October 16, 2015: CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA (NEWSPLEX) — It was curiosity that lead Matt Schiedt to crawl into a brick hole in the Rotunda’s wall.
Schiedt, a project manager for John G. Waite Associates, specializes in historic buildings. He is overseeing the renovation of the University of Virginia Rotunda and wanted to know how thick the walls were.
“I was laying on my back looking up inside this little space. I saw that there was a piece of cut stone which is very unusual to have in this location. You could see that there was a square cut in the stone and that there was a finished space around that with plaster and painted walls,” Schiedt said.
Upon further investigation, he realized he uncovered a piece of history. A chemistry lab designed by Thomas Jefferson and built in the early 1820s, toward the end of the Rotunda’s construction.
Two brick niches were uncovered during renovations in the 1970s, but researchers didn’t realized there was more to the work space.
“The experiments would be done at the higher level where the stone is almost like a counter top, there may have been an iron plate or grill there,” said Schiedt.
Even more astonishing, the lab was preserved for nearly 200 years by accident, after it was bricked up in 1840 when teaching styles became more sophisticated.
“Just because of luck and geometry of the building, because it was bricked up, it survived the major fire in 1895, and it survived the major renovation in the 1970s, mostly because people didn’t know it was there,” Schiedt said.
The surprise discovery became even more significant when researchers realized it was the only one left from its time in the world.
“It was during the period where chemistry was beginning to be taught and people were starting to do more experiments. It’s very unique because there’s certainly documentation that there were chemical hearths like this in other places, especially in Europe but they are all mostly destroyed,” said Schiedt. “There is one or two left in Europe, and then this one.”
There are no plans to renovate or restore the lab because of its significance. When the Rotunda reopens to the public in 2016, the lab will be part of an exhibit in the building’s visitors center.