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Unraveling the Mystery, continued

The initial response to the building appears to have been singularly positive. A book published in 1888 entitled Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia said of Brooks Hall, "this building is much admired." (14) A postcard held by the University Archives, from A. L. M. to Miss Buena V. Flynn and dated 1906, shows a picture of Brooks Hall (again suggesting pride in the building) and carries the message:

There is in this building a mastodon, a copy of the original of which is in the British Museum. There is only one other in this country, in Boston, I believe. Many thanks for the cards from your and cousin G - tell her I'll write soon.(15)

The first negative comments concerning Brooks Hall began to appear in the 1890s when the student guide tentatively described it as "perhaps too profusely decorated." John Shelton Patton's 1906 history of the University initiated the standard twentieth-century reaction to Brooks Hall and set a tone that would be dominant for years to come. He described Brooks Hall as "too elaborately ornamented," and "an offensive intruder." He went on to write: "the architect Mr. J. R. Thomas arrived at the University with his drawings made, and all efforts to convince him of their unsuitableness to their surroundings were ineffective." There is no evidence to support that assertion, yet it has become part of the accepted folklore concerning the building. It is from this point on, ca. 1910, that Brooks Hall has been routinely maligned for its lack of fit with Jefferson's Academical Village and its "uncertain" architectural style. By 1913, in Corks & Curls, it is said that the building "jars the aesthetic sense, its prominent position on the verge of the campus adds to the affront of its existence, and its everstood, the cynosure of scorn. A frieze of paleolithic monster heads girds its middle height, the symbol of an anachronism producing a discord."(16)

Brooks Hall remained a museum in limited form until the 1940s, although an increasing amount of space was given over to office space and classrooms at the expense of museum space throughout. It was in 1948/1949 that the Geology Department, needing more office space, had a second floor added and brought the museum era of the building to an end. The Daily Progress of November 30, 1948, ran an obituary of sorts under the headline "Prehistoric Monsters Yield Their Space to Virginia Students:"

Two life size replicas of the gigantic fauna of prehistoric ages were disposed of yesterday by the University of Virginia Brooks Museum to make room for the present generation expanding student body. And, in the opinion of the head of the Corcoran and Rogers School of Geology, there will be no wailing or gnashing of teeth.

It took a corps of Buildings and Grounds workmen most of yesterday to reduce the mammoth and dinosaur to rubble. The job proved what has been suspected, the dinosaur was a plaster of paris cast, and the mammoth was made of plaster and hollow inside. The hair of the mammoth, it was revealed today, was pampas grass from Argentina.

A 1952 newspaper article in the Daily Progress, summarizing local history, wrote of Brooks Hall:

The fact that the building did not follow Jefferson's ideas in architecture can perhaps be explained by the fact that the architect was a Mr. Thomas of Rochester, New York, a "Yankee" who did not feel about Mr. Jefferson and his work as local people did. Since the building and collection were gifts, and Lewis Brooks also selected the architect, no one felt they could quarrel with the type of building. The papers, on the whole, did a very good job of covering up the dismay local people may have felt in having this harmony of Mr. Jefferson's University invaded by a Victorian structure. They spoke of the building as being impressive and imposing, but never as beautiful.(17)

In 1961 the Cavalier Daily ran a story on Brooks Hall calling the building the most maligned structure on grounds, which lay "quietly decaying."(18) In 1970 Brooks Hall was without great ceremony included in the historic district drawn up by the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission as a protected historic area. When the Board of Visitors later voted to condemn the building, the inclusion of Brooks Hall in the historic district helped deter the Visitors from achieving the demolition they sought.

A new respect for the building began to grow in the mid-1970s with the excellently researched and detailed study for adaptive re-use undertaken by Anthony O. James,(19) a graduate student in architectural history, and with an articulate defense offered by Architectural History Professor Richard Wilson. Wilson, in a letter to the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission, and in a brief article in the Daily Progress, described the building with reference to its roots in the French Ecole des Beaux Arts style of the mid-nineteenth century. Wilson wrote:

Brooks is ... a tall, awkward building, ungainly one might say, that shows the new French elegance coming into conflict with the English derived American Victorian. An important building that should be preserved, one can sense here the new striving for elegance that would replace Victorian crudity.... Brooks Hall occupies an important position on the grounds, it provides a visual balance in concert with the chapel for the Rotunda and ranges. To remove it would irreparably damage the fabric and visual interest of that end of the grounds.(20)

The University was dissuaded from tearing the building down, and rear doors were added in 1976 to reduce the fire hazard restrictions on its use. Today, we find it in a decaying state internally, but with its impressive facade still very much in place.

