Ski team storms the colonnades

March 10, 1995

It used to be the ultimate achievement to have a room looking on to the lawn that stretches from the classical Rotunda designed by Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia in the United States.

You had to run one of the university's exclusive societies - the Jefferson literary and debating society or the judiciary or honour committee - to qualify for one of the spartan 12ft by 14ft rooms with fireplaces but no bathrooms (virtually unheard of in the US).

But the winds of change are blowing through the lovely pavilions and colonnades at the great university, which opened to students in 1825. The traditional elite of "politicos" are no longer allowed to occupy the 54 rooms as of right. Their names were thrown into the ring along with the 2,500 eligible students at the university, and it was left to a new selection committee chosen at random to decide who would end up beside the lawn - or in an apartment in Charlottesville.

The new occupants of the rooms are no longer white, male and with close connections to UVA's fraternities. They include members of "non-traditional groups", such as the ski team, the Fellowship Bible Study, and the Lesbian Gay and Bisexual Help Line. More than a half are women and at least 17 per cent are from ethnic minorities.

The change is not popular with the traditional elite. Keith Buell, editor of one of two campus newspapers, was hoping to get a room. But he was disappointed. "You just don't know what the committee is looking for any more," he said. Others argue the change is long overdue.

The University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson, the third US president and America's favourite frontier Renaissance man.

The lawn is the centre of the old campus, flanked on both sides by low rows of student rooms broken up by two-storey pavilions. The pavilions were each decorated with an order from a different Roman temple.

Students lived in the rooms, while academics lived in the upstairs pavilions and taught downstairs. It is the 54 lawn rooms that students still inhabit.

Jefferson wanted to expose all students, particularly those who might never travel abroad, to a classical notion of good taste.

He said: "The plan of the building is not to erect one single magnificent building to contain everybody and everything, but to make of it an academical village in which every professor should have his separate house, containing his lecturing room with two, three or four rooms for his own accommodation, according as he may have a family or no family . . . distinct dormitories for the students, not more than two to a room; and separated boarding houses for dieting them by private housekeepers."

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