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University of Virginia: Jefferson's masterpiece

The temptation on a quick trip to Charlottesville is to stop only at Monticello. Against the complexities of Jefferson and his flawed but exquisite Monticello, it is easy to say ''this is enough'' and bypass the University of Virginia. But don't do it. It is considered Jefferson's masterpiece, a gem designated by the American Institute of Architects in 1976 as ''the proudest achievement of American architecture.''

Dumas Malone says simply, ''It has stood the test of time.'' Malone means, of course, Jefferson's ''academical village'' - the original University of Virginia - though the huge, sprawling institution which exists today is also a monument to Jefferson's vision.

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The formation of the University of Virginia, in which Jefferson expressed his highly advanced notions of higher education, architecture, and landscaping, was the labor of Jefferson's old age. The university officially opened - on March 7, 1825 - less than one year before his death, July 4, 1826.

Jefferson's design called for - and achieved - a double row of pavilions, each pavilion to house a different professor and a different academic discipline. Each pavilion is connected to the next by students' rooms, the passageway itself a columned walkway called the Colonnades. Behind each of the 10 pavilions are gardens - in recent years reconstructed according to Jeffersonian ideals by the Garden Club of Virginia - reaching to an additional row of student rooms and ''hotels,'' or dining halls (now turned offices), called the ''ranges.''

The whole formed a cohesive academic community Jefferson envisioned for this first ''free'' university, a college to be run by its faculty, offering no degrees and demanding no religious affiliations or attendance at chapel. At the time, Jefferson's was a revolutionary concept indeed.

The rows of pavilions border a splendid lawn, terraced broadly to give - as at Monticello - a sense of the ''limitless vistas of the human mind.'' A landscape architect before the term was invented, Jefferson had snatched this notion from the Chateau de Marly, a chateau favored by Louis XIV and destroyed during the French Revolution.

Ever the schoolmaster, Jefferson embellished the facade of each pavilion with cornices and friezes of the Roman classic orders, as interpreted by Palladio and the French architectural theorist Chambray. This was Jefferson's means of teaching pupils good taste and ensuring that, through homeward-bound students, classical concepts of beauty and order would penetrate beyond the Eastern Seaboard.

As the capstone to his academical village and to the university as a concept, Jefferson planned his magnificent Rotunda. Always eager to merge aesthetic with practical principles, he was inspired by the Pantheon of Rome - whose Rotunda was built by the Emperor Hadrian to symbolize the cosmos.

The Pantheon had been admired for 2,000 years and was thus a worthy model for a new republic, Jefferson thought. His rotunda would be only at half scale, the most a fledgling nation might decently attempt.

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It was clear that Jefferson saw the University of Virginia as a university for America and not merely for Virginians.

As usual, Jefferson was no mere mimic. Turning again to the drawings of Palladio, he modified the Pantheon to suit his own purposes. His rotunda would be a perfect sphere within a cylinder - unlike the Pantheon, whose lesser elevation gave its exterior a ''dumpy'' air.

On both the ground and main floors, Jefferson created an integrated design of ovals on three sides of a free-form space. It was an original plan. The Dome Room above would one day be a planetarium as well as library, Jefferson said.

In 1895, Jefferson's masterpiece was gutted by fire. Ironically, the conflagration began in an eyesore of an annex to the rotunda designed by a man who had learned his drafting skills from Thomas Jefferson.

Though fate dispensed with the unfortunate annex, the tampering with the Rotunda had just begun. New York architect Stanford White, assigned by the university to put up what had just burned down, stood by Jefferson's concepts for the exterior of the Rotunda, but modified the interior with what one observer called ''mutilations'' in the form of additional balconies, pillars, etc.

Not until 1972 were funds and energy available for a massive restoration to Jefferson's original plans.

As you wander from floor to floor, admiring the free-form stairways, Argand lamps, the hourglass entranceways and the soaring Dome Room, you'll quickly appreciate the care lavished upon this extraordinary structure.

Some modifications have been made to take advantage of advances in soundproofing, heating, and air conditioning, but nothing has been left to chance or whimsy. According to Frederick Nichols, the impetus behind the whole project and the chief consultant, only the Capitol in Washington is better documented than Jefferson's Rotunda.

''There are over 3,000 documents covering everything from dimensions to Tuscan cornices and straight grain pine flooring,'' says Nichols, whose scholarly affinity for Jeffersonian architecture has led him - with various colleagues - to write the official guide to Monticello as well as volumes on Jefferson's architectural drawings and on his accomplishments as a landscape gardener.

The Rotunda restoration was completed in time for the Bicentennial and was reopened on April 13, 1976 - the 200th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's birth.

Though Stanford White meddled more than once and closed up Thomas Jefferson's beloved open vista opposite the Rotunda, an idle evening's walk around the academical village is still a revealing venture. Clusters of upperclassmen and women chat around open doors. Logs for fireplaces are stacked along the Colonnade. Thomas Jefferson's academical village - now a mere dot on the map of a huge campus - still reflects the order, originality, and intellectual and aesthetic idealism of Jefferson himself.

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