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Our Glorious University

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Our Glorious University


This letter to the editor, reprinted separately from the June 28, 1898 Richmond Times, reports on the commencement exercises at the University. The restored Rotunda and the three new academic buildings were dedicated in June 1898. The author, L.S. Marye, describes the new buildings:

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Arise and Build!: Our Glorious University
From Richmond Times, June 28, 1898.

Editor of the Times :

SIR:--The "commencement" of the University and the "finals" of the
Colleges and High Schools being now ended, the occasion is propitious for
a notice in your widely-read paper of the present condition and future
prospects of the noble institution which, according to the conception of
its great founder, should form the apex of the educational pyramid of the

Well did the Hon. James C. Carter the leading lawyer of the American
bar, in his admirable address before the literary societies of the
University, employ the following language :

"Never more than at the present time has there been a greater
necessity for studying and teaching within the walls of the universities
the true principles of republican liberty and the practical art of applying
them to human affairs. Recreant, indeed, would this University be to the
fame of its founder, to the purpose for which it was established, and to
its own obligations to present and future times if it failed to maintain,
not in the spirit of dogmatism, but of devotion to truth, those great
principles upon which free popular government stands."

The present day witnesses a most gratifying renaissance of the
political philosophy, the political ideas, of Jefferson. Among the
aphorisms which he most frequently emphasized was the postulate that
"nothing more than education advances the prosperity, the power and the
happiness of a nation."

His well-known plan comprehended a scheme in an ascending scale,
from the elementary public school to the academy, thence to the college,
and finally to the university. He conceived a noble structure whose
foundations rested on the common schools and whose proportious rising
through the academy and the college, ascended in its culmination to the
supreme university, which, like a crown of glory, should mingle its
ethereal beauties with the blue canopy of the skies.

Mr. Editor, does it not seem surprising that in a legislature where
every man vies with his next-door neighbor in superlative ascriptions to
the name and fame of Jefferson, there should appear a parsimonious spirit
to circumscribe and dwarf the great institution to which he gave the
exclusive devotion of the last fifteen years of his life, and which he
regarded as the chiefest factor in the creation and preservation of an
enlighted sentiment of free republican liberty?

But from this digression I must return to a more particular
treatment of my theme.

The University commencement was one of the memorable events,
perhaps the most memorable in its brilliant career. It was a great
occasion. The new buildings had been completed and were to be formally
presented to the State. From far and near the alumni and friends of the
University came to witness the interesting event, and many eminent
professors from other institutions, North and South, were present to
testify their interest. On the second day of the high festival the rector of
the Board of Visitors turned over the new structures to Governor Tyler as
the representative of the State.

What were these new structures? This brings us, by a natural
suggestion, to the calamity of October, 1895. Who dared to hope that the
fearful catastrophe would prove to be a blessing in disguise?

Yet the sequel shows that such was the fact. The multiplication of
the schools or departments, in keeping abreast with the progress of the
arts and sciences, was calling loudly for additional halls and buildings,
without a corresponding response from the alumni, or the Legislature, in
providing the requisite funds. The great calamity instantly awakened a
profound feeling that the beloved University must be rescued from the
disaster, and restored in grander proportions and in greater beauty.

In the thirty years that intervened between the close of the war and
the disastrous fire there had been an immense augmentation of the
teaching force and of the equipment for advanced university work. In
1867 two new schools were founded, namely, those of analytical
chemistry and applied mathematics. The chemical laboratory was built,
and the Museum of Industrial Chemistry collected. Soon after, in 1872,
the Miller fund founded the School of Biology and Agriculture. In 1876
came the gift of the Natural History Museum, and in 1879 the endowment
of the Schools of Historical Science and Natural History. Between 1879
and 1881 the alumni raised $50,000 for a School of Practical Astronomy;
William H. Vanderbilt added $25,000 for a working fund, and Leander J.
McCormick gave the great equatorial telescope, valued at $50,000, and an
$18,000 building to contain it. Then a Mechanical Laboratory was added,
and, lastly, the Fayerweather Gymnasium.

During this period (from 1866 to 1895) three new chairs were added
on the literary side and six on the scientific, beside numerous adjunct

But, despite the buildings erected, there was an imperative demand
for enlarged accommodations.

At this juncture the calamity that befell the University instantly
roused its alumni from their lethargy, and moved the always reluctant
Legislature to manifest in this emergency an unwonted liberality -- not,
indeed, commensurate with the high occasion, but, nevertheless, adequate,
with individual contributions, for the restoration of the institution.

The rotunda has been restored more in accordance with the original
plan of Mr. Jefferson than it was before the fire. Viewed from without, it
is a picture of exquisite classic art, while within the circle of Corinthian
columns, mosaic floor, double galleries, cornice, ballustrade, and sky-
lighted, star studded dome present a spectacle of indescribable beauty.

The lawn has been extended for five hundred feet, and at its southern
limit, facing the Rotunda, there has been erected a spacious structure that
strikes the eye with a sense of rapture. Its middle position is devoted to
a vast amphitheatrical public hall (a gem of taste and beauty), to lecture
rooms, and a biological laboratory. The portico of this beautiful building
is supported by Ionic columns, the entablature presenting, in frieze, three
allegorical figures, the central one representing Truth with a globe in one
hand and a mirror in the other, symbolizing universality and accuracy;
while above is inscribed the beautiful verse from St. John's Gospel, "You
shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." This motto is
carved, in demi-relief, in those incomparable characters of the Greek
which Henry Coleridge has described as resembling in delicate beauty the
gossamer films of summer.

