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Jefferson’s iconic U.Va. Rotunda amid $58 million face-lift

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia is ensnared in a spider’s web of scaffolding these days, the focus of a $58.3 million renovation of the World Heritage Site.

The Rotunda face-lift is part construction zone — hardhats, safety glasses, big equipment — part art restoration.

In its interior, also veined with scaffolding, workers are crouched in cramped spaces shoveling out red clay beneath the foundation to make room for modern mechanical features, such as wiring and plumbing. In another area, two patterns of brick have been laid out, like carpet samples, before a final selection is made.

Outside, a crew uses a special concoction and brushes to scrub years of grime from a marble balustrade.

To ensure all this work doesn’t stress the nearly two-century-old structure, a $500,000 laser monitoring system targets 130 points to detect any movement in the brick walls.

If the lasers sense a shift of a quarter inch, “the project shuts down and we figure out what’s going wrong,” says Jody Lahendro, an historic preservation architect who is overseeing the face-lift for the university.

The centerpiece of U.Va.’s historic Grounds and Jefferson’s vision of an “academical village,” The Rotunda was built from 1822 to 1826. It was the largest construction project of its day, Lahendro said. Its labor force included slaves, as well as craftsmen brought in from Philadelphia.

Jefferson modeled The Rotunda on the Pantheon in Rome, which has dazzled millions of visitors with the oculus atop its domed roof, through which a golden shaft of sunlight commonly illuminates the interior.

The Rotunda’s connection to Italy doesn’t end there.

The capitals — the ornate, load-bearing marble pieces atop The Rotunda’s columns — were mined and carved in Italy. The original capitals were also from Carrara, Italy, but they were replaced with domestic marble after a destructive 1895 fire. They failed to withstand the weather and are being replaced.

The renovation includes repairs to the famed dome, updated climate equipment to preserve the building at an optimal temperature and many other improvements.

The work has also revealed secrets: a hearth used in chemical experiments and dating to Jefferson’s era was found behind a brick wall. A cistern, 16 feet deep, was discovered in the east courtyard. The signatures of workers who built it in 1853 were also found, and they were preserved for future display.

While The Rotunda reflects Jefferson’s worldly influences, it also represents his strong belief in the separation of church and state. So while churches had been the focal point of universities in his day, The Rotunda initially housed a library and was the center of U.Va.

Instead of one building, Jefferson’s village included faculty pavilions and student rooms lining The Lawn.

The Rotunda, the Statute of Liberty, Independence Hall and the Native American site Poverty Point in Louisiana are the lone man-made entries on UNESCO’s World Heritage for the United States. (The Rotunda is collectively on the list with Jefferson’s Monticello).

Once completed next summer, the spruced up Rotunda will not be a museum piece. Up to 200 events are typically held there annually; its governing board meets under the dome; and several classrooms will be added: “The thing closest to our hearts,” Lahendro said.

“It’s a sin that university students who graduated in the last few years have never set foot in The Rotunda,” he said. “So we are bringing it back to the students, making it a part of the student life.”

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.

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