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Final phase of Rotunda work begins in May

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Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2014 11:00 pm | Updated: 4:38 pm, Fri Jan 17, 2014.

This year’s graduating class at the University of Virginia will be the last to walk through the Rotunda before it’s closed for a two-year renovation project.

The university will enter the second and final phase of its $50 million Rotunda restoration in May, the day after Final Exercises. When phase two begins, students will have to get used to seeing UVa’s iconic dome — one of the focal points of the UNESCO World Heritage site that also includes Monticello and the university’s original buildings — from behind a fence.

Work is expected to continue until April 2016, but administrators said it could stretch until June that year.

University spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said the Rotunda will be better equipped and more suited to student use once the renovations are complete. The project will be finished less than a year before the university celebrates its bicentennial, he said.

“It has now been almost four decades since the last major renovation of the Rotunda,” de Bruyn said. “The timing is good and the need is great,”

The administration talked about the plans in detail Thursday morning in the lower level of the Rotunda. The changes, they said, are necessary to modernize infrastructure in the building.

One of the biggest problems is that the Rotunda does not have the room for new ductwork and piping engineers want to install, said Donald Sundgren, the university’s chief facilities officer.

Instead crews will build a mechanical room underneath the East Courtyard. The space will house heating, air conditioning, ventilation and fire alarm systems, as well as a separate catering room. Because the new room extends underneath the building’s foundation, it will need to be underpinned, or strengthened.

Crews will have to dig through the courtyard, which means they’ll have to cut down some decades-old magnolia trees there. More than 1,800 students signed a petition last January calling on the university to preserve the trees, but Sundgren said the plan hasn’t changed.

During construction, a fence will surround the building and both porticos, Sundgren said. Signs will direct pedestrians to detours around the building, he said.

The roofs over the porticos will be replaced, clad in copper and painted white in a style similar to the work crews are doing to the dome. The capitals — ornamental marble structures at the top of each portico pillar — also will be replaced.

Sundgren said half of the total project cost came from the state and the other half from philanthropy. He stressed that none of it is funded by student fees.

Crews still are waiting to put the final touches on the $7.8 million first phase, which included a replacement of the roof. They’re waiting for the right weather conditions to paint the new copper dome white.

The $42.5 million second phase includes a much broader range of renovations, as well as an archeological excavation — workers are looking for a cistern under the east garden that could contain important artifacts.

University architect David J. Neuman said the existing structure will undergo a variety of changes, many of which are designed to make it a more practical meeting space. The metal ceiling of the dome will be replaced with plaster, allowing for better acoustics, while a shade will be constructed for the oculus, making the dome room more practical for audiovisual presentations.

A new elevator will provide easier access to the main lobbies and the first two floors as well, he said.

The changes are part of a larger effort to attract students back to the Rotunda, which has become less prominent in students’ everyday lives, Neuman said. The university is already experimenting with extended hours, seminars and dinners for first-year students in the Dome Room.

“We’ve heard a lot of students say ‘I’ve walked around the Rotunda, I’ve never been inside it,’” Neuman said. “We think that’s a shame.”

While the building is closed and covered in scaffolding, story boards and electronic kiosks are planned to provide information on the building’s history, photographic glimpses into the interior and updates on the construction.

“We fully understand it will cause some disruption but we are fully convinced the results will be [beneficial] to everyone,” de Bruyn said.

The biggest disruption will be the relocation of the Final Exercises for the class of 2015. The ceremony traditionally begins in the Rotunda, with students emerging from the south side of the building and walking down the Lawn.

Eric McDaniel, the student body president, said next year’s class will have to find a way to rearrange the ceremony, or perhaps find a different venue.

Final Exercises were moved from the Rotunda after an 1895 fire nearly destroyed the structure. Final Exercises were held at unknown locations until the completion of Cabell Hall in 1902, then moved again to the larger McIntire Amphitheater in 1922.

The exercises in their current form, which include a procession from the Rotunda, began in 1953.

“This is very much a time for reinvention,” McDaniel said. “This is a great time for the class of 2015 to start reshaping their experience.”

Fourth-year student Clinton Pearce said he would be disappointed if his ceremony were relocated.

“I feel like that’s a major part of the [UVa] experience,” Pearce said.

Ryan Jones, a second-year student whose 2016 ceremony could be affected, said he understands the need for renovation.

“It’s disappointing that they have to do it while I’m here, but it has to be done,” Jones said.

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