Building (Old) Cabell Hall

Old Cabell Hall at UVA under construction, courtesy Columbia University Libraries

I went down a bit of a rabbit hole on the University of Virginia’s Old Cabell Hall recently. I was originally looking for the origin of the statues that originally lined the lobby, and ended up finding something even more interesting.

First, those statues. When I was first doing research almost two decades ago on the University of Virginia and the Glee Club, I came across a series of photos in the UVA Library digital collections that showed marble statues lining the railing of the basement stairs in Cabell Hall:

Rufus W. Holsinger. Cabell Hall University of Virginia.

The photo dates to 1915, so about 15-18 years after the construction of the building. I haven’t been able to find a lot of other evidence regarding the statues, save for one additional photo (present in a couple of different prints and transparencies):

Lobby of Old Cabell Hall. Courtesy University of Virginia Library.

This latter photo was taken eight years later, in 1923. A UVA Magazine feature from 2016 discusses the statues, naming them as copies of the most famous Greek statues (Hermes and the Infant Dionysus, the Venus de Milo, the Discobolus, and the Apollo Belvedere), but does not disclose their origin. However, they do name their source, and Philip Alexander Bruce’s 1922 History of the University of Virginia offers a clue as to their disappearance:

An acute need was felt about 1911—12 for classical scholarships which would enable the most promising students in the School of Latin to undertake an advanced course without leaving the University of Virginia. A costly stereopticon was now regularly used by the head of the school, in the course of his lectures, in illustration of classical art and life, while plaster-casts of several of the most beautiful statues of the Roman and Greek civilizations had been bought and put in place in Cabell Hall for public exhibition. (V: 121)

So apparently the statues were only plaster, explaining both their sudden appearance without any note in the Board of Visitors records and their seeming disappearance later.

In the course of looking for the statues, though, I found even more interesting info about the construction of the hall, in the form of a series of photographs from a collection of photos of the works of McKim, Mead and White that is housed at Columbia University. There you can see details of the construction of the building, including the Guastavino tiled vaults in the basement and the use of structural steel in the construction, as well as the amphitheater levels under construction.

Previously: The Old Cabell Hall skylight.

The Old Cabell Hall skylight

Old Cabell Hall ceiling and skylight, 1994 (University of Virginia)

I read with interest a UVA Today article about Andrew Ashcraft, a fourth year architecture student who has had the privilege of exploring attics and other hidden spaces at the University as an intern in the Historic Preservation team. Having been an inveterate explorer of the University’s nooks and crannies myself (with a particular fascination for Old Cabell Hall and the roof of Clark Hall), I envy Ashcraft his job. However, one paragraph caught my attention:

“His favorite view so far has been from the attic of Old Cabell Hall, where he could look down through an ornate false skylight into the building’s grand two-tiered theater.”

It may be a “false skylight” today, but it certainly didn’t start out that way. The evidence, as always, is the University’s collection of the photographs of Rufus Holsinger. In a collection of views of the Grounds dating to 1914 we get the photo below, showing the view of the stage but also the ceiling above:

Old Cabell Hall stage, 1914, Rufus Holsinger (UVA Library Special Collections)

That sure looks like a working skylight to me! The Library’s online exhibit on the work of McKim, Meade, and White (the designers of Old Cabell Hall) indicates that the skylight was eventually enclosed “to accommodate modern lighting equipment,” and from the stage you can see the lighting in the space that would originally have let natural sunlight in.

The University has a small tradition of enclosing skylights, apparently, or at least doubling them up. As an undergrad I learned from some of my older neighbors how to enter Clark Hall (originally the home of the Law School) at night and climb up to the dusty hidden room enclosed by the outer skylights and the inner skylights of the building. Yes, there are two layers of skylight. I haven’t been able to determine if this was the original design or a concession to weatherproofing. (You can see a hint of the double-layered design in this photo.)