I was in Charlottesville Saturday morning for an alumni meeting at the University of Virginia, a planning session for my class's reunion next year. It gave me a chance to stroll around Thomas Jefferson's Lawn late in the morning. The skies were blue and the air was warm with a last, sweet kiss of summer. Mr. Jefferson's columns gleamed pure white in the dazzling light, and the bricks looked warm and mellow.
Thomas Jefferson was a very prescient man, but I don't think he could have imagined the academical village he designed being re-purposed as a party venue on a football weekend. But there it was. The students who are selected for rooms on the Lawn and the Ranges understand that they are, for one school year, tenants in a sublime space. They host parties to show it off on weekends like this one.
Under the colonnade of the West Lawn, a sorority member was setting up a bake sale that would be an adjunct to a pre-football gathering. A couple was hanging an orange-and-blue banner on the weathered brick wall outside another room. It would be a party backdrop. I saw tables that would become bars and cases of drinks, staged and waiting for the afternoon, ready to displace the rocking chairs the students keep outside their rooms so they can sit and read outdoors on warm afternoons.
One thing has not changed on the Lawn since I was a student. The plumbing in Lawn rooms is not much advanced from when Jefferson designed the place. Students who live on the Lawn must shower in bathhouses tucked away behind the colonnades. They still, as they did when I lived there, don bathrobes that make a style statement as they trek to and from the shower. I noticed that the guy in the picture above was sporting an official-looking Lawn resident's robe, something that did not exist when I was a student. Nor did pink, polka-dotted robes, probably because women didn't live on the Lawn back then.
All the residents now seem to have an elegant, oval bronze door plaque with their names engraved on it. (Some of them, like the student presently living in my old room, have an abundance of names. Hey, Kurt Traeger Finck Lockhart, enjoy it. From the vantage point of many years, I can tell you that you may never again have a front yard quite so beautiful.)
When I was living on the Lawn, elegance was defined by an engraved calling card one could slide into a little frame on the door, under the bronze numbers. I, being an ardent proletarian at the time, didn't have an engraved calling card. I wrote my name on a piece of loose-leaf paper, cut it to size, and stuck the paper in the slot. Very non-elitist.
There's a line in the lyrics to the University's alma mater, the "Good Old Song." It says "We come, from old Vir-gin-i-a, where all is bright and gay." Strolling around the Lawn on a Saturday morning, the lyric seemed truthful.
It's not entirely true, of course.
In one of the gardens between the Lawn and West Range, I saw a couple seated on a white bench, looking far from gay. They didn't touch, or make eye contact. They sat and stared straight ahead, arms folded. Their body language spoke for them. Maybe their relationship had run aground at a party on Friday night, and here they were on Saturday morning, committed to a attending a football game and another round of parties and barely able to stand one another. It happens.
Not far from the Lawn on this particular Saturday, the Charlottesville police were still looking for a second-year student named Hannah Graham. She went out with friends a couple of weeks ago, got a little disoriented, texted someone that she was lost, and then disappeared. A Charlottesville man has been charged with abduction with intent to defile, but no one has been able to find Hannah, and the chances that anyone will seemed to be dwindling. Perhaps, at the parties that Saturday afternoon and evening, students would think of Hannah and restrain themselves around the bar. But perhaps not. I probably wouldn't have, when I was 21 and living on the Lawn.
It's not really that I thought I was invulnerable then, though I may have acted as if I did. It might have had to do with the atmosphere at a college, an atmosphere accentuated at UVA. The buildings age gracefully, and the students are forever young. There's a mix of youth, and privilege and in this case, Jeffersonian genius in the air that can't help but be intoxicating.