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University pushes forward with $51 million Rotunda restoration

Plans impact on magnolia trees, graduation ceremonies draws criticism from students

Thomas Jefferson envisioned an “Academical Village” in which students and professors would live and learn together. At the very heart of this “Academical Village,” he placed the Rotunda as his library: “a temple of knowledge.”

But today, the deteriorating structure of the iconic Rotunda threatens Jefferson’s vision.

When University President Teresa A. Sullivan took office last year, she said the restoration of the Rotunda was a priority. Sullivan has worked closely with the commonwealth of Virginia, University architects and alumni to get the project underway.

Restoration efforts sparked conflict between students and administrators when the University announced that the magnolia trees framing the Rotunda must be cut down so construction can begin. Students have also voiced concerns that renovation efforts will interfere with the graduation ceremonies of the classes of 2012 and 2013.

Two phases of construction
Estimates place the cost of the project between $45.7 million and $50.6 million. The University hopes to get about $26.8 million from the state and plans to raise the remaining funds – about $23.8 million – through private donations, according to a Buildings and Grounds report from June.

The roof leaks are the project’s first priority, because water damage threatens the structural integrity of the building and has damaged parts of the interior domes.

Although administrators have not yet determined a specific start date, the project is expected to begin next spring. The entire project will last several years.

“The initial phases will address conditions that threaten the building’s integrity and include significant roof repairs, column capital restoration, masonry repairs and water infiltration repairs,” according to the Campaign for the University of Virginia’s website, which seeks donations for a number of projects around the University.

The University estimates the initial phase for exterior repairs will cost $23 million.

“Later phases of the project will entail improvements to the Rotunda’s interior infrastructure and restoration of the surrounding landscape. The building’s aging infrastructure, including plumbing, electrical, audio/visual, heating/air conditioning and fire protection, will be upgraded,” according to the campaign’s website.

This later phase of construction will cost a projected $28 million for internal and external improvements.

A scramble for donations
The Rotunda’s renovation is “dependent upon the availability of state funds and a successful fundraising campaign,” according to the Building and Grounds report. In addition to state aid and private donations, a small portion of the University’s endowment may be used for “historic preservation projects,” according to the campaign’s website.

The University is seeking $12.95 million from the state for the first phase of the renovation. So far, $4.7 million has been raised for the roof repairs – $2.7 million from state funding and about $2 million raised by the University. This money will go toward the roof repairs only.

“Usually when we have historic buildings, the General Assembly supports those efforts to maintain the buildings,” said Del. Steve Landes, R-Waynesboro.

Students have also led efforts to raise money for the renovation. Last March, the 48th annual Restoration Ball, coordinated by the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, raised about $5,000.

“Students can only raise so much money for a multi-million dollar project, but it’s important to get students behind it,” said third-year College student Walker McKusick, an employee at the Rotunda. “It gives [the project] legitimacy. It shows the cause is not just important to the past but also to the future.”

Repairs branch out
At its Nov. 10 meeting, the Board of Visitors approved a plan for Rotunda repairs which includes the removal of the surrounding magnolia trees.

No final decisions have been made, however, regarding the start date of the construction or the removal of the trees.

“There are those who believe that the trees will inevitably be damaged during construction and others who believe there may be a way to protect them through construction,” University spokesperson Carol Wood said in an email. “We’ll know more after more study.”

In a Nov. 20 email distributed to third- and fourth-year students, Sullivan attempted to “explain some of the difficult tasks that lie ahead of us as we seek to preserve our Jeffersonian architectural heritage for future generations.”

Sullivan said planning construction meetings would take place soon and that planning will continue into 2012.

She said administrators will work to address student concerns about disruption of Graduation Weekend and the removal of the magnolias.

“Arborists … believe that the repair work on the Rotunda will only exacerbate the trees’ already fragile state,” she said. “These are matters we must consider further.”

The Rotunda will still be open during construction, however, in an effort to minimize disruption to daily lives of students, staff and faculty, Wood said.

Speaking for the trees
Third-year Engineering student Yatzek Krzepicki started an online petition Nov. 15 to protest the planned removal of the magnolia trees. The petition now has nearly 3,400 signatures.

Krzepicki said his interest in the issue began when magnolia trees in front of Garrett Hall were cut down.

“I remember being really angry that they cut down those trees,” he said. “I couldn’t stand by and watch them do it again.”

Krzepicki said he has been in discussions with Dean of Students Allen Groves and Michael Strine, executive vice president and chief operating officer. Krzepicki hopes to create an open forum where students and administrators can discuss the renovation project and the fate of the trees.

“With the way this has gone on, we know very little about the information [the administrators have] regarding the trees,” Krzepicki said.

Fourth-year College student Matt Sutton, who created a Facebook group in support of Krzepicki’s petition, as well as an online petition of his own calling for the University to delay the start of construction until after after the class of 2012’s graduation, also hopes to spur discussion between students and administrators.

“We just want an open dialogue to have the issue discussed,” Sutton said. “No one thus far, including us, has offered an alternative other than just delaying [construction].”

Sutton said he hopes the University will consider delaying renovation if the financial burden is not too great. If construction were to begin after June, then only one graduation would be affected, he said.

“Unfortunately, they’ve planned this for several months, and there are fiscal and structural reasons why they want to start the renovation, so I’m not too hopeful,” Sutton said.

Sutton said he is also working with the students involved with the petition to send “constructive letter[s] to appropriate people” including lists of everyone who has signed the petition and selected comments from the Facebook group.

Krzepicki said Sullivan’s email was not helpful.

“[The email] didn’t say much,” Krzepicki said. “It was more of an overall sentiment. [It] didn’t say a lot either way, and it remains to be seen what the official line is.”

Krzepicki saw the president’s need for more information as encouraging, however. He said he hopes Sullivan will send an email to students with reasons behind the decision once it is made.

Despite disagreement about timing of construction and the potential cutting down of the magnolia trees, all parties acknowledge the need to repair the Rotunda.

“The Rotunda – the heart of the University Grounds – is a World Heritage Site and an icon for higher education around the world,” Wood said. “We have an obligation to repair the Rotunda and to preserve it for future generations.”

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