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The Rotunda
Photograph courtesy of Shannon Bell

The Rotunda is the most important individual architectural work of Thomas Jefferson, who, had he pursued no other activity, would be considered one of America's leading architects. Designed when he was more than 70 and completed in 1826, the year of his death at age 83, the Rotunda was the principal element of the complex Jefferson provided for the University of Virginia. Jefferson modeled it after the Pantheon in Rome, which he considered to be the most perfect example of what he called "spherical" architecture. He reduced the proportions of the Pantheon by half, making the Rotunda 77 feet in diameter and in height. For its interior, Jefferson ingeniously divided the first two floors into suites of oval rooms to serve as classrooms and lecture halls. The domed top floor, with its ring of paired columns in the Composite order, was surely one of the most beautiful rooms ever created in America and served as the university's library.

Pillars of the Rotunda
Photograph courtesy of Shannon Bell

The Rotunda was gutted by fire in 1895, leaving only the finely crafted Flemish bond brick walls intact. New York architect Stanford White designed a new interior. In his rebuilding White eliminated the first-floor oval rooms, creating one large two-story domed space. He also added the north portico and the north esplanades, connecting them to the original south esplanades by handsome colonnades. The Stanford White interior was removed in a mid-1970s remodeling which attempted to recreate, though with numerous modifications, the appearance of the Jeffersonian interior.

The Rotunda, a National Historic Landmark, is located on the University of Virginia campus. Free guided tours of the Rotunda are given year-round except during the three-week holiday break in Dec.-Jan. and during the final exam period during the first three weeks of May. Tours are given from 10:00am to 4:00pm on the hour (except at 12:00pm) starting at the Rotunda entrance facing the lawn. Call 804-924-7969 or visit the website for further information.


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