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Thomas Jefferson’s Secret Laboratory at UVA

Thomas Jefferson’s Secret Laboratory at UVA

The University of Virginia will celebrate its 200th anniversary next year. Since its founding in 1819, much has happened on campus, and administrators thought they knew everything there was to know about their beloved Charlottesville institution.

However, just three years ago in 2015, a very exciting surprise was unearthed.

In the beautiful rotunda of the university lied a hidden chemistry lab, a secret kept for decades until its recent discovery. Amazingly, the lab is most likely linked to Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president.

Thomas Jefferson actually designed the rotunda building, so school officials say that Jefferson very likely created the specially-designed hearth for a nearby chemistry classroom.

The university was built in the 1820s, and this particular hearth room was walled off around 1850. Incredibly, it even survived a devastating 1895 fire that destroyed the majority of the rotunda building. The room is a semi-circular niche that was preserved because of the way the walls were sealed off in 1850.

The lab was recently discovered during an extensive two-year renovation. Brian Hogg is a senior historian for the Office of the Architect at the university and says that the uncovered room is an exciting and historic find, speculating that Jefferson most likely collaborated with John Emmet, the school’s first natural history professor, to design the hearth for dual-purpose classroom use.

Hogg says that Jefferson wrote a letter in April 1823 requesting that the chemistry lab be located on the ground floor so that they would not have to pump water to the upper floors.

“For the Professor of Chemistry, such experiments as require the use of furnaces, cannot be exhibited in his ordinary lecturing room. We therefore prepare the rooms under the oval rooms of the ground floor of the Rotunda for furnaces, stoves etc. These rooms are of 1,000 square feet area each,” the letter read.

The hearth was likely constructed between 1822 and 1826, featuring two heat sources and a novel fume ventilation system, with special flues being built into the hearth to carry out the toxic air from chemistry experiments. Inside the hearth, heated sand was used to evenly disperse heat.

The University of Virginia is thrilled by the find, describing it as “possibly the oldest intact example of an early chemistry educational lab in America.”

Hogg also thinks it may be one of the few remaining such labs in the world.

Matt Scheidt, project manager for the company performing the rotunda renovation, was the first to discover the hidden laboratory in a procedure meant to measure how thick the walls were. He said he was on his back looking up inside the space when he saw a piece of cut stone that was unusual for the particular location, and when he delved further, he found a finished space with plaster and painted walls.

After the two-year renovation is complete, the university will have the room on permanent display for all to see.

 

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