Call it the “Preservationist’s Dilemma”: To restore the ancient and authentic, is it necessary to destroy the modern and memorable? More particularly, when the twin colonnades that line the Lawn of the Academical Village are restored, should the columns be the well-known white of the modern era, or the unpainted, oatmeal-tan they were in Jefferson’s original?
“We’re discussing what the final appearance should be,” says Brian Hogg (Col ’83), senior historic preservation planner in the Office of the Architect for the University. “Do you turn back the clock and try to recapture the appearance at a certain period, or do you say the site has evolved over time?”
Hogg would make the case that the Tuscan columns should be left uncoated, as research indicates they were when the University was built. So would his colleagues in the Facilities Planning and Construction Department, architectural conservator Mark Kutney and senior project services manager Wayne Mays.
“If you’re standing in the middle of the Lawn, you should be looking at the Jefferson period,” Kutney says.
Hogg acknowledges the debate, however. “Red brick with white columns—is that the UVA brand?” he asks. “The people who prefer the red brick and white say, ‘Our memories of the place have value, too.’ ”
“There really is a dichotomy of points of view,” says Joel Gardner (Col ’70, Law ’74), a member of the Jeffersonian Grounds Initiative Board, which promotes philanthropy and historic preservation, especially regarding the Academical Village. “Red brick and white is what anybody living now remembers about the Lawn. I have mixed feelings on it, because both views have validity.”
The Board of Visitors established guidelines for these decisions in 2011. The “period of significance” chosen for the pavilions and colonnades was 1825, the year classes began. For the exterior of the Rotunda, which burned in 1895 and was rebuilt by preeminent American architect Stanford White, the Board settled on 1898, when the reconstruction was completed. In that year, the Rotunda and its colossal Corinthian columns were red brick and white. In 2013, a coat of white paint was applied to the Rotunda’s new copper dome.
While the question of what color to make the Tuscan columns lingers, the repair and reconstruction question has a definite answer: Return to traditional materials, because repairs using modern cement have actually harmed the original columns, which are brick pillars covered in plaster.
“We saw the columns deteriorating,” says Kutney, who has been with the University for 13 years. It’s not only about appearance, he says, but also the way the material performs. As Kutney and Mays describe it, the original lime-and-sand plaster (also called render) is not compatible with modern cement-and-sand plaster. The porous lime-based material “breathes”—allowing water and moisture to pass through, so the plaster remains comparatively flexible. Lime plaster is even “self-healing,” meaning it naturally dissolves and reforms to fill cracks and fissures. In contrast, modern portland cement is rigid and cracks. Worse, when moisture wicks in, the impermeable cement traps it, where it damages the underlying brick and mortar of the columns. The water also carries or leaches soluble salt from the cement, which erodes the bricks and can crystalize into “stalactites” that break up structures.
In short, says Kutney, previous repairs with portland cement resulted in “accelerated decay.”
A Facilities Department crew essentially dedicated to historic structures has so far repaired about 24 of 160 Tuscan columns, carefully removing the cement and replacing it with lime-based plaster. The plaster is a carefully proportioned mixture of sand, water, and “building lime” or “natural hydraulic lime”—not something you’ll find in your local big-box DIY store. UVA imports it from France or Britain, where the restoration demand is high enough to support multiple suppliers of the traditional material, which is produced by breaking down limestone in an industrial kiln.
Work on historic buildings requires the approval of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and Hogg says the University has earned the state agency’s confidence. “All of our projects are supported by extensive research,” he says. “Really rigorous academic underpinning gives us credibility.”
Consider the Historic Structure Report for Pavilion VIII, a 215-page assessment by architects, engineers, historians and artisans done in 2017. Before making recommendations for repairs, the report establishes a thorough record of the original pavilion, structural changes, additions, interior and exterior materials, uses over the years, previous repairs, and current condition. An exterior paint analysis by Kutney in the report, for example, documents such details as the 192-year progression of colors in 19 layers of paint on a walkway railing. Consistent with the damage to the Tuscan columns, the report identifies open, cracked and eroded masonry on Pavilion VIII resulting from repairs with modern materials, including areas where brickwork is breaking up from water intrusion and salts.
To ensure that the new material applied to the Tuscan columns will be compatible with the Jefferson-era plaster and brick, the restoration crew relies on a chemical and microscopic analysis of the original material. In a process called granulometry, acid is used to eliminate the lime from a sample of the old plaster. The remaining sand is then put through a sieve to determine its size. Its texture is determined—rough or smooth grains? And its color is noted—red, tan, brown? The color of the sand is key to the color of the resulting plaster. The process also reveals the ratio of lime to sand in the original plaster.
Once the research is finished and the decisions are made, the job is in the hands of the masons, plasterers and other artisans. Mays, a mason who is cross-trained in traditional plastering, has also done restoration work at Montpelier, Monticello and Poplar Forest. He has been at the University for almost 10 years. “I’ve probably touched more Jefferson buildings than anyone alive today,” he says.
The first task is removing the modern repairs without damaging the original material underneath. Using hand tools and air-powered chisels designed to give the skilled workers extra control over the placement and impact of the blades, the crew chips, scrapes and rakes away the accumulated coatings and patches of portland cement, which Kutney says can be about 3/8-inch thick. When the original brickwork and lime pillars are exposed, applying the new plaster also takes dexterity and judgment—and careful measurement and adjustment to replicate the unusual taper of the original columns laid by skilled hands almost two centuries ago.
“It’s about eye-hand skill more than tools,” Kutney says. And Mays agrees: “I don’t care what kind of tool you have if you don’t have the training and the knowledge.”
But what about that color question, again?
Kutney cites research in the 1980s under the direction of the late J. Murray Howard, who was architect for the Academical Village for 20 years. Analyzing a column on the East Lawn, Howard’s team determined that it was not originally coated. The lime-and-sand render was the final finish, though a wash of white was added later. A similar forensic analysis during the 2009 restoration of Pavilion X—including the not universally popular return of Jefferson’s 9-foot-high rooftop parapet, which had been removed in the 1890s—yielded the same result. “The physical evidence was telling us that the columns should be tan,” Kutney says.
And so they are today. How that sandstone color of Pavilion X’s columns and woodwork has grown on people—or not—is an element of the pending decision about the Lawn’s Tuscan columns.
Like Hogg, Kutney would make the case that the colonnades on the Lawn should be as they were originally, uncoated. But he understands the appeal of red brick and white, and if that’s the way the Preservationist’s Dilemma is resolved, then he has the “Conservator’s Solution” ready.
“Even if we had to paint it white, we would use a lime-based wash, because it would perform well,” he says. “Either way, even if we don’t go back entirely to the Jefferson period, I’m feeling a whole lot better about what we’re doing.”