CHARLOTTESVILLE — It’s hard to imagine that an institution as storied as the University of Virginia would have any more stories to tell. But, according to preservationists at Mr. Jefferson’s university, a recent discovery has reaffirmed that the 194-year-old institution can still teach — and surprise — those who walk its Grounds.
Senior historic preservation planner Brian Hogg said his colleague, James D.W. Zehmer, was walking along the scaffolding above the university’s West Range, just off the Lawn, when something caught his eye.
“They’re replacing the slate on the West Range: the west side of Jefferson’s original group of buildings at the university,” Hogg said Friday.
“A decent amount of the slate dates to the 1830s, but a lot of it’s been replaced over the years because it’s been leaking,” Zehmer explained. “We knew we wanted to save some of the 1830s slate, so I basically walked the whole job.”
That’s when Zehmer saw holes punctured into the original slate.
After careful analysis and comparative study, Hogg and Zehmer concluded that the holes were not an error in masonry or product of erosion, but very complicated construction details.
The details, Zehmer said, reveal that the university’s buildings didn’t always appear as they do now.
“It’s basically a little square hole in the sheathing that shows where an iron bracket was attached to the roof to support a balustrade or parapet or a railing,” Hogg said.
According to Hogg and Zehmer, the notches in the Range’s original slate roof indicate that the row of student housing and facilities off Jefferson’s original Lawn was once crowned with an ornamental railing.
“We don’t know exactly how tall they were,” Zehmer said. “But depending on that, they could have helped make a roof look flatter than it might have been. That was kind of one of Jefferson’s favorite techniques.”
The discovery, Hogg and Zehmer said, is an important reminder for preservationists and historians that nothing is ever known for certain.
Artistic renderings dating to 1856, such as a well-known Bohn print on display in the Dome Room in the university’s Rotunda, show the Ranges and other buildings off the Lawn with what appear to be parapets, or low railings. But “we’re always a little hesitant about believing artwork,” Zehmer said.
For decades, historians and preservationists had believed that the parapets, like the mammoth Rotunda and the leveled Lawn, may have been more fiction than fact, but the West Range finding has put their original assumptions into perspective.
“What’s really important to understand is that we’re not owners of this place,” Zehmer said. “We’re stewards in one place and time.”