Jefferson's Rotunda

Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia is one of his most recognizable works as an architect, and has served as an architectural model in its own right since its completion in 1828. Early on in the University of Virginia’s development, it was Benjamin Henry Latrobe who suggested to Jefferson that a central, Pantheon-like building should be the focus of the Academical Village, and sent Jefferson a sketch of such a structure in July of 1817. A large domed library at the head of the Lawn would distinguish it from the smaller pavilions to the east and west, creating a clear architectural and functional hierarchy. Jefferson began developing the design for the Rotunda in 1818 and refined it over several years, with construction beginning in 1823. He would not live to see the Rotunda complete, dying at home at Monticello on July 4th, 1826.

The inspiration from the Roman Pantheon is clear both visually and documented in writing, and many details are explicitly copied from Palladio’s plates detailing the design of the Pantheon. In an 1821 letter to Thomas Appleton, U.S. consul in Italy, Jefferson asked him to price the carving of ten Corinthian capitals and eight half capitals, to be copied exactly from the Pantheon as depicted by Palladio in Plate LX of Quattro Libri dell'Architettura. This plate also provided the rosette design for the cornice that Jefferson wanted sculptor William Coffee to use. Other details of the Rotunda were built to Jefferson’s specifications, such as the south pediment clock and the bell that sat above. Even before the Rotunda was completed in 1828, visitors to the developing University marveled at its design. However, Jefferson’s original design would not last long, with major changes being made as early as the 1840s in response to a growing student population and demands for more space.

Explore a digital reconstruction of Thomas Jefferson’s original design for the Rotunda circa 1833, before the first alterations were made, below.