Tucked into the western edge of UVA, the Dell’s pond reflects blue sky and white clouds on this midsummer day, although a storm threatens from the northwest, with nickel-gray clouds moving in. Still, turtles swim just below the surface, while bumblebees and dragonflies flit among the water lilies and violet blooms of pickerel weed at pond’s edge.
Meadow Creek feeds this pond, starting from natural springs high on Observatory Mountain. The creek then flows northeast through University property into the city of Charlottesville and on into the Rivanna River, the James and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay. Though small, it has played a significant role in the life of the University as far back as two centuries ago, when it provided water for the newly built Academical Village. Yet as UVA expanded, its presence would become problematic time and again as construction consumed more and more land.
To solve those problems, UVA undertook a complex engineering project costing close to $1.5 million that addressed water issues along the creek’s watershed. Today, 15 years after the project’s completion, the pond stands as its most visible centerpiece—a combination of peaceful retreat, outdoor classroom and stormwater management solution.
Meadow Creek at the center of attention
Thomas Jefferson gained ownership of Meadow Creek’s source when he purchased the eastern slope of O-Hill in June 1817, the same year he purchased the land that would become his Academical Village. He recognized the necessity of both water and timber to fulfill his university dream.
After years as Jeffersonian-era farmland, the Dell variously hosted a six-hole golf course, a creek-fed pond for skating and fishing, alumni barbecue grounds, and even an elaborate 1920s garden—a piece of which remains as the Dell’s most curious treasure.
Professor William Lambeth (Med 1892, Grad 1901) had created the garden behind his home on the property, installing architectural pieces that he found, built or even purchased on trips to Italy. After his death, however, the garden fell into ruin, leaving just a tall, brick, arched doorway almost shrouded in vegetation, standing sentinel behind the pond.
Today, the 11-acre plot known as the Dell extends back from Emmet Street, narrowing as it goes, all the way to Alderman Road. It’s bordered on the north by the woodsy backyards of houses on Thomson Road; on the south, it abuts a parking lot, basketball courts, McCormick Road dorms, and the University Cemetery and African American Burial Grounds.
And Meadow Creek threads through it all.
Ongoing construction, however, has vastly changed the contours of the Dell and the location of Meadow Creek. When Emmet Street was widened as Route 29, fill material from the construction dammed up the creek, according to University landscape architect Mary Hughes (Arch ’87). With nowhere to go, stormwater often flooded the Dell.
Construction of Old Dorms in the 1950s created more impermeable surfaces, pushing more rainwater into the Dell. At that time, engineers also piped Meadow Creek underground for its run northeast—likely to create more usable space in the low-lying recreational area, Hughes says. Yet with the increased runoff from the new buildings, and no creek to carry the water away, “there was nowhere for the water to flow except to just sit at the lowest point,” she adds.
In addition, a heavy rain event could send more water into the pipe than it could handle. When that happened, Hughes says, the pressure would blow off the utility hole cover at the Emmet/Ivy intersection “and there would be a geyser of water,” flooding the entire area and beyond.
On one occasion, she recalls, “the parking lot at Lambeth residence hall flooded to the point that people were able to swim it.
“The storm system that existed at the time just couldn’t handle it.”
Over the decades, some students used the Dell for barbecues, parties and sports. Peter Schmidt (Col ’70, Darden ’74) recalls racing with other fraternity pledges to the back of the Dell in 1966 at the start of the annual Stumblefoot Derby.
Others barely paid attention to the area, especially the often-soggy Emmet-adjacent portion, complete with overgrown garden and its decaying statuary. “I don’t think many people went back there,” says Blake Morant (Col ’75, Law ’78), who lived in nearby Old Dorms for two years, the second as a resident assistant. “It was green because it was moist all the time. That’s fine to look at, but it’s not very pleasant to either play in or walk around.”
‘Invisible, neglected valley’
Jennifer Steen Booher (Arch ’97) first paid close attention to the Dell in 1995 while completing a graduate assignment. The remnants of the Lambeth garden architectural pieces puzzled her. “How can a structure fall into ruin in the middle of a busy and wealthy campus?” she asked in a 1997 essay for UVA’s landscape architecture department.
“It was just this invisible, neglected valley,” she says now. “It didn’t have a wetland ecosystem, it was just soaking wet ground.”
Booher and Hughes explored the area and its history, writing about it for this magazine later in 1997. In turn, Hughes added the Dell to a water resources master plan, with the intent to integrate stormwater management “into an aesthetically pleasing landscape design,” she says.
Landscape architects drew up concepts for the Dell design, but the project had no funding for a few more years, until UVA had its eye on a hefty building project also along the Meadow Creek watershed, farther downstream: John Paul Jones Arena. The proposed building would plant massive amounts of impermeable concrete at the lowest point in that part of the watershed, according to Hughes. Building an adequate stormwater management system at JPJ would eat up valuable real estate needed for the building itself and for parking.
“So we dusted off the master plan,” Hughes says, determined to install a project farther upstream that would be big enough to handle the entire stretch. In turn, UVA reallocated about $1 million from JPJ for the Dell project, which was designed by VMDO Architects, Biohabitats and Nelson Byrd Woltz.
In the end, the full stormwater management project, completed in 2004, brought Meadow Creek back to the surface for the first time since the Old Dorms went up; created a pond for the retention and slow release of water and filtering of pollutants; and turned the Dell into a park.
“Without JPJ, I think the Dell would still be an unfunded dream,” Hughes says, because UVA doesn’t have a means of funding major landscape projects that are not linked to a building.
Once again, a creek runs through it
After bringing up roughly 1,100 linear feet of Meadow Creek, a team of engineers, designers and scientists changed its path to accommodate both natural flow and stormwater control. They left the 1950s pipe in-ground; at one spot, excess water can be funneled back into it if needed. Meadow Creek then curves around the tennis courts before cascading over the stone spillway down to the pond.
According to a case study by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the 12-foot-deep pond can detain almost 1.5 million gallons of water, releasing it slowly downstream as needed. In case of severe storms, the surrounding terraced lawn allows for overflow of the pond’s banks.
The botanical garden along the pond’s edge, planted with native species from across the commonwealth, filters nitrogen, phosphate and iron before the water continues downstream into the existing pipe that runs under the observation deck.
And it all happens under the guise of a park.
The project has won awards over the years, including first-place recognition in 2017 from the Chesapeake Stormwater Network—acknowledging exceptionally maintained stormwater practices that are an asset to the community.
With every new building on Grounds, architects consider stormwater management. UVA is currently planning construction in two places along the Meadow Creek watershed: a conference center and research complex at the corner of Emmet Street and Ivy Road, and a Contemplative Sciences Center overlooking the Dell pond, where basketball courts and a parking lot now sit.
In both locations, Hughes says, “we have the preservation for that landscape as a priority.”
In addition to its value for recreation and contemplation, the Dell serves as an outdoor classroom for professors in engineering, landscape architecture and environmental sciences. Engineering professor Teresa Culver, for example, sends students out to collect water samples to record levels of nutrients and pollutants. The assignments serve to further enhance the Dell’s efficacy.
Just like hundreds of other stormwater devices across UVA—rain gardens and cisterns, porous walkways and green roofs—the Dell pond and the small creek that feeds it quietly go on doing their job, Culver says.
“Most people walk by the Dell pond and have no idea it’s anything besides a pond.”