The Story of the Fire.

"Corks and Curls" 1896

THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA has long exercised over the minds and hearts
of Virginians a strangely potent spell. Recognized from her nativity as the
guardian of a generous culture and a sound scholarship, she was dowered
by the people of this Commonwealth with the heritage of loyalty which old
William and Mary had heaped together from the far-off Colonial days, and
like some youthful princess sprung from a long line of royal ancestry,
found a willing people kneeling at her feet. Her liberal modes of life and
work were also not without their influence; while her architecture, so
honest and solid and simple, yet cast in the gracious moulds of Grecian
loveliness; her gifts of sunlight and cloistered shade, of pure air and
verdant lawn, of blue mountain and doming sky, added to her magic and her
charm. Analysis seeks in vain the origin and the reason of these fugitive
and elusive graces; but they whose youthful feet have paced her long
arcades know that memory dwells amidst them, not as in a mere halting
place and hostelry in life's journey, but lingers as though about some con-
secrated spot and seems to find again a home.

And so when on that fateful Sunday in October last the clanging bell
alarmed her residents and the thick smoke rolling heavenward told of her
peril, one throb of terror and of grief shook every heart. Soon the flames
were located in the coving above the rostrum of the Public Hall and heroic
efforts were made to stay their course. But long security had begotten
careless indifference to danger. There was no water - the pressure in the
mains, though originally adequate, had been reduced by the roughening and
rusting of the pipes till the stream was too feeble to be effectual. There
was no fire engine, the only one which the University had ever possessed
having long since rusted out in " innocuous desuetude." Telegrams were
sent to all adjacent towns for aid; but even while sending the dispatches
we knew that aid must come too late. The Public Hall was doomed and the
Rotunda was likely to go too.

Helplessness and hopelessness fly to desperate remedies. The
gallant Superintendent of Grounds and Buildings determined to stay the
flames, if possible, by blowing out the roof of the connecting portico
between the two buildings. The massive columns were first drilled and
heavy charges of dynamite were then detonated in them until they came
crashing down. But the stout roof-timbers framed into the opposing brick
walls still stood. New loads of the explosive were shot off amid them, but
with small effect. Smoke and flame crept pitilessly
across this resinous bridge, and soon the dome of the Rotunda itself,
framed of heavy pine and alike inaccessible from beneath and from above,
was ablaze. The cup of our sorrows seemed full. The old home was
burning--the very dwelling-place of precious memories and honored
traditions--and neither prayers nor labors could avert its doom.

Meanwhile the throngs of eager students had not been idle. As soon
as it was seen that the buildings could not be saved, abundant supplies of
volunteers hurried to rescue their contents. The chief art treasure of the
University--Balze's superb copy of Raphael's School of Athens--was too
near the origin of the flames to be removed. But all of the readily portable
philosophical apparatus, the engineering instruments, the department
library of the Law School, the furniture and records of the Chairman's
office, most of the books on the first floor of the library, all of the
portraits, the Lee papers, the interesting framed original letters and
documents, the Minor bust with its pedestal, and the life-size statue of
Jefferson were saved. The brief time and the narrow exit from the library
prevented the rescue of more. Much was lost, much broken in the hurry and
consternation of this sudden moving; yet the value of the salvage is to be
reckoned, not by what was lost, but by our great and pressing needs.

Words cannot exaggerate the dash and ardor with which these young
fellows threw themselves upon their self-imposed task. Backward and
forward they hurried beneath their
loads, dauntless, tireless, amid suffocating and blinding smoke, the roof
blazing over their heads, the plaster cracking from the glowing dome and
falling beneath their feet, until at last the great skylight came crashing
down, and scattered a hundred blazing firebrands about the floor. The
professors, who directed their work, called a halt, and with reluctant step
and backward gaze these hardy young volunteers withdrew and sadly left
the old Rotunda to its fate.

It was a tragic yet a beautiful spectacle. The massive cylinder soon
filled with crackling flames, which poured from every window and soared
skyward from the lofty dome. The cornice caught and wrapped the building
with an ardent zone, while the blazing pediment decorated the capitals
which sustained it, with fiery streamers, more graceful in their wild
luxuriance than the acanthus leaves embracing their sculptured urns.
Lovely even in its downfall, the Rotunda was still, the focus of every eye,
until the devouring flames had wasted all that could perish in its
structure, leaving the sturdy walls unharmed--true symbol of the founder's
enduring work. Ili est ignis edax summa ad fastigia vento Volvitur;
exuperant flammae, furit aestus ad amas."
 Men gazed on the ruin with
grave, strained faces or with that little rueful smile which is the last
challenge of manly courage to disaster and defeat; women stood by
awaiting the end with tear-stained cheeks and lips tremulous with prayer;
little children looked in wide-eyed wonder, unconscious of the sorrow and
the loss; and even the old servants mourned the devastation of a structure,
whose purposes soared above their minds and sympathies as high as its
dome towered above their humble heads.

