Rethinking a historic space
We commend the University for extending student use of the Rotunda
The Rotunda should not seem forbidding, least of all to University students. For years, the Rotunda’s second-floor glass doors were sealed shut. The doors struck most students on Grounds as ornamental, not functional. Until University officials opened the building’s second-floor entrance in March, students trying to enter the Rotunda had to walk down to the building’s lower doorway and then make their way up through spiraling stairs.
Though the Rotunda is a paragon of Enlightenment architecture, it is also a living building. It hosts offices and meetings. Streams of tourists amble through nearly every day.
But some students, especially first years, view the Rotunda as off-limits. This attitude comes partially from the building’s status as an architectural marvel. Entering the Rotunda can feel like entering a church — which, given Jefferson’s decidedly secular intentions for the University, is irony of a severe flavor. We can also attribute students’ hesitation about entering the Rotunda for casual purposes to the fact that the building hosts some high-powered meetings, the Board of Visitors’ sessions being one example. Wandering around the Rotunda looking for a place to study can make one feel as if one risks intruding on something important. Finally, students have been uneasy about studying in the Academical Village’s centerpiece because doing so is not ingrained into the habits and patterns of mainstream University student life.
It is this last trend that Rotunda officials hope to change. Rotunda Operations Manager Christine Wells recently announced that the building would extend its study hours. Students may now swipe in to study between 5 and 10 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday. The Rotunda remains open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The new Rotunda programming schedule has also allotted more time slots for classes in the Lower West Oval Room and has reserved the Dome Room for first-year dorm dinners on Wednesday nights.
These changes may seem minor, but they mark a forceful symbolic point. This gesture is a particularly positive way to welcome first-year students — some of whom are unsure which spaces are “allowed” — into the University’s symbolic and architectural center. By reserving Sunday through Tuesday evenings specifically for students, University officials have indicated in clear terms that they wish students to take advantage of the school’s most iconic space.
Students should treat this privilege responsibly by following stated guidelines, such as not bringing food into the Rotunda. They should also take advantage of this marvelous opportunity—to work and learn in one of the world’s most stunning buildings. We commend the Rotunda staff for promoting students’ interests and making a historic structure a place for learning, discussion and study — much as Jefferson envisioned.