Brooks Hall and its Place Within the University

The construction and history of Brooks Hall show an interesting cyclical pattern of reaction to the building. Today, most people still view the architectural style of Brooks Hall as incongruous and intrusive, and its location as being somewhat arbitrary and poorly articulated with the rest of the Grounds. Some authors have suggested that it is an affront to Thomas Jefferson. In short, it is often said, the building "just doesn't fit." This perspective is only accurate in terms of Brooks Hall's relationship to the restored historic landscape created in the twentieth century. In its original context, the building did fit, and it was not the intruder it has been made out to be since John Shelton Patton's book initiated that perspective. There are a number of key points that support this interpretation.

First, it must be noted that the Rotunda in 1876 looked neither as it does in the present, nor as it did in Jefferson's day. It had a large classroom annex wing attached to its north side that projected the lines of the building much closer to what is now University Avenue. When Brooks Hall was built it was, in fact, in harmony with the existing landscape; the north wall of Brooks Hall was in a direct line with the north edge of the classroom annex. Thus it was only when the Rotunda burned in 1895 and Stanford White eliminated the annex in his restoration of the Rotunda that Brooks Hall became "lost" on the landscape Even then, however, a rampart still defined a northern line that matched with Brooks Hall, maintaining a certain balance until the mid-twentieth century. To suggest that the building was not placed with the existing 1876 landscape in mind is an unfair and inaccurate assessment.

Secondly, with construction of the University Chapel in 1890, Brooks Hall contributed to a pattern of symmetry on the northern end of the University. Spatially, having structures on either side of the Rotunda provided a balance to that area. Noted architectural historian William B. O'Neal has written:

the Brooks Museum and the Chapel are perfect foils for the buildings on the lawn, a very good contrast. Had the two buildings been bad copies of Jeffersonian architecture, the lawn would have been weakened. It was wise for the builders to have done what they did. They were very forward to use the best of their period....(21)

Further, the alignment of the Rotunda, Brooks Hall and the Chapel can be thought of in richly symbolic terms. The placement of the Rotunda library in the center, representing all knowledge, with religion on one side and natural science on the other, is a visual metaphor for the important philosophical dialectic between religion and science ever present in western thought.

A third point relates to the criticism of Brooks Hall that suggests it is an affront to the Jeffersonian spirit and history of the region, if not to the man himself. This, too, seems unfound-ed. Professor Fontaine, in his introductory lecture in 1879, suggested that Lewis Brooks was influenced to support the University of Virginia because he was, in fact, a "devoted admirer" of Mr. Jefferson.(22) More compelling is the observation noted by James, based on a Louisville obituary of Lewis Brooks, that Brooks Hall was built and positioned east-west so as to face directly toward Monticello.(23) According to the obituary, this was done to meet a particular wish of Lewis Brooks. It is true that the front door to Brooks Hall faces directly toward Monticello; Brooks Hall is the only building so positioned on the grounds. Thus, it appears that the intent was to honor and include Jefferson in the building's design, even though that design did not mimic Jefferson's (and the later University's) passion for the Classical.

Finally, a defense must be made of the style itself. It is not classical. But far from being the indecisive and unstructured mix that many claim it to be, the building is very firmly rooted in the nineteenth-century French architectural tradition termed variously Neo-Grec or Second Empire, and all aspects of that style were taught at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.(24) Architectural historian Neil Levine has explained the style as being a reaction against rigid classicism.(25) According to Levine, Neo-Grec was a somewhat looser style, which "replaced the rhetorical form of classical architectural discourse by a more literal and descriptive syntax of form."(26) The classic example of Neo-Grec architecture is Henri Labrouste's Bibliotheque Sainte Genevieve in Paris. In his master's thesis, Kevin McHugh made the observation that the architect of Brooks Hall, J. R. Thomas, must have been very influenced by Labrouste's design of the Bibliotheque Sainte Genevieve. On the facade of that building are twenty-seven panels inscribed with the names of 810 authors whose books are contained in the library. In addition, the date of construction is set in stone in the keystone of the arched en-trance, as it is at Brooks Hall.

Architectural historians say of the Neo-Greco style that it is a readable architecture. Levine read the facade of the Bibliotheque Sainte Genevieve and discerned a structure to the names on the wall. The first name was Moses, and the last a chemist who died in 1848. "The inscriptions thereby circumscribe the library's three visible faces spanning the entire history of the world from monotheism to scientism." The 409th name, right in the middle, is the Byzantine philosopher Psellus, whose works and name suggested the "meeting of east and west," and located it temporally at the millennium. Levine says the meaning of the walls are open to all those who can read--an appropriate design for a library. (27)

 

 

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