The time for work was, however, not yet past. The intense heat from
the burning building speedily made itself felt on the woodwork of the
wings connecting the Rotunda with the lawn, and on the adjacent
pavilions. The Charlottesville Fire Brigade, assisted by a large corps of
active volunteers, undertook to save the quadrangle by demolishing these
wings. The tin roofing was stripped off and the hose turned on the timber
sheathing below. Wet blankets, stretched over the cornices and pediments
of the pavilions, were kept saturated with water passed up in buckets by
long lines of students. Recourse was again had to dynamite in an effort to
blow up the wings, but again the effort failed. The whole quadrangle
seemed in imminent danger until, by the merciful dispensation of Heaven,
the wind, which at first had blown from the north and drifted smoke and
flame along the tunnel-like roof of the Annex into the Rotunda dome,
veered about and began to blow from the south. With deep thankfulness we
saw that the disaster was checked. The Staunton Fire Company soon
arrived and relieved our exhausted workers. The Lynchburg Company came
up later. The Richmond Department, hurrying on a special train to our
assistance, was notified at Gordonsville that the danger was past, and
returned homeward. The ruins still smoked, and as the darkness of night
came on, the flames showed themselves amid the glowing debris. But
further progress of the conflagration was stayed.

The labor of restoration began before the hose streams ceased to
play upon the flaming ruins. The books and papers rescued from the
Library, and heaped pell-mell upon the lawn under the guard of squads of
ladies, were conveyed into the adjacent houses and safely stowed away.
The apparatus was in like manner deposited in a place of security. The
Literary Societies and the Christian Association surrendered their halls
for the purposes of instruction,and members of the Faculty gave up their
offices, and even apartments in their houses, for the same purpose. The
Faculty met, arranged a scheme of lectures, and assigned the new rooms
to their temporary occupants. A committee was appointed to prepare a
report on the steps which should be taken to restore the University to its
full degree of efficiency. Schedules of lectures were drawn up and posted,
the temporary lecture-rooms were provided with seats and blackboards,
and at nine o'clock on Monday morning the routine of instruction and
college work went on as though the fatal Sunday had not been.

Five months have passed since this dies irae of our history. They
have been months of cheerful and courageous work on the part of both
teachers and students. The brave lads, who faced the dangers and the toils
of that day of wrath with so dauntless a spirit, have endured the
discomforts of their altered surroundings with matchless patience and for
Alma Mater's dear sake. Professors have worked on with unmurmuring
steadfastness, looking forward with confidence and hope to the
restoration of all things. And now the dawn of that promise begins to
brighten and the day seems close at hand. The $50,000 derived from
insurance and the residue of the Fayerweather fund, added to nearly
$50,000 from the general subscription list, will restore the Rotunda. The
special donation of $25,000 from Charles B. Rouss, Esq., will nearly
complete the Rouss Physical Laboratory. The $200,000 loan authorized by
the State, and finding already eager takers, will complete the erection of
the buildings, defray the cost of clearing up after the fire,
protecting the Rotunda walls and providing temporary quarters for the
University work, and will, in addition, pay the architects' commissions
and leave an adequate surplus for the re-equipment of the Library and the
departments of Physics and Engineering. The general plans for the
buildings have been approved by the Visitors, the detail drawings and
specifications are nearly completed, the ground is already staked out for
the foundations, and before these pages reach the reader's eye, the rising
walls will demonstrate to the world that the child of Jefferson's
affection is immortal.

A short description of the buildings which are so soon to be erected
will render the cuts which accompany this article more interesting. Of
these the Rotunda, by virtue of its historic interest and its intrinsic
beauty, claims the first mention. Modeled by Jefferson from the Pantheon,
whose general proportions are copied on the half-scale, this building
showed in exterior detail at least one improvement on the superb original.
The portico was lifted higher from the ground and made loftier and
lighter, so that the edifice never seemed too squat and low, as the
Pantheon appears (in photographs at least) especially now that the ground
is filled about it almost up to the portico floor. On the other hand, the
noble undivided interior of the Pantheon was sacrificed to the necessity
of providing, in the one structure, not only a room for the Library, but
apartments also for "religious worship, for public examinations, for the
school of music, drawing and other associated purposes," as provided in
the report of the Commissioners of 1818.

