A vision of Thomas Jefferson’s finally came to fruition Friday, as the dome of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda Library was turned into a planetarium display.
The project was funded by a Jefferson Trust grant and is based on Jefferson’s original plan to install a planetarium in the Rotunda’s Dome Room.
The display is a project of UVa English Ph.D. candidates Neal Curtis, Samuel Lemley and Madeline Zehnder, who researched Jefferson’s original plans for the Dome Room and built the project over the course of nearly a year.
After some deep dives into astronomy of the 18th and19th centuries and then some coding, the trio created an arresting display of various constellations Jefferson would have seen, brought to life through modern digital technology. Specifically, the more than dozen constellations were adapted from an astronomy book found in the Dome Room, Lemley said.
On Friday, two centuries after Jefferson drafted plans for a planetarium, dozens turned up at UVa to attend the debut of the star display. Outside, crowds of costumed children populated the Lawn for trick-or-treating.
As the lights dimmed in the Dome Room, a quiet excitement fell over the attendees as they craned their necks to see a facsimile of the night sky.
Lemley said he is proud of the work he and his collaborators put into the project and that he hopes the project sends a message about the versatility of the Rotunda.
“The Rotunda is more than just a mausoleum to Jefferson’s legacy; it was always intended to be an interdisciplinary and exciting place,” he said. “We hope that this serves as the impetus to make it that again.”
In 1819, Jefferson sketched plans for a planetarium spanning the dome of the school’s original library, according to the UVa planetarium’s website. However, because of ballooning costs, insurmountable technical hurdles and delays in the Rotunda’s construction, the celestial dome never came to fruition.
Sara J. Schechner, curator of historical scientific instruments at Harvard University, gave a keynote speech, walking attendees through a history of Jefferson’s interest in creating a planetarium. She detailed nearly every step, down to each piece of scientific equipment the third president purchased.
The process was a lengthy and uncertain labor of love, she said, and ordering the scientific equipment took a very long time.
“It takes time to place an order — it’s not like you go to Amazon Prime and place an order and it’s here the next day,” she said. “In Jefferson’s case, it took 12 years, so there was a lot of planning.”
Amy Johns, of Charlottesville, said she heard about the display online and decided to brave traffic through UVa Grounds to attend Friday’s event.
“I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but it’s really fascinating to see the stars as Jefferson would have seen them,” she said.
The planetarium will be open to the public at no charge from 6 to 10 p.m. Nov. 30, Dec. 6, Dec. 19, Jan. 11 and Feb. 1.
A related exhibition displaying books, instruments, specimens and artifacts from the Rotunda’s early history will be until Feb. 18.