Thomas Jefferson believed strongly in education. True to his beliefs, he built the first university in the state of Virginia in the town of Charlottesville, which was in the valley below his home of Monticello. The original campus consisted of a large domed building called the Rotunda, from which extended two long wings in the shape of a “U” wherethe classrooms and offices were located.
The Rotunda, an imposing structure set upon a rise, catches the eye from a distance.
Like the renaissance man he was, Jefferson designed the buildings and campus layout. All of the walls in the Rotunda were curved. The first floor hosted three major rooms, all oval in shape, and the hallway between was correspondingly hour-glass shaped. One meeting room contained a large conference table for administrative meetings, another held a smaller conference table where dissertations were given, and the third meeting room held sofas and chairs for more informal gatherings. Jefferson felt stairways were a waste of useful space and hence he tried to diminish or hide them in his designs.
The upper floors of the Rotunda served as an auditorium and library. The central area under the dome is filled with chairs and a lectern. The periphery of the second floor contains book cases which separate the area into study corrals. The book cases are designed to “hide” between a pair of columns so they are not readily apparent from the center of the space. A third floor promenade offers additional audience space for the auditorium.
Large windows light the corrals with pleasant views of magnolias and other buildings.
A skylight at the center of the dome brightly illuminates the space with plenty of sunlight.
Jefferson practiced concepts of freedom that are not identical to our present-day attitudes. Students were the sons of wealthy Virginians; no women or commoners attended. However, slaves were not permitted on campus, so the students would “hide” their slaves in the town of Charlottesville. The slaves met their masters at the edge of the campus to exchange parcels such as laundry or food, or to communicate instructions on tasks to be performed.
Students then as now tended to rebel against authority and rules, and several times drunken students could be found riding their horses wildly about the quadrangle between the classroom buildings. One time a student even shot a man dead on campus. Jefferson, as president of the university, was certainly challenged by the student body.
The feeling of the original campus buildings is very Southern. Wooden rockers are located adjacent each door. Piles of wood are available to warm the winter days, and shutters allow cooling breezes during the warm spring and summertime. Still, announcements and posters on many doors herald campus activities.
Some of the building winds are larger two story structures. These offer larger classrooms and offices, but may also have been reserved for teachers of higher esteem. Compare the red-painted doors for the single-story areas to the more elaborate green-painted doorways of the two story sections. Notice steps are provided for these larger spaces, indicating rising above the lower ranks.