New Marble Capitals for Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda

Tuesday, November 3, 2015: 2:15 PM
Presenter: Clay Palazzo, AIA, LEED AP , John G. Waite Associates, Architects, Albany, NY
Co-Presenter: Matthew Scheidt, AIA, LEED AP , John G. Waite Associates, Architects, Albany, NY
In October 1823 Thomas Jefferson dispatched a letter to his agent, Thomas Appleton, the U.S. consul based in Leghorn, Italy, asking him to arrange for the carving of the Corinthian capitals that would be used in the construction of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.  Jefferson directed Appleton to have twelve capitals carved, based on those of the Pantheon, as represented in the Leoni edition of Palladio.

After delays in fabrication and shipping, the capitals arrived in October 1825.  The construction of the portico columns and the setting of the capitals may have been the last work Jefferson witnessed before his death in 1826.  The Rotunda was completed between 1827 and 1828, and would serve as the primary library and classroom space for the university for nearly seven decades.

On October 27, 1895 a catastrophic fire gutted the Rotunda, and left it a burned out shell.  While the brick columns and marble capitals of the portico remained standing, the sustained damage was sufficient to cause Stanford White, the restoration architect chosen by the University, to replace them.  White specified white marble and requested separate prices for the marble work from the quarries of Beaver Dam, Maryland; Tuckahoe, New York; Lee, Massachusetts; and Georgia.  White also requested alternate pricing for the capitals and bases of the south portico "made of first quality Italian monumental white marble, carved and finished in Italy".

With a tight budget for restoration and reconstruction, and with the bankruptcy of the general contractor, the work was brought to a conclusion in 1898 with uncarved capitals on the portico columns.  It would take another five years to have the capitals carved in place.

More than one hundred years later, the marble chosen for the portico capital reconstruction was of such an advanced state of deterioration that the capitals were wrapped in mesh netting for life-safety considerations.  Following an extensive conservation assessment of the marble, the decision was made to replace the capitals.  

It would take the evaluation of Jefferson's original design intent and of White's restoration intent, a study of nineteenth century marble carving technology, and the incorporation of current design and fabrication methodology to replicate the classical marble carving for the Rotunda.  The stone and fabrication were once again sourced from Carrara, Italy.  The work involved the close coordination of the architect, a clay modeling sculptor, and the stone carving studio.  Laser scanning, CNC machining, and traditional stone carving (aided by the use of modern stone cutting and pneumatic carving tools) were used to replicate the 7000 pound capitals.

The convergence of public art and architecture has been realized in the reconstruction of Jefferson's monumental capitals.