ROOM TO BREATHE
Most of the nearly 200-year-old Tuscan columns that line the Lawn are in desperate need of repair—and need a chance to breathe again.
The columns were initially covered by a lime-and-sand mixture, but over the years they were repaired with Portland cement-based render—a coarse brown plaster—and coated with layer after layer of paint. These materials trapped moisture and salts inside the columns, accelerating decay and slowly breaking them down during freezing weather. With the columns shedding pieces of their outer layers, an elastomeric—or flexible—adhesive coating of paint served as a temporary fix to hold everything together.
“Our first question is always: what can we do to stop this damage? If we don’t do anything, they will decay very fast. And always in the back of our minds is: what did Jefferson intend the appearance to be?”
Architectural Conservator with Facilities Management
This summer, University masons carefully removed the outer layers of paint and render from 14 of the Jeffersonian columns. They stripped them down to their original render and brick cores and let them dry out before recoating them with a breathable render much like the original.
Wayne Mays, assistant director of trades, has been working on historic structures at UVA for nine years. Now he’s in charge of stripping and repairing the columns. “We use a tool kit of methods, including a paint stripper to get as many modern layers of paint off the column shafts as possible,” he said. “We’re doing a layer-by-layer process, using a micro-chisel to remove the final coatings.”
Ultimately, it’s a question of understanding the components that went into the columns’ construction. Kutney and Mays analyzed the original materials to maintain historic accuracy so that the new, traditional lime render integrated seamlessly with the old coating for a uniform appearance and making them breathe again—for another 200 years of use.
This important work is being done through private funds such as the Historic Buildings and Grounds Fund and the Jeffersonian Restoration Endowment.