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UPDATED PHOTOS: Rotunda restoration moves along

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Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 3:00 pm | Updated: 4:50 pm, Tue Jan 29, 2013.

Long before the heart of Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village became the backdrop for a drama that strained the governance structure, the University of Virginia's Rotunda was under a different kind of stress.

The 1970s terne-coated steel roofing on the dome was failing. Water seeping underneath followed the curvature of the Guastavino tile covering the drum of the Rotunda, saturating the top of the brick walls and leaving behind white salts on the exterior of the masonry.

The seven iron tension rings, some dating to Jefferson's era, that keep the dome from spreading outward were corroding, and the crumbling marble capitals atop the portico columns had to be draped with black netting to protect people below.

Now, $50.6 million in renovation work is being undertaken in phases to stop the damage, repairing the Rotunda just as its famous designer, and the university itself, are getting a closer look.

Scaffolding covers much of the Rotunda, with guards posted through the night to keep students from climbing to the roof.

Workers are removing the badly rusted roof and replacing it with copper that eventually will be painted white.

The skylight in the oculus of the Dome Room will be replaced with one "more historically appropriate to Jefferson's period," said Jody Lahendro, UVa's historic-preservation architect and project manager.

In the last major restoration of the Rotunda, timed for the nation's bicentennial in 1976 and the 150th anniversary of Jefferson's death, efforts were made to return the Rotunda to "what they believed was Jefferson's design," Lahendro said.

But that was a matter of conjecture then as it is now, he said.

"The brick at the Rotunda, of course, is the only feature that survives of Jefferson's original building," he said.

A fire in 1895 gutted the Rotunda, which had been largely completed by Jefferson's death in 1826.

The fire was believed to have been started by an electrical surge from a streetcar, Lahendro said. A spark from the surge set fire first to the 1850s annex, designed by architect Robert Mills, and that blaze was thought to have burned for several hours before reaching the Rotunda.

Only a few photographs exist of the building before the fire, he said. "With the documentation we have, there's really no way of knowing exactly what the original Rotunda looked like."

Modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, the Rotunda remains the iconic center of the university even as the campus -- known at UVa as the Grounds -- sprawls outward.

It was the Lawn outside the Rotunda where protesters gathered in June as the university's board met inside to decide the president's fate.

"As we know, Mr. Jefferson provides a perspective for every occasion," Teresa A. Sullivan told her supporters from the portico after she was reinstated as president.

"In our community, we cherish his memory. It's part of our ethos,"  Jefferson scholar and retired UVa history professor Peter Onuf said of Jefferson.

Like each of the Rotunda projects of the previous two centuries, the current renovations aim to preserve Jefferson's vision for the Academical Village, with its two rows of faculty pavilions and student rooms connected by a colonnade.

But alterations have added to the history of the Rotunda, originally the library but now used mainly for meetings.

After the fire, architect Stanford White took out a floor at the direction of the Board of Visitors, which wanted a larger library space, Lahendro said. The floor was restored in the 1970s project.

White also was directed to use noncombustible, terracotta tiles on the roof, which was then covered with copper.

Lahendro said a note from the architect indicates that he intended for the copper to be painted white, as it will be in the current project. But it is unclear whether that was done.

If it was, the paint wore away, leaving the copper dome to age to the green patina that many people recall before the 1970s replacement.

Phase one of this project is expected to be completed by September, but Lahendro said the plan is to have the scaffolding removed by commencement in May.

Workers are adding ventilation underneath the copper roof to prevent the rusting that caused the 1970s roof to deteriorate, and they're installing a plaster ceiling to replace the perforated metal ceiling that gives a too-modern appearance to the Dome Room.

They're removing "layers and layers" of paint from "what people think is wood ornament but is actually copper painted white," he said.

A later phase will replace the 16 crumbling marble capitals that are wrapped in black. They were installed as rough blocks in the 1890s, Lahendro said, but not finished until decades later when a Richmond donor paid to have them carved in place.

Onuf sees the efforts to preserve the Rotunda as both "a memorial and inspiration," though he's skeptical that the quest for authenticity is an attainable goal.

At UVa, maintaining the Academical Village is "a central mission in what you might call the university's civil religion, that is, the faith we keep with Jefferson and the university he built," he said.

"It's the way we suspend disbelief," said Onuf, the 18th century "guy" on public radio's "BackStory with the American History Guys."

"We walk the Grounds feeling we're in his presence because an effort has been made to make the place something like he envisioned it."

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