Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Power of the Rotunda

Here is the Rotunda of the University of Virginia.
If you've ever seen any picture of the University of Virginia, it always makes an appearance.

Yesterday, my professor was telling me an entertaining story about the library at the University of Virginia, "Back in the Cold War,  the US government decided to send some of its documents to our library because it decided that Charlottesville had a low chance of getting bombed by the Soviets..."

I nodded in agreement - Charlottesville is not far from our nation's capitol but is small and insignificant as far as cities go.

"...because the Soviets would never bomb such an architectural wonder as the Rotunda out of deference to Thomas Jefferson."

I have to admit, I burst out laughing at this point.  It's not that I don't think the Rotunda is an architectural wonder.  I just didn't think that would ever come into discussion though in a Council of War by enemies of the United States -- consideration for a historical US building built by a famous US president.  "I don't think they would have cared!"  I kept laughing.

My professor stopped his story with a stern, "Well, it's irrelevant now,"  and a look that told me that such outbursts of poking fun at the conceit about the Rotunda were unacceptable.

I went home and told this story to some friends and one of them spoke up, "It was said that during the Civil War, the Union troops had express order to burn the Rotunda when they marched through Charlottesville.  When the troops came into town though and saw the building itself though, they thought it was too beautiful and impressive to destroy and decided to honor their third president, Thomas Jefferson, by not touching it."

This story put things in better context.  (1) This story seems likely -- the Rotunda was never touched during the Civil War.  Since we know that the Union soldiers burned cities in their path and since there are signs of the Union and Confederate Armies all over central Virginia we can't assume they just never reached Charlottesville.  We therefore can assume this story has some truth to it.  (2) It seemed reasonable that the soldiers who marched and marched along dusty and deserted roads would come into Charlottesville, also dusty and quiet, and be impressed and awed by the beautiful structure that is the Rotunda and would decide to show respect to a president that was as much theirs as the Confederates'.  (3) It also seems reasonable then that if one group of enemies, upon seeing the Rotunda refused to damage it, then another  - the Soviets - would act similarly.  (I think, though, that looking down from the sky would be less impressive than seeing it on the ground)

So, considering the probability of the Civil War story, what is the probability of the Cold War story?  I started to do some research about what people outside of Cville think of the Rotunda.

Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda is an impressive structure by all means.  Touted by the American Institute of Architects as "the proudest achievement of American architecture in the past 200 years", it holds a place as one of three man-made structures in the United States with the distinction of being a World Heritage Site.  (In case you were wondering about the other two, they are Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty)

(Here's another interesting fact.  When I read this information, I immediately thought that America must have more impressive natural sites than man-made ones.  Out of the 21 World Heritage Sites that the US holds claim to, 12 of them are natural sites, composing of 16% of the natural sites in all of North America and Europe compared to the less than 2% of the cultural sites in these same regions)

That means, then, that the Rotunda is included in a list that boasts such marvels as the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, the Alhambra, and Stonehenge. (You can see the full list here.)  The Rotunda rubs shoulders with some pretty illustrious architectural giants.

Is it possible that the Soviets wouldn't have bombed the Rotunda?  You tell me.

1 comment:

  1. I was reading the airplane magazine on my flight and it ranked UVA in the top 10 of most gorgeous college campuses. I think it's pretty but I'm not sure about too gorgeous for Soviets to bomb...

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