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Repair work on UVa's historic chimneys under way

Monday - 7/30/2012, 3:35pm  ET

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. - Crews are fixing fireplaces in the rows of rustic rooms on the University of Virginia's historic Lawn and Range after inspectors found cracks in flue linings and chimneys last year in the rooms, which date to the school's 1819 founding.

Now contractors and university staff are working to repair 61 chimneys and 105 flues at the Charlottesville school, and install a modern fire-suppression system in time to allow students to use their rooms' fireplaces later this fall and winter. The project, which is expected to be done by November, has a total budgeted cost of about $3.7 million, or about $35,000 per room, and is being covered by donations and maintenance funds, U.Va. officials said.

The burning hearths in the Lawn and Range rooms have been a longtime tradition, even after the university installed central heating in the early 20th century. The university requires students to undergo a training class before they're allowed to use the fireplaces.

Historians say there are accounts in old U.Va. yearbooks of 17-year-old student and future macabre writer Edgar Allan Poe breaking up furniture and burning it in his fireplace at 13 West Range in 1826.

"We're not only preserving the buildings and the landscapes, but we're preserving the traditions of U.Va.," said James Zehmer, construction preservation manager at the university.

The inspections and subsequent repair work began two years ago after Zehmer said he was crawling through the attic above the student rooms and came across a chimney. He reached out, grabbed a brick and was able to pull it out.

The Lawn is the center of the Academical Village, which Thomas Jefferson created as a place where U.Va. students and professors could closely interact. The village's focal point is the Rotunda, inspired by Rome's Pantheon.

"What makes the Academical Village special in my mind is that it's not a house museum, it's still being used for its original function," Zehmer said. "Part of that (U.Va.) experience is the community that develops there between the students and professors and deans, and the fireplace and the hearth as a central gathering place is a key element to that."

Students can apply to live in one of 54 Lawn rooms in their final undergraduate year, and getting one is considered prestigious. The 52 rooms on the Range face outward from the Lawn, and graduate students apply to live there.

Faculty members live in the nearby Pavilions, and the university has banned them from using their fireplaces for years because their chimneys are more intricately built and harder to clean.


Michael Felberbaum can be reached at .

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