Taken shortly after the Civil War, this is the earliest known photograph of the Lawn and Rotunda. The gate in the foreground is described on a Special Collections Web site as a “cow-catch that prevented livestock from grazing on the Lawn—unless a groundskeeper decided that it needed trimming.” While the open south end of the Lawn provided easy access for hungry cattle, it was a source of consternation for many at the University. In Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village, UVA architecture professor Richard Guy Wilson writes that the Lawn’s “openness” created for some “a seeming emptiness and lack of termination. Many individuals, including architects and faculty, appear to have felt threatened by it, and they proposed huts for statues of Jefferson, buildings, triumphal arches, and chapels, all intended either to fill up or close off that yawning space.”
The impulse to enclose the Lawn was not shared by Mr. Jefferson, as evidenced by a scene recounted in The Rotunda Visitor’s Guide:
In June 1826, a few weeks before his death, Jefferson stood at the top of the dome room stairs and looked out the center window over the Lawn. This was his favorite view of the University. Below, workmen were lifting the first of marble Corinthian columns that Jefferson had ordered from Italy. A student brought Jefferson a chair; he sat for an hour looking toward the mountains in the distance. The open view to the south was to Jefferson a symbol of the limitless freedom of the human mind.