UVA Rotunda facelift: Contractors begin removing crumbling capitals

uva rotundaWorkers are removing the old column capitals, crumbling after more than a century of weathering, this week at the iconic UVA Rotunda.

Their sturdier replacements, carved in Italy from Carrara marble, will be installed in February.

On Friday, contractors from Rugo Stone LLC, of Lorton, started removing the capitals, beginning on the Rotunda’s Lawn-facing south portico. They’re using a complex trolley system to move the stone blocks to a position where they could be removed.

The capital work is part of a $50 million renovation to the centerpiece of U.Va.’s Academical Village, a project which will upgrade all the mechanical systems in the building, effect repairs, improve access and install an underground service room. The renovations are scheduled to be complete by mid-summer 2016.

On Friday morning, workers carefully levered up the first 6,100-pound capital, which had been held in place by its own weight, then inserted a steel cart underneath it and assembled a steel frame around the stone. They wheeled the whole assembly out from under the portico roof on a track before attaching straps to the frame, allowing a crane to hoist it and gently lower it to the ground.

Workers then dismantled the steel frame and transferred the capitals to pallets for storage. Tentative plans call for incorporating them into the redesigned landscaping around the Rotunda.

Once all of the south portico capitals are removed, the new capitals – sculpted to replicate Thomas Jefferson’s original design – will be installed, starting in February. Scaffolding is supporting the portico roof during this process.

The old capitals, installed after the 1895 fire that heavily damaged the Rotunda, are disintegrating and have been shrouded in black mesh for the past five years to keep crumbling pieces of marble from falling on passers-by. While Jefferson’s original capitals came from Carrara, Italy, architect Stanford White of the New York firm of McKim, Mead & White, who redesigned the Rotunda after the fire, had their replacements fashioned from domestic marble. They were installed as rough-cut stone, which was carved in place several years later.

“We noticed a big crack in one of the capitals and that is what started all of this,” said Brian Hogg, a senior preservation planner with the Office of the Architect for the University.

Initially, University officials sought to repair the capitals, until it became clear that the damage was severe enough that they needed to be replaced.

“We don’t know why the capitals failed,” Hogg said. “There is a laundry list of factors and it could be any combination of them.”

According to a 2010 assessment prepared by Milner & Carr Conservation LLC of Philadelphia, and Robert Silman Associates PLLC of Washington, D.C., McKim, Mead & White used a fine-grained white marble, most likely originating from Vermont, that did not stand up to the elements.

The porousness of the stone led to its deterioration, allowing moisture to build up in micro-cracks, forcing the stone particles apart when it freezes. This process would repeat year after year, leaving the stone weaker each time.

Pollution also likely contributed to the stone’s destruction.

“One factor in this dissolution process is the formation of gypsum crust, which is the process by which atmospheric pollutants are deposited on the stone and convert the surface of the marble to gypsum,” according to the report. “This crust can trap moisture and pollutants within the stone and perpetuate the dissolution process.”

Birds – and the measures taken to keep them off the capitals – were also factors.

“Another contributing factor is the presence of bird excrement and bird deterrent on elements such as the projecting acanthus leaves,” the report reads. “The bird excrement contains salts and acids, which can break down the composition of the stone. The bird deterrent has sealed the surface of the stone, also preventing moisture and pollutants within the stone from escaping.”

Other capitals in the Academical Village are original and surviving well. They were subjected to petrographic testing, a process which determines the mineral components of certain types of rock.

“Pavilions II, III, V and VIII all have original, Jefferson-period marble capitals from Carrara, and they are in good condition,” said James Zehmer, assistant project manager of the Rotunda for Facilities Management. “As a part of the replication process, we had petrographic testing done on a small fragment of an original Jeffersonian Rotunda capital and on a fragment of the new marble from Carrara. They were almost a perfect match, both geographically and petrographically, so we have a high level of confidence that these capitals will stand up to the conditions that led to the degradation of the capitals installed in the 1890s.”

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