Diary: 2 March 2014

The Pantheon-influenced Rotunda, designed by Thomas Jefferson and restored and renovated (after a fire) by Stanford White, and the Lawn, the original heart of the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, visited on 22 February 2014.

On 19 February, I flew east to attend a family wedding in Richmond and then briefly visit Charlottesville, where I toured Monticello and then stopped to see Jefferson's remarkable "opening move" at the University of Virginia. I realize it's heretical to say so, but the interior of Monticello is better than the house itself. From outside, it feels like two different buildings joined together. The thrust-out octagon and porch have a sort of dog's-head quality from the lawn. Although it looks large in the photo, it's small in relation to the lawn, lacking the grandeur of the Virginia mansions built by his contemporaries. Inside, however, its virtues are manifest, especially in Jefferson's own quarters, essentially an apartment within the house. (Unfortunately, I couldn't photograph the interior.) 

Monticello. Jefferson's apartment occupies this part of the house. The extensive basement level is visible under the terrace. The conservatory also opens onto it. The house is most impressive, to me, viewed from this direction.
I had seen Monticello as an undergraduate, but had little memory of it. The front hall is a wunderkammer of mostly American artifacts, many of them given to Jefferson by Lewis and Clark, whose expedition Jefferson (as US President) underwrote. The scale of the place is brought home by the absence of a grand staircase. Concerned about heating it, Jefferson opted for a compact plan with two small, enclosed stairwells that run from the basement to the third floor. There are also dumbwaiters, as the kitchen is below the house. (That level services the house unobtrusively, an idea that repeats itself at the University of Virginia, along with other motifs.)

View from the Rotunda of the colonnades bordering the lawn at the University of Virginia.
The Jefferson-designed centerpiece of the University of Virginia campus consists of a rectangular two-level lawn anchored by the Pantheon-like Rotunda and fronted by one-story colonnades interrupted by two-story commons buildings. Behind the colonnades are small student rooms. Paths extend away from this central assemblage, each defined by serpentine walls that enclose the gardens of the two-story residences that parallel it as a series. (I'm making guesses here about the use, except the student rooms behind the collonade, of which I looked into two.) Everything is still in use. It feels like a piece of pre-Haussmann Paris ended up as the heart of an English residential college. Jefferson had the foresight to locate it at the highest point of the campus, removed from the sprawl that surrounds it now at a respectful distance.

A milk company's building off Broad Street in downtown Richmond, VA.
We spent two days in Richmond, but sightseeing was limited. We stayed at The Jefferson, a truly grand hotel. The wedding ceremony took place at the Catholic cathedral, a short walk across nearby Monroe Park. A colleague who lives there offered a tour, which I hope to take up on another visit. He told me over drinks that Patrick Henry made his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech at a local church, and that many of the more obvious signs of its days as the Confederate capital, like the equestrian statues of Confederate generals, reflect late 19th-century nostalgia.

My nephew and his bride's first dance as a married couple.
Weddings remind me of the powerful grip that families have. They also have an oracular quality: one looks for auspicious signs, like a break in the weather, and evidence of enthusiasm among the different parties. In this case, the weather turned summery, though bracketed by winter. And when the Monsignor made his man-and-wife pronouncement, the bride expressed her happiness. That warm affection carried through the evening, as knots of old friends gathered to talk and reminisce, and the newly married couple's cohort partied on.


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