A Beautiful Day for a Fire

Published:June 11, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

University of Virginia Rotunda Fire by Rufus W. Holsinger (1895). From the university’s website:

A fire, caused by faulty electrical wiring, started in the annex on October 27, 1895. In a dramatic attempt to save the Rotunda, engineering professor William H. Echols tried dynamiting the bridge between the annex and the Rotunda. Unfortunately, this blew a hole in the Rotunda, and the fire spread more rapidly. Before it could be brought under control, the annex, dome and interior of the Rotunda had been destroyed. Only the Rotunda’s charred circular brick walls remained.

Stanford White of the renowned American firm McKim, Mead, and White reconstructed the Rotunda after the fire as an elaborate Beaux Arts interpretation in the Roman style. In an effort to expand the library as well as emphasize the ceremonial space of the Rotunda, White increased the height of the dome room by eliminating the entire middle floor of lecture rooms, widened the skylight (oculus), and replaced Jefferson’s slender double pillars with large single columns with Corinthian capitals. He also added a portico on the north face of the Rotunda and utilized new building methods to improve the durability and fire resistance of the structure. The building remained this way from 1898 to 1973.

IMAGE: Holsinger Studio Collection, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia