Renovations taking place at the Rotunda of the University of Virginia led to an amazing discovery: the nation’s oldest surviving chemistry lab designed by Thomas Jefferson himself. The find is quite astonishing, given that the building is one of the most-studied buildings in the country. The building is so renowned, in fact, that is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Researchers and construction specialists did not expect surprises – but they sure found one.

Architect and construction workers were tapping into the lower levels of the Rotunda when they opened up a wall and found an elaborate chemical hearth that was designed for laboratory experiments. The structure was very complex, with multiple means and sources of controlling heat. It also contained vents.

The room was hidden away when it was sealed into the wall in the mid-1800s. It was therefore protected by the fire that destroyed most of the interior of the building in 1895.

Jefferson designed the structure and architecture of the university to fit his vision for the education that he felt so strongly about. Space for chemistry experiments was built into the building at the head of the Lawn. Jody Lahendro, a supervisory historic preservation architect for the University of Virginia, noted that Jefferson chose to put a library in the Rotunda rather than a chapel that was common in most universities of the time. He stated that, “It really is the beginning of the teaching of science. The Enlightenment, changing the viewpoint of the world.”

The university will display the historic discovery for visitors and students. The history of the site will also be displayed. Part of this exhibit will describe some of the people involved at the time, including information about the enslaved individuals who looked after and tended to the classroom and laboratory.

The restoration will also allow for more classroom space for the university’s current students – just across the hall from the historic chemical laboratory. Adding classrooms to the Rotunda would make Jefferson proud, as his primary goal was to make the building an active learning center for students.

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