Near the end of the University of Virginia’s spring semester, Katie Watts had a choice between writing a final paper or undertaking 16 more hours of labor on the model of UVA’s original Rotunda dome that her class was completing.
To her own surprise, Watts – who earned her master’s degree in architectural history from the University in May – chose the 16 hours of construction work.
“As a historian, I was much more comfortable with the idea of writing a paper,” Watts said, noting that the closest thing she had to construction experience was building her Ikea furniture. “But I decided to go outside my comfort zone and work on the dome instead.”
Watts, together with 14 other graduate and undergraduate students in Benjamin Hays’ “History of American Building Technology” course, built a replica of the original wooden dome that perished when the Thomas Jefferson-designed Rotunda caught fire in 1895. It was replaced by a tile dome out of concern for future fires.
As UVA celebrates its bicentennial, visitors can now see what that original wooden dome would have looked like, thanks to more than 400 hours of work by Hays’ students, aided by several outside architects and builders.
The model dome, which will be on display on the Lawn until the end of June, was created with support from UVA’s Bicentennial Commission and Castleton Farms in Rappahannock County. At one-third the scale of the real Rotunda dome, it’s an imposing structure and a tangible reminder of founder Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the University 200 years ago.
“My favorite part of the project was stepping into the craftsman’s shoes,” second-year architectural history graduate student Tabitha Sabky said. “Working with my hands and engaging with history through physical materials allowed me to approach the history of building construction not through the designer’s perspective, but through the everyday worker’s perspective. Each issue that we faced forced us to step into the mindset of a Jefferson-era craftsman and learn the processes of workers who have been largely ignored in the architectural history narratives.”