CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — As the University of Virginia prepares to celebrate the bicentennial of the laying of its cornerstone, the exact location of that stone remains a mystery.
“It’s probably still in the wall, in the same place as 200 years ago,” said Brian Hogg, senior historic preservation planner at UVa. “People have gone down to look in Pavilion VII, but it’s probably been bricked up or buried.”
The cornerstone was laid on Oct. 6, 1817, in a Masonic ritual attended by current and former Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.
“Nowadays, we think of a ceremonial block of stone with a name and date on it, but this was a meaningful ceremony designed to facilitate the safety, security of the building and of the university,” Hogg said. “It really mattered to them.”
While that object can’t be seen today, there are 100 others currently featured in UVa’s exhibit “The University in 100 Objects” that represent the past 200 years of the school’s history.
A few elements celebrated at the laying of the cornerstone and featured in the exhibit at the Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library are still very visible on grounds: the plans for the Academical Village, which grew up around Pavilion VII; the tools used by enslaved workers to map angles and lay bricks; and Pavilion VII itself, based on design suggestions from William Thornton.
“On their face, these objects don’t always tell the most obvious story,” said Brendan Wolfe, who wrote the book “Mr. Jefferson’s Telescope: A History of the University of Virginia in 100 Objects,” which inspired the exhibit. “But the objects help me make connections to things.”
Among Wolfe’s favorite objects in the collection are a letter from Alice Jackson, sent after the Board of Visitors denied her application to the master’s in French program; and Caroline Preston Davis’ 1893 pass certificate, one of the last to be presented before the university fully barred women from classes. The university was opened to black students in 1950 and to women in 1970.
“The great little bow in the story is that when (Jackson) died in 2001, her family donated her papers to UVa, so she could have a presence at the university,” Wolfe said. “Her son said that she achieved in death what she was not allowed to accomplish in life.”
Another favorite object is the Bice device. Psychology professor Raymond Bice wanted to be able to calculate admissions numbers, so he cobbled together the university’s first computer out of parts from confiscated pinball machines.
The two-year-long bicentennial celebration kicks off with events planned for Thursday through Saturday.
There will be a tribute to the laying of UVa’s cornerstone, including the presentation of a bicentennial marker, at 3 p.m. Friday on the Lawn.
Wolfe will speak about his book and the chosen objects at 4 p.m. Friday at the Harrison Small Auditorium.
The celebration continues with an event at 7 p.m. Friday on the Lawn that will feature performances by UVa students and faculty, Leslie Odom Jr., Andra Day, the Goo Goo Dolls and the Ingramettes. There also will be a projection mapping on the Rotunda that traces the history of the school.
A complete schedule of kickoff events can be found at bicentennial.virginia.edu.
To prepare for the project, Wolfe read a five-volume history of the university by Philip Alexander Bruce, published in 1921.
“What struck me as I was working on the book was these three threads that wove their way through. One was white supremacy, one was elitism and the third was the exclusion of women,” he said. “The ripples are still on grounds today.”
Accepting students of color and women is now the law, but how they’re treated is still very much under discussion.
“A lot of profound changes have happened in the past 100 years with women, black students and the school’s relation to broader society,” Wolfe said. “At 100 years, the university felt confident enough to write a five-volume history and slam it on the desk and say, ‘here we are,'” he said. “I feel like now, we’re less confident, and are only beginning to investigate the stories of slavery and women on these grounds.”
Information from: The Daily Progress, http://www.dailyprogress.com