"The plans for the Jefferson Rotunda," say the architects (McKim,
Mead & White, of New York City), contemplate its exact restoration as far
as the exterior is concerned, with the exception of the rear, which has
come down to us in the unfinished state, and for which some new
treatment in harmony with the old had to be devised. The low terraced
wings on the front of the building* (*The offices of administration will
hereafter be grouped in these wings.) are repeated at the rear, and these
two wings are connected by an arcade, forming two courts. This gives,
adjacent to the Library, two additional class-rooms. The scheme
contemplates retaining the terrace of the destroyed annex, and the turning
of the sunken portico into a garden."

"To the question of the remodeling of the interior of the Rotunda we
have given most careful study. Reasons of sentiment would point to the
restoration of the interior exactly as it stood. But the dedication of the
entire Rotunda to use as a library, and the unquestionable fact that it was
only practical necessity which forced Jefferson at the time it was built
to cut the Rotunda into two stories, and that he would have planned the
interior as a simple, single and noble room had he then been able to do so,
induces us strongly to urge upon your Board the adoption of the single,
domed room as presented, not only as the most practical, but the proper
treatment of the interior."

For the new buildings the lawn is extended at its southern end by the
addition of a court 300 feet broad and 200 feet deep, reached by two
terraces from the lowest level of the present beneath whose shelter not
50,000 volumes only, but 150,000 may find a home--safe, as far as
lawn. On the southern side of this new court will stand the Academic
Building, containing the Public Hall, with about I,500 seats; the Assembly
Room, with about 250 seats; five large and six small lecture-rooms. The
grades are so adjusted that a person standing at the foot of the Rotunda
steps will see the entire facade of this building from the bases of the
columns upward, yet without loss of the sense of open space which lends
its especial charm to this outlook at present. On the eastern and western
sides of the new court stand the Physical and Mechanical laboratories, the
fronts identical and the general ground plan nearly the same. The Physical
Laboratory contains a large amphitheatrical lecture-room, apparatus
room, general laboratory, a number of smaller private laboratories for
advanced students, rooms for constant temperature and for optical work,
and a tower for experimental purposes, together with shop and
power-room in the basement. The Mechanical Laboratory contains on the
basement floor the engine and dynamo room, shops for work in wood and
iron, and the laboratory of Civil and Mechanical Engineering. On the first
floor are the Electrical Engineering laboratory, the drawing-room, rooms
for blue printings, the reading-room, the lecture-room and offices for the
professors. The boilers, forges and foundries are placed in an annex, from
which a tunnel carries steam for power and heating to the other buildings,
including the Rotunda.

"The site for the new buildings," say the architects, " completing the
College Close, we believe to be the only one, both on rational and
sentimental grounds. The character of the land, falling away on the
southern side of the road, allows the Academic Building and the Physical
and Mechanical laboratories to appear as only one story in height,
whereas, on account of the steep grade, they actually count, for practical
use, as two. The charm of the present Close and the domination of the
Rotunda are therefore preserved. The scheme submitted contemplates the
restoration of the Rotunda as a fireproof building. It is impossible, with
the amount of money available, to erect the new buildings fireproof. We do
not, however, consider this as seriously advisable, as in the case of the
Rotunda. The plans contemplate the use of fireproof floors where they
seem advisable, and as the boilers are to be removed to a separate
building, the danger from fire is reduced to a minimum.

* * *

We advise in the Rotunda, as well as in the new buildings, that cement be used in place
of cut stones where possible, and that copper be used where it is
impossible to use cement, and in place of wood. We consider that even if
the University had at its disposal a larger amount of money, it would be
advisable to build in cement rather than in limestone, as in this manner
the character of the old buildings can be retained throughout and the
proper contrast with the brickwork preserved."

Soon the sound of hammer and trowel will be heard, the great dome
of the Rotunda will once more mark our shrine of learning, the massive
columns of its portico will stand again crowned with their capitals of
Italian marble, and gleaming white amid the moonlit calm. Within the
building a stately peristyle will bear up the noble concave of the roof,
human foresight can provide, against destruction by fire or by storm. It is
good to think that into it will be builded the prayers and affections of so
many faithful hearts. The rich have given of their wealth and the poor of
their poverty. Lads and lassies who think in coming years to live and labor
and love beneath its shadow have emptied their little treasuries into its
fund. Even the children of the public schools--blacks and whites--have
brought their pennies to swell the modest hoard. Long may'st thou stand in
renewed and perfected beauty, home of our Alma Mater, gathering into
thine ample bosom every worthy record of Southern history and thought
and life--chief fountain for our Southern youth of pure and liberal culture,
and the great muniment room of Southern letters!

MARCH 27, 1896.