Scholars' Lab Blog //Augmenting an Iconic Structure: The Rotunda
Blog //Augmenting an Iconic Structure: The Rotunda

The Praxis team has been hard at work developing our project, and we’re now beginning to unite the various aspects of UVA Reveal, including our work in Unity, our work on linked data, and our work on a website. Part of this unification has involved crafting stories about the university: what do we see, and what remains hidden? How can we visually represent spaces of the university, especially spaces that have been erased or largely forgotten? Is it as simple as using augmented reality to display images that are otherwise not there, or is there another way that we can utilize the space?

The Foundations of the Rotunda & the University

I’ve been thinking about space particularly in relation to the Rotunda, which stands at the heart of the University of Virginia. The Rotunda has a rather troubled history. In 1821, Jefferson designed the Rotunda and proposed his design to the Board of Visitors. Construction began in 1822 and was completed in 1826, though the steps leading up to the South Portico were not built until 1832. On October 27, 1895, the Rotunda caught fire, most likely due to faulty electrical wiring (which was installed in 1888). Unable to subdue the fire, students and faculty rushed to save books and other objects – including the heavy statue of Jefferson inside the Rotunda – from the flames.

In 1896, the Rotunda was redesigned by Stanford White. About the changes White made to Jefferson’s original design, the UVA Rotunda Preservation Committee has written: “Jefferson had designed the Rotunda with three floors, and Stanford White changed it to two floors, making the Dome Room much bigger. White sought to merge Jefferson’s design with the University’s needs, which still included using the Rotunda largely as a library. He also designed east and west wings on the north side of the building, to match the south wings, and he connected the wings with colonnades. He designed the Rotunda with central heating and a mechanized ventilation system.  While the central heat was retained, the ventilation system was scrapped because of cost” (see The Rotunda was rededicated in 1898.

The Rotunda has been restored several times since the fire, including in 1976 for the bicentennial celebration. The most recent restoration work began in 2012 and was completed in 2016.

Partly because of its iconic stature, the Rotunda has been host to numerous events and countless visitors. Notable among these are Gertrude Stein, Queen Elizabeth II, and Michelle Obama. To see images (primarily from UVA’s Special Collections) showing some of these famous events and visitors, please view the video on our website.

Yet if the Rotunda has served as the public face of a public university, this same university was built and run by the labor of enslaved African Americans from 1817 until 1865. According to Brendan Wolfe, “Most of the university’s first enslaved laborers were rented from local landowners and worked alongside whites and free blacks in performing all the tasks associated with building what the school’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, called the Academical Village. In March 1825, the first students arrived and African Americans transitioned to working in the pavilions, hotels, and the Rotunda; maintaining classrooms, laboratories, and the library; ringing the bell; and serving the daily needs of students and faculty.”

Most enslaved laborers at the University of Virginia were rented from their owners for a set period of time. Wolfe records that “At the height of building, in 1820, the university paid $1,099.08 in hiring fees. In 1821, hired slaves cost the university $1,133.73, while in 1822 that figure dropped to $866.64, and in 1825, as construction was being completed, it fell to $681. On average, the board of visitors paid owners $60 per slave per year, although the particular amounts depended on enslaved men’s ages, physical conditions, and skills.”

If this were not enough, there has been a history of institutional racism at the University of Virginia. Prior to the Civil War, many students and even faculty were outspoken about their support for slavery. In 1850, for instance, students founded the Southern Rights’ Association of the University of Virginia. The Southern Rights’ Association drafted a constitution and published 2,500 copies of a pamphlet titled “The Address of the Southern Rights’ Association of the University of Virginia.” This pamphlet proclaimed the association as “united for the purpose of promoting, as far as we may be able, unity of sentiment and concert of action in the slave holding States against our aggressors.”

Numerous professors also promoted pro-slavery ideology. For instance, Professor Basil L. Gildersleeve, who was a professor of Greek and Hebrew at the University of Virginia from 1856 until 1873, published an essay titled “Miscegenation” in the Richmond Examiner on April 18, 1864. In this essay, Gildersleeve argued for the purity of the “white race” and warned against race mixing. He writes: “A jealousy natural to our English blood and fostered by our peculiar system, has prevented the intrusion of mongrels [i.e., individuals of mixed race], even of the third and fourth generations, into the society and the privileges of the white race. In no other part of the world, in which the two races [i.e., “white and black races”] have existed, side by side, has this exclusion been so absolute; and it is to this watchful care, which is so natural, that we keep it up unconsciously, and which is so much to our interest that we take no credit to ourselves for it—it is to this watchful care that we owe the supremacy of the white man on the continent, and that we look down so proudly on the mixed population of Mexico and the twenty-two cross-breeds of Lima.”

Representing History, Augmenting Spaces

Given this complex history, the Praxis team has been faced with a number of challenges, which I’ll pose here as questions: What are our ethical responsibilities as researchers and scholars when it comes to augmenting spaces at the University of Virginia? How do we represent the many stories of the university without privileging any single one? How do we celebrate the successes of the university without downplaying the atrocious foundations upon which it was built? Conversely, how do we honor the lives of those enslaved African Americans who made the university what it is today without slipping into maudlin reflections about the university’s past?

