UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA                                                                                                          GROUNDS PLAN                                                                                                          OFFICE OF THE ARCHITECT




The Academical Village:  Jefferson’s Vision

By the time the University opened its doors to students in 1825, there were forty-five colleges and universities operating in the United States.  Like the designers of these colleges, Jefferson was confronted with two planning questions: First, the site and context--specifically, the relationship of the university to the town--had to be considered.  Second, the disposition of the residential, academic, and social functions had to be determined: would these functions be housed in a single, multi-purpose building, or distributed in separate structures?  If separate structures were chosen, a further question arose: how would these structures relate to each other?

Engraving by W. Goodacre, University of Virginia, Charlottesville (1831)
Engraving by Peter Maverick (1825)

English colleges such as Oxford or Cambridge had a physical plan comprised of quadrangles that had evolved from informal collections of buildings into wholly enclosed and separate spaces.  This plan provided students with a cloistered and secure area for their studies, but relied heavily on the community for amenities.  For political as well as pedagogical reasons, early American colleges rejected or substantially modified this model.  The College of William and Mary, attended by Jefferson, typified the conventional early American college plan: a single, all-purpose building of several stories that housed multiple functions.  Also unlike English colleges, many early American colleges were established outside of urban areas, although some, notably Yale and Harvard, were integrated into the town fabric.
As Jefferson developed his ideas for the University of Virginia, he looked to different models.  A lawn-type plan from South Carolina College (now USC-Columbia), designed by Jefferson’s protégé Robert Mills in 1803, and a horseshoe plan for Union College in New York (1813) by Joseph-Jacques Ramée may have been referents for Jefferson.  Some urban institutions, the rural agricultural villas of Palladio, and Marly Le Roi, Louis XIV’s elaborate garden and palace, are other possible sources.  While it is certain that Jefferson absorbed many forms of architecture and planning for his own design experiments in the years before ground was broken in 1817, his particular conceptual relationships ultimately guided the final design.

First, the University was modeled after a town or village--an inward-turning, human-scaled, all-inclusive settlement, embodying Jefferson’s agrarian ideals.  This goal of self-sufficiency accounts for the selection of a site about one mile from the nearest town, Charlottesville.  The basic plan was that of a horseshoe or open-ended quadrangle arrangement of one- and two-story buildings facing each other across a town green or lawn and potentially extending out into the landscape.  Each line of buildings was comprised of five two-story Pavilions connected by a series of single-story double-occupancy student rooms.  The Pavilions housed faculty on the upper floor and classrooms on the ground level, much as a commercial proprietor would live above the shop.  The whole ensemble was connected by a continuous colonnade, like the covered streets from cities of the Deep South, to offer shelter from the elements.  A second line of student rooms, known as the Ranges, was placed to the east and west of the main buildings.  These rooms were interspersed with Hotels or eating establishments and connected by continuous arcades.  Gardens, probably ornamental for the Pavilions and working yards for the Hotels, filled the space between the Pavilions and the Ranges.  The Pavilion residents and Hotel keepers were provided with fields around the perimeter of the University’s property to farm.  Water was supplied through cisterns, which collected both rain water and water from the land acquired on Observatory Hill for this purpose. 

Secondly, the arrangement of the buildings was also to encourage a close relationship between master and pupil, with little division between social and academic life.  This was to be accomplished through the integration of teaching and living in the Pavilions, by faculty and students dining together in the Hotels, and by the close proximity of student and faculty housing.  In this way, a domestic hierarchy--both social, in the student/teacher relationship, and architectural, in the essentially residential scale of the buildings--was established.

Thirdly, the buildings were intended to serve a pedagogical role.  Jefferson’s interpretations of the classical orders organized the façades of the Pavilions, and were intended to form a part of the curriculum as tools for architectural instruction.

Lastly, the institution was to have a secular, rather than a religious foundation.  A monumental library, rather than a church, was placed at the head of the Lawn.  Although there was something of the cloister in the arrangement of the open square framed by a colonnade, a location for religious worship was excluded from the plan and left to the personal preferences of the individual.  This was not a gesture of religious suppression--space in the Rotunda was allocated from the outset for Sunday worship services--but in its determinedly secular focus, the plan for UVA was one of the most radical statements on the rational basis of the American democracy and its doctrine that had yet been made.

There were no stables, slave quarters or trades accommodated in Jefferson’s Academical Village, embodying Jefferson’s agrarian ideals (although they were added shortly after classes began).  In all, it was an idealized company town, planned for one industry--learning--around which all other functions were either subordinated or eliminated.  Although Jefferson drew on certain traditions in his design, the marriage of pedagogy and planning at the University remained his own distinctive contribution.

Charlottesville Annexation

Although the University defined itself apart from Charlottesville, the local community would become an increasingly significant context for the University’s growth.  Established in 1762 as the Albemarle County seat, Charlottesville provided a counterpart for Jefferson’s Academical Village.  Like the University, Charlottesville had a secular center, the courthouse, where religious services were held, but had no purpose-built church building until 1824.  Lack of access to a major waterway accounts for Charlottesville’s slow growth prior to the arrival of the railroad in the mid-nineteenth century.  Both the University and the town relied on the major east-west route from Richmond, called 3-Notched or 3-Chop’t Road, as the main source of people and manufactured goods.  After the establishment of the University, Charlottesville, which had been designed as a gridded town, began to grow emphatically westward along this road, toward the University.  Several tradesman who worked on the building of the University, such as James Dinsmore, Captain John M. Perry, and George Wilson Spooner, Jr., (later Proctor of the University) became involved in land speculation and development in Charlottesville.  Charlottesville and the University would continue to grow together.