allow Jefferson and James Madison to entertain there the Marquis de Lafayette and four hundred guests.

1825:  When the university opened its doors on March 7, 1825, Jefferson’s principal building was not yet ready for its intended functions. Windows need to be installed, architectural ornaments placed, and the interior finished. The bases and marble capitals for the columns on the portico had not yet arrived from Italy. In the meantime Jefferson drew up specifications for a bell (able to be “always heard in Charlottesville”) as well as a clock for the Rotunda, both of which, however,  would not be contracted for until the following year and only installed after Jefferson’s death.  The newly arrived professors also insisted on modifications to the building plans. Dr. Robley Dunglison, Professor of Anatomy and Medicine, found his accommodations in Pavilion X unacceptable for conducting his classes on anatomy, which included dissection of human cadavers. With the Board’s approval Jefferson designed an Anatomical Theatre to be built on West Street. The chemistry professor, Dr. John Emmet, requested larger and better lit spaces in the Rotunda for his laboratory. Dr. Charles Bonnycastle, Professor of Natural Philosophy, wanted both lecture and storage space in the Rotunda.

1826:  Jefferson complained in the spring of the slow progress. Numerous repairs and final touches were needed. The Rotunda roof leaked. The Carrara marble bases and capitals did not arrive until spring, and while the portico was completed the front steps were not and would not be built for several more years.  Only a temporary bell atop Pavilion VII and a clock in the pavilion window were available to inform students. Work on “macadamizing” the roads through the university was still in progress. Jefferson would not live to see the Rotunda completed. Nor was the Anatomical Hall done when he died on July 4th. Nevertheless, the modern university for Virginia he envisioned nearly fifty years earlier was born and taking its first steps at becoming one of the nation’s premier institutions of higher learning. The inscription Jefferson chose for his tombstone showed that he wished to be remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and as “Father of the University of Virginia.”

- Gene Zechmeister, January 4, 2012

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