Workers from the Rotunda’s renovation project at the University of Virginia discovered a Thomas Jefferson’s chemistry lab. According to officials, the president constructed the lab nearly 200 years ago and it served as a ‘chemical hearth’ for his laboratory experiments.
The Rotunda’s innovation project was expected to be almost ready in the middle of the next summer, but the discovery was unexpected.
According to the investigation, the lab was constructed between 1822 and 1826 and it had a kind of hearth with a structure never seen in modern chemistry labs. Architects supposed that this hearth was part of the original science laboratories set up by John Emmet, the university’s first professor of natural history, in the 1820s. This construction hardly survived after being almost totally destroyed by a major fire in 1895.
After the construction of this lab, students were transported to a new chemistry lab in 1840’s. The workstations and fireboxes within the building were fed by air that flowed from brick tunnels constructed beneath the building. The unusual lab’s structure ducts carried fumes away from the chemical lab.
A dangerous chemistry lab
Chemistry was a popular course of study at U.Va. At times, nearly a third of the student body was enrolled, and members of the public also came to lectures. All experiments were dangerous, especially to Professor Emmet, who started teaching at the university in 1825, and suffered greatly from mishaps with chemicals.
Moreover, officials revealed a note, apparently wrote by the president, where he explained that the chemistry lab was exclusively created to do chemistry experiments: “For the professor of chemistry, such experiments as require the use of furnaces cannot be exhibited in his ordinary lecturing room.”
Furthermore, the experiments were highly dangerous and one of the most remarkable things was that these experiments expelled toxic and corrosive substances that were terrible for the health of any human being.
“Dr. Emmet encountered a full share of these hazards. He met with several accidents, some of which were near proving fatal, and one of them laid him up for eight or nine weeks[ ..] His wardrobe paid dearly for the powerful agents with which it was too heedlessly brought into contact, and not unfrequently his attire wore the appearance of the sails of a ship that had just been in action.” Wrote in a report Diane S. Waite, for John G. Waite Associates, Architects – the firm that designed the current Rotunda renovations.
Emmet died in 1842, at age 47 with some of his failing health attributed to various accidents and mishaps suffered while he was conducting chemical experiments. Robert E. Rogers was appointed his successor.
The Department of Chemistry now occupies its own building on McCormick Road, with modern lab facilities. But the Rotunda’s hearth provides an important link to the University’s history, highlighting the importance Jefferson placed on studying the natural sciences.
“The hearth is significant as something of the University’s early academic years,” said Mark Kutney, an architectural conservator in the University Architect’s office.
Moreover, The University will reopen the historic construction for visitors and students.