Legacy of a Leader

Rachel Parsley
Friday, July 21, 2017

I once saw Thomas Jefferson in a box. Of course, it wasn’t the real Thomas Jefferson. It was the 1860 Alexander Galt statue of our University’s founder. It is a 6 foot, 2.5” inch, life-sized, likeness made from four tons of white Italian marble. Given as a gift to UVA in 1861, the statue has always called the Rotunda home.

In 2012, when renovations of the Rotunda began, the statue was removed and temporarily relocated elsewhere on Grounds. This marked only the third time in its history that the marble monstrosity was moved from the building.

Last fall, while leading a Grounds for Success orientation tour, I happened to pass by as it was being loaded into a crate for return to its rightful location in the Rotunda. I stopped to watch for a moment as the workers carefully and delicately determined how to transport this valuable, fragile, and incredibly important symbol of our University. I later realized that just by happenstance, I had witnessed a part of history.

More than any other University in the nation, UVA bears the imprint of its founder. Since the Cornerstone was laid in 1819, the Lawn designed and built in the 1820’s and classes first held in 1825, Jefferson and his leadership legacy has been involved, in some way, since day one.

The Rotunda is often used as a symbol of the University, and for good reason. Jefferson designed it to be the “heart of UVA” and to many, this remains true even today.

Construction of the Rotunda began in 1822 and opened in 1826, shortly after Jefferson’s death.

In 1895, the Rotunda was gutted by fire. The Rotunda’s bell rang across the city of Charlottesville and townspeople, as well as students and faculty came running. They started a bucket brigade, trying to put out the blaze.

Students bravely ventured into the burning building and desperately tried to save whatever they could. The statue, then located in the third floor Dome Room, was hauled down a staircase on a mattress, amidst smoke and flames.

After the fire, there was a major remodel and many structural and aesthetic changes were made. It was remodeled again in the mid-1970’s, during which time it was returned to Jefferson’s original three-story design.

Today, Galt’s statue of Jefferson stands once again in the Rotunda’s entrance lobby on the second floor, greeting guests as they enter from the terrace level. If you look closely, you can still see grey smudges of smoke from the 1895 fire on the folds of his cloak. There are chips in the marble, thanks to his mattress ride down the staircase.

The statue’s gaze is fixed straight ahead. It looks through the clear, glass floor-to-ceiling doors, across the Lawn and onto the University.

Though it is just one small symbol of our founder and of the history of UVA, I find myself transfixed and amazed by it. Each time I lead a tour, I think about the 150+ years the statue of Jefferson has stood guard in the Rotunda, and about all the events it has witnessed during that time.

As the University of Virginia embarks on its third century, the Galt statue will serve as a poignant and lasting reminder that in a way, Thomas Jefferson continues to oversee and serve as a leader of it all.