Living on the Lawn

Last month my family moved into Pavilion II, the house that abuts the Rotunda on the east side (the right as you face the Rotunda). This elegant and unassuming house is a gateway that connects two very different worlds, in the most beguiling ways. From the Lawn, perhaps America’s most perfect physical expression of the universe of learning, one enters a house that is elegantly elongated, both vertically and horizontally, with light flooding in from its triple-hung windows. Walking past the living room that our movers began calling “the ballroom” as they reassembled an old Schimmel piano there, and the dining room that leads to the back door, one arrives at a breathtaking vista that reveals what John Donne might have called “a little world cunningly made”: sloping layers of garden that offer quiet refuge and solace from the hustle and bustle of academic life.

Sequestered by Mr. Jefferson’s famous serpentine walls, the garden opens out to the fullness of the season. In the spring, the garden blazes with dogwood and azaleas, and then lilacs, followed by day lilies, lavender, and chaste trees, and the crepe myrtle, whose deep red seems even deeper on a hot summer day. The garden is as bountiful as it is beautiful, yielding fruit—fig, elderberry, apple, strawberry, blueberry and grape—as well as herbs, and all of this watched over by an ancient bigleaf magnolia, the type that produces large blossoms with a hint of yellow and purple at its center. One of these days the tree will have to be felled; but for now, it stands firm, insisting on bestowing dignity to a garden nearly two centuries old.

For moderns and postmoderns like us, the new house presents some special challenges. It is a house with significant history, and history is always a burden, even as one learns from it. In moving into the Pavilion, I did not have the freedom of the typical homeowner to do as I pleased—the kind of willful and rebellious ignorance one sometimes yearns for, and is politely denied, at the University of Virginia. Here we start our scholarly journey by learning the meaning of the structures bequeathed to us.

Based on the Ionic style of the Temple of the Fortuna Virilis in Rome, as published by Palladio, the Pavilion has the distinguishing features of this order, such as a frieze of ox skulls, putti, ribbons, and garlands festooned with fruit motifs. The entablatures are visible outside over the columns as well in one of the rooms upstairs. Jefferson fretted over the last detail of the design, down to the quality and cost of the bricks with which to build this home. He did not live to see the first faculty move in, but he seems to have conceived it for the teaching of medicine. The first five inhabitants were physicians and medical school professors. It was not until 1896 that a non-physician—James Harris, professor of modern languages—moved in. Since then, availability and opportunity, rather than academic discipline, have determined the choice of inhabitants in Pavilion II.

For much of my adult life, I have been, by avocation, a restorer of old houses. Restoration of old homes is an act of love but also an obligation, to see to it that beautiful old structures with significant meaning are nursed back to life and their former glory, with modern amenities. Eventually I learned to greet all my contractors and subcontractors—all too many of them over the years—in their native languages, and together we restored old Midwestern houses built around time when industrialization was breathing new life into the prairie.

The interesting thing about “This Old House” called Pavilion II is that it cannot be retrofitted for modernity, however thorough the renovation may have been. Rather, modernity gets retrofitted to accommodate the old house—and not just because it is utterly bereft of closets or its small kitchen does not allow cooking over a gas flame. Rather, the location and structure of the house harkens back to an earlier era that calls forth a conception of learning and social life different from what prevails in most research universities. Pavilion II is an integral part of learning and of the University’s community, as it was conceived in the mind of its architect. It is not a place designed for withdrawal but for engagement; not for possessive individualism but for sharing—much like the nature of knowledge, which is useful only in the sharing and spreading of it. Pavilion II is my house as it is yours, a place that our students can come when they want to talk with their dean and a home away from home for our alumni.

In the garden, the camellias are in full bloom. Hugging the wall that separates the upper and lower gardens, the white flowers are unusually luminous on this Thanksgiving Day, throwing light to the garden otherwise dormant for the season. I don’t know who planted those white camellias, a species that originated from my native region of East Asia, and one of my favorite flowers. But their presence strikes me as being emblematic of Pavilion II: inspired by the classical from around the world, alive to the present, looking to the future.

9 Responses to “Living on the Lawn”

  1. Laura Moylan says:

    How fortunate we are to have you, Dean Woo, to nurture our students and faculty! Thank you for this lovely description of your new home!

  2. Wayne Cozart says:

    You capture beautifully in your next to last paragraph the obligation and the interactivity of living on the Lawn. Your comments are wonderfully insightful and understanding for someone who has just become a member of this educational village. Thank you for the beauty of the description and the understanding of the context.

  3. Brawner Cates says:

    Welcome home to The Lawn! The only words I would take issue with are early in your narrative. “Perhaps America’s” should certainly be changed to “Undoubtedly The World’s” most perfect physical expression of universal learning. I believe The Rotunda & Lawn have been recognized as such many times by many folks from all over the world. The ultimate masterpiece created by the Sage of Monticello! Seems to be standing the test of time.

  4. David Nolan says:

    Keep a journal about your time in the house! A century from now, someone will be glad you did. I remember walking by that serpentine wall, perhaps in 1966, and seeing Lady Bird Johnson in your garden.

  5. What a lovely description! You’ve inspired me to recall fondly my own days spent living on the Lawn and the magic of the place with its palpable history, mysterious energy, and ethereal beauty. Thank you!

  6. Jim Staats says:

    Your beautiful description of Pavilion II brought tears to my eyes. I last heard the beauty of the Lawn discussed by the architect for Patan Hospital in Katmandu, Nepal. He worked for the World Heritage Foundation and used some of Jefferson’s ideas in Nepal. East Lawn 28 1954

  7. Janet Verklin Reed says:

    Dr. Woo — How lucky you are to be living in such a fabulous space, following in the footsteps of so many other remarkable educators! Dr. and Mrs. Floyd lived in Pavilion II when I lived on the Lawn. We loved getting to know them, and I look back fondly on the time I spent interacting with them and the other wonderful Pavilion residents. Enjoy your time there — I miss it!

  8. Susan Baxter says:

    What a beautifully written and evocative post! Over the holidays I visited the Lawn – under a think blanket of icy-topped snow – with my love who had never been to U.Va. (and is, even more alarming, a UNC graduate). The stillness of and grey light on the Pavilion gardens and the Lawn that day made the scene black and white in our photographs and memories. I’m going to point him to this post to augment our impressios that day.

  9. Erin Henshaw says:

    I agree. I also wanted to mention that one of my most unique experiences at the University was attending an event inside a professor’s Pavilion home. I felt truly honored to be experiencing a part of history…and respectful of anyone who could make that kitchen work for a family!