History: In the summer of 1818, Thomas Jefferson envisioned a frescoed planetarium spanning the Rotunda’s dome. “The concave ceiling of the Rotunda,” he wrote, “is proposed to be painted sky-blue and spangled with gilt stars in their position and magnitude copied exactly.”

As designed, the Rotunda’s original starry ceiling would represent Charlottesville’s night sky in real time with mock-constellations on rotating discs that were adjusted by an operator hoisted to the ceiling on a saddle. If this vision had been realized in its time, it would have been the first large-scale planetarium in the world.

Today: Two hundred years later, three UVA English doctoral students endeavored to bring the Founder’s vision to life. Samuel V. Lemley, Neal D. Curtis, and Madeline Zehnder researched the Rotunda’s history and uncovered the original Dome Room design. It gave them an idea – instead of Jefferson’s moveable discs, they could use projectors to open the ceiling to the stars. They received a grant from the Jefferson Trust to purchase the equipment and host an exhibition on the Rotunda Library’s early years.

The Rotunda Planetarium opened to visitors in November 2019. Sam, Neal, and Madeline have graduated from UVA but left a wonderful legacy for us all to enjoy. View their Rotunda Planetarium lecture.

For more information about the Rotunda, or to plan a visit, click here. Learn more about the Rotunda Library Online, Jefferson Trust, and Rare Book School.

Rotunda Planetarium Curators: Madeline Zehnder, Samuel V. Lemley, Neal D. Curtis (Photo: Adam Ewing)