We’re far from satisfactorily answering these questions, but I think it safe to say that our reflections have been fruitful nonetheless. That is, given our attempts to balance these stories, we’ve decided to utilize space as a natural organizer of time and history. Let me give you an example by describing our augmentation of the Rotunda.

We chose to augment two different views of the Rotunda: the first view is that of the front side (the side facing University Avenue), and the second view is of the plaque dedicated to the men and women who helped build the Rotunda and the Academic Village. By augmenting these two spaces, we hope to contrast the public-facing and the “hidden” parts of the university, if you will. The side facing University Avenue stands as the public face of the University, and our augmentation thus showcases the famous people who have visited UVA. Yet this view is juxtaposed with the plaque to “both free and enslaved” men and women who helped build the university. Physically, this plaque is placed beneath the portico of the Rotunda, embedded into the brick walkway and stepped on by students and visitors alike. This plaque is therefore ideally placed for our augmentation of the “hidden stories” surrounding the construction of the university. These augmentations will include images held in the UVA Special Collections (such as historical images of the Rotunda and photographs of former enslaved African Americans at UVA), as well as short video and audio clips that highlight relevant information about the enslaved laborers who helped build the rotunda and UVA’s involvement with the Confederacy. In this manner, our augmentations attempt to spatially reconstruct not only the stories surrounding the university, but also the historical attention to those stories.

Current Efforts to Reform

It would be remiss of me to not mention the current efforts of the university to address its troubled history. In 2013, Dr. Marcus Martin, Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity, proposed that a commission be formed to further explore the topic. The result was the “The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University” (, which includes the creation of a Memorial to Enslaved Laborers (estimated to be completed in Spring 2019) and the establishment of the annual Cornerstone Summer Institute for high school students that “encourages critical thinking while students learn about both the University’s past and the modern-day legacies of slavery” ( The Commission has also created a short documentary about slavery at the University (“Unearthed and Understood”).

Founded in 1969, the Black Student Alliance (BSA) at UVA seeks to “represent the social and political concerns of the African-American student body, and to establish a more perfect union between the African-American, multi-cultural, and University communities” ( The BSA has been instrumental in implementing changes at the University, and following the August 11th riots, the BSA successfully advocated for the removal of a plaque on the Rotunda that “commemorated members of the University who died serving the Confederacy” (“An In-Depth Look at BSA Demands”). The BSA continues to play a fundamental role in promoting racial awareness at the University.

Faculty efforts include a multimedia initiative, Black Fire at UVA (, which “document[s] the struggle for social justice and racial equality at the University of Virginia” through photos, videos, and audio interviews. Black Fire is sponsored by UVA’s Office of the Vice Provost of the Arts and organized by Professors Kevin Jerome Everson of the Department of Art and Claudrena N. Harold of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies and the Corcoran Department of History.

The Demographics Research at the University of Virginia has created a “Racial Dot Map” that visualizes the “geographic distribution, population density, and racial diversity of the American people in every neighborhood in the entire country” using information from the 2010 US Census. This map thus displays how segregation is still endemic to the United States and shows how much more work needs to be done.

Image 6: A screenshot of “The Racial Dot Map” that visually displays how neighborhoods are segregated in Charlottesville

For more information, please visit our project website,

Works Consulted and Further Reading

The Address of the Southern Rights’ Association, of the University of Virginia, to the Young Men of the South.” Broadside 1851 .V8, Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

Black Fire at UVA. Organized by Professors Kevin Jerome Everson and Claudrena N. Harold. Sponsored by UVA’s Office of the Vice Provost of the Arts. 2018. Web

Black Student Alliance Movement. 2018. Web

Cable, Dustin. “The Racial Dot Map.” Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia. July 2013. Web

Clemmons, Anna Katherine. “Period Pieces: New Book, Exhibits Showcase More of Those Things that Tell UVA’s History.” The University of Virginia Magazine. 2018. Web

Gildersleeve, Basil L. “Miscegenation,” Examiner. April 18, 1864. Web

Gravely, Alexis, et al. “An In-Depth Look at the BSA Demands.” The Cavalier Daily. August 31, 2017. Web

“Meigs Rotunda Plan (1859).” Jefferson’s University. Web

Montes-Bradley, Eduardo. “Unearthed & Understood: Slavery an the University of Virginia.”YouTube, Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. 21 Apr. 2017. Web

“President’s Commission on Slavery and the University.” University of Virginia. 2013. Web

“The Rotunda at the University of Virginia.” University of Virginia. 2018. Web

“The Rotunda: History.” University of Virginia. 2018. Web

“Rotunda Reborn: Videos about the Historic Renovation.” Virginia Magazine. Fall 2016. Web

Svrluga, Susan. “UVA Acknowledges Its Slave History.” The Washington Post. June 24, 2015. Web

“Teaching with Historic Places: Visual Evidence.” National Park Service. Web

Wolfe, Brendan. “Slavery at the University of Virginia.” Encyclopedia of Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2 Feb. 2016. Web

Wolfe, Brendan. “Henry Martin (1826–1915).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 15 May. 2017. Web

Cite this post: Christian Howard. “Augmenting an Iconic Structure: The Rotunda”. Published April 12, 2018. Accessed on .