The Lawn at the University of Virginia: Charlottesville, Virginia


Conceived and designed by President Thomas Jefferson, The Lawn at the University of Virginia (UVA) is surrounded by residential and academic buildings and gardens. Its focal point is the Rotunda, the most recognizable symbol of the university and designed by Jefferson as the library, not a church as would have been found at the center of most American universities at the time.

Designated Area

Bounded by the Rotunda to the north and Old Cabell Hall to the south, and lined symmetrically on the east and west by two-story pavilions and one-story student rooms.

Aerial view of the Lawn. Photo by Dan Addison.

Planning Excellence

The Lawn and Rotunda serve as models for similar designs of "centralized green areas" at universities across the United States including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Duke University, and the University of South Carolina.

In his design, Jefferson broke the traditional English university quadrangle form that earlier colleges in the colonies had emulated. The open-ended layout of the Lawn was intended to encourage learning, living, dining, and playing all in one place and continues to facilitate Jefferson's vision of a mixed-use campus where students and faculty interact in varied settings on a daily basis. His concept was of a utopian "Academical Village" set apart from the world and focused on the teaching, learning, and cultivation of educated citizens.

The University of Virginia remains committed to the upkeep and restoration of the buildings enclosing the Lawn. Currently, the Rotunda is undergoing a $51.6 million renovation, which involves restoration of historical features, improving infrastructure systems, and upgrading interior accommodations, including interpretive features. The renovation is slated for completion in July 2016.

The Lawn and surrounding structures are listed on the Virginia Historic Register, the National Historic Register, and the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These structures are used as residential, ceremonial, and academic spaces as Jefferson originally intended. The space has also become a tourist destination drawing 100,000 visitors per year. University of Virginia students lead free guided, daily tours.

Walking the Lawn' during graduation ceremony. Photo by Dan Addison.

Defining Characteristics, Features

Early History

  • Thomas Jefferson draws the first sketch of the final version of the Academical Village and Lawn, known as "Central College" (1814)
  • The cornerstone of the first pavilion is laid by Madison, Monroe, and Jefferson, and construction of the Academical Village and Lawn begins on the site (1817)
  • The pavilions, hotels, and student rooms are complete; construction begins on the Rotunda (1823)
  • The university officially opens and academic pursuits begin along the Lawn (1825)
  • The Rotunda burns; architect Stanford White is hired to restore it and related structures¬†(1895)
  • Cabell Hall is completed and the Lawn is officially closed off to the south (1898)

Architectural Features

  • The Lawn originally comprised the Academical Village of one- and three-story buildings arranged in a "U shape" around a broad green area, descending in a series of terraces toward an open vista to the southeast
  • The Rotunda, the symbolic head of the university, designed by Thomas Jefferson as the library and meant to represent the "authority of nature and the power of reason"; today an integral part of the UVA student experience for ceremonial uses, study areas, and classroom spaces
  • The Lawn has a total of 10 pavilions, five on each side of the lawn; reserved primarily for residential space for university deans and distinguished faculty members and classroom space
  • There are 54 student rooms located between the pavilions; it is considered a great honor for an undergraduate student to be invited to live in one of the rooms on the Lawn during fourth (senior) year
  • Behind the pavilions, Jefferson included 10 private gardens surrounded by serpentine brick walls that have become part of the public landscape of the university, serving as quite retreats for reflection and study or the setting for community events such as weddings and social gatherings

Events and Celebrations

  • The University of Virginia's opening ceremonies, fall convocation, and final exercises are all held each year on the Lawn
  • "Halloween on the Lawn," organized by UVA students in the 1980s, now invites the community to participate by trick-or-treating at each of the 54 Lawn rooms and 10 pavilions
  • "Lighting of the Lawn," an annual event that takes place at the end of the fall semester; thousands of lights illuminate the Rotunda and the Lawn, marking the beginning of the traditional winter holiday season

Students studying on the Lawn. Photo courtesy Office of the Architect, University of Virginia.