On either side of this central structure stands a building similar in
design and somewhat smaller in proportions. The one on the western side
is devoted to a mechanical laboratory admirably equipped. On the eastern
side is the Rouss Physical Laboratory with lecture room, apparatus room,
together with one general and several private laboratories for advanced

The apt reader will quickly infer from the above narrative that the
recent amplifications of the University instruction have been in the
direction of the physical sciences and the practical arts, and that they
distinctly refute the old and paradoxical definition of a University as "a
place where nothing useful is taught." On the contrary she realizes the
lesson of her founder and instructs her students in "every science useful
in our day and time."

The new buildings are classical in design and in admirable harmony
with the original erections. The general effect is most pleasing and
cannot fail to excite a feeling of exaltation and enthusiasm.

And so our beloved University has emerged from the dread disaster
in finer form, and better shape, and larger capacity, for the noble work of
a great institution of learning.

May I not adopt the fine metaphor of England's great scholar and
patriot-poet and say of her that she:

"Yet anon repairs her drooping head
And tricks her beams, and with new spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky."

I cannot pass from the consideration of the exquisite structures that
now complete the classical conception of the founder and "Father" of the
University without one other tribute to their unique beauty.

In 1824 George Ticknor, the young and brilliant professor at Harvard,
freshly returned from his European travels, visited Mr. Jefferson, and
viewed the University buildings then nearing completion. In a letter
written on the spot, to William H. Prescott, the historian, he gives a
glowing account of his impressions, and concludes with the following
language; "They have a mass of buildings more beautiful than any thing
architectural in New England, and more appropriate to an University than
can be found, perhaps in the world." What George Ticknor wrote seventy-
five years ago was repeated at the recent commencement by Mr. W. T.
Harris, the United States Commissioner of Education. He declared that no
such exquisite and classical buildings existed for any University in the
United States, or, so far as he knew, in the Old World.

The reason for the general award of admiration is to be found in the
fact that whereas the erections of other colleges and Universities have
been gradual accretions from small beginnings, our Virginia University is
the completed product of one mind. I believe it was Emerson who said
that "every institution is the lengthened shadow of one man." If ever there
existed on this earth of ours an institution which was the lengthened
image or shadow of one man, that institution is the University of Virginia.

Why is it; we cannot understand why it is, that every Virginian, be
he high or be he low, does not take pride in our University and seek to
advance her interests. She holds out her fair assisting hand to every
ingenuous son of the State who desires a liberal education. If there is
within the limits of the Commonwealth a bright eyed aspiring boy, here in
the open and free halls of our University he may acquire the instruction to
fit him for his high destiny.

But the poor man, the humble yet aspiring youth, cannot realize his
aspirations unless the University be preserved in its full majestic
proportions, surmounting as I have said, the educational pyramid. The
influences, the streams of education, do not ascend from below upwards;
they descend from above by a law of ethical and moral gravitation. Like
the quality of mercy "it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the
place beneath."

In conclusion I need only advert for a moment to the high standard of
education and graduation. As to these things I do no hesitate to affirm
that the University of Virginia is the advanced guard in the educational
columns of our country. In elaborate equipment and expensive laboratories
Harvard and Yale and Columbia may excel her. These have the ample
means, the money. But there is something that money cannot buy, and that
something is the elevated standard required for graduation. In this
supreme respect our Virginia University surpasses all other institutions,
in America at least. Her diploma is a recognized and indisputable evidence
of scholarship in the special school it represents. In referring to the
praise bestowed by Gibbon upon Fielding's great romance, Thackery says:
"To have your name mentioned by Gibbon is like having it written on the
dome of St. Peter's; pilgrims from all the world behold and admire it." So
the young man who carries from our University its highest honors is the
cynosure of envious eyes whenever he may enter the company of scholars
in all the wide domain of this great land of ours.

Shall we not uphold the hands of our noble institution? Will not the
politicians who are seeking place and preferment widen their vision so far
as to understand that the success of the University is the opportunity of
the ambitious and aspiring children of our State, whether they be high-
born or of humble origin? Let the demagogues appropriate all other fields,
but leave untouched, unassailed, the beneficent work of the key-stone of
our educational arch.

Upon the conclusion of the award of diplomas and distinctions at the
commencement, a band of youths sang with fine effect the glowing
conclusion of Pope's Messiah. Who that heard it in that vast audience did
not catch an inspiration of happy augury and hope for the future career of
our grand University. For her rising and ever-enlarging growth and
prosperity he must have breathed the prayer of the sublime anthem:

"Rise crowned with light, imperial Salem, rise,
Exalt thy towering head and lift thine eyes.
"See a long race thy spacious courts adorn."
"See heaven its sparkling portals wide display,
And break upon thee in a flood of day.
"Till when, dissolved in thy superior rays
One tide of glory, one unclouded blaze,
O'erflow thy courts; the Light himself shall shine
Revealed, and God's eternal day be thine."


Such, Mr. Editor, are the inspiring auspices under which our beloved
University enters upon a new and enlarged career of usefulness and honor.

Richmond, June 27, 1898.





“Our Glorious University,” University of Virginia Library Online Exhibits, accessed May 25, 2024,