Sunday, June 29, 2008

Book Review: "Mr. Jefferson's University"

I've been meaning to get a copy of Garry Wills' Mr. Jefferson's University since it was released in 2002 (it contains an image of the plan for Union's campus - the first architecturally designed campus in this country - so we knew of it when it came out), but I hadn't run across it and hadn't felt any particular compulsion to buy it online. So I waited, and it languished on my (very long) mental "to be read someday" list. While I was walking through the downtown Charlottesville shops on Thursday night the book's title crossed my mind again, and I managed to find a lovely used copy for a very reasonable price. Since I knew I'd be visiting the University this weekend for a walk-round, I thought I'd at least dip into the book before I went.

Once I started reading, I knew I would have to finish the book (or at least get a fair way through) before I took my walk over to the Grounds. Wills provides a (mildly scattershot) capsule history of the University and Jefferson's preeminent role in its foundation and design (both intellectual and architectural), combined with what amounts to a walking tour of the "Academical Village" as envisioned by Jefferson and still plainly on display today. Had I not had Wills to guide me, I'd have had no idea what I was seeing as I visited the Lawn and saw the different Pavilions (there are ten, each with a different design) and connecting ranges of student rooms which face out onto the greensward. I would have had little understanding of the design of the Rotunda, with its oval-shaped classrooms on the lower and first floors and large dome room (which originally housed the library).

Wills' excellent description of the spectacular main Lawn, as well as the gardens behind the Pavilions and the ranges of 'hotels' behind those are an excellent introduction to the University Grounds, and it seems a book perfectly suited to a morning or afternoon's read while sitting on the Rotunda's steps or in one of the several courtyards around the building (I settled myself on this bench to read the last forty pages or so, in fact). However, without having the visual cues to understand what Wills is talking about, this book might not come through at all. I think if I'd tried to read it at any other time, I'd probably have given it up. But if you're familiar with the University, or are going for your first visit, I can't recommend Mr. Jefferson's University highly enough.