"Jefferson is the only president of the United States who was also a great artist. Other presidents have noodled at the keyboard or daubed at easels. But Jefferson was a building architect of large ambition and achievement, as well as a landscape architect and an interior designer. There are no exact parallels, at least in Western culture, for this combination of political and aesthetic prominence. To combine the prose of power and the poetry of art, at a high and continuing level, is something no one else did.
His greatest artwork was the cluster of buildings in Charlottesville that he called his 'academical village.'
As his own body's fabric was disintegrating, he poured his spirit into a physical expression of intellectual activity."
- Garry Wills, Mr. Jefferson's University
When it comes to watching the College World Series on television in our house every June, we're always amused to hear the distinctive voice of Robin Ventura. From year to year we remember him fondly, my son and daughter and I, not so much for his big-league career with the White Sox, Mets, and Yankees, nor for the prestigious Golden Spikes Award he won in 1988, his Dick Howser trophy, and the impressive stats he recorded as a student-athlete at Oklahoma State. Every June we remember him affectionately and with laughter, thanks to a certain conversation that took place between Ventura and his colleague in the broadcast booth at Rosenblatt Stadium during the summer of 2009.
Providing the color commentary during the second round of CWS play, losers bracket, Mike Patrick commended one of Virginia's players for his high GPA, meaningful acts of community service, leadership experience, keen intellect, and strong character. The dialogue went something like this:
". . . and he lives on the Lawn."
"Uh-huh." Ventura responded opaquely and seemingly in agreement, though it was obvious that the full import of his co-anchor's comment had eluded him. A few moments of confused silence ensued.
And then: "He lives on the lawn?"
The Oklahoma State legend paused to imagine a scene: the kid was living for free in somebody's front yard; or maybe he liked the game of baseball so much and spent so many of his waking hours at the field, he figured he might as well sleep there too, heck just camped out in shallow center field every single night in spring; or perhaps he had opted out of dorm living and erected a tent somewhere on campus, Greenpeace-style and short on cash; maybe he'd had no luck finding space in an apartment on Wertland or 14th, where so many other third- and fourth-year students chose to live.
As the 'Hoos pitcher threw over to first, Mike Patrick briefly described UVA's historic Lawn and its venerable significance, whereupon Ventura realized that the sorry habitats he'd conjured for this ballplayer were off the mark. "Oh, I thought you meant he pitched a tent somewhere on campus and lived in it."
Broad rectangles of terraced Virginia land flow outward, generously and invitingly, from the grand steps of Jefferson's Rotunda. The public lawn is bordered by ten masterfully designed, imperfectly symmetrical pavilions graced with colonnades, an elegantly curving serpentine wall of antique brick (the laws of physics dictate that it must curve since it is only one brick thick), and a delightful variety of shade trees and enclosed gardens. Numerous honors students and outstanding young individuals compete for the coveted rooms that open onto the university's magnificent expanse of grass.
"Thomas Jefferson designed the University of Virginia's first buildings to mirror his vision of higher education. As he conceived it, the college experience should take place within an 'academical village' where shared learning infused daily life. He developed plans for ten pavilions—stately faculty homes with living quarters upstairs and classrooms downstairs—attached to two rows of student rooms and connected by an inward-facing colonnade. Each pavilion was identified with a subject to be studied and inhabited by the professor who taught that subject" (virginia.edu).
Students and faculty at The University of Virginia do not refer to their surroundings as a "campus." The academic buildings, together with the surrounding Lawn, pavilions, gardens, and open spaces are known reverentially and almost mystically as "grounds." Although the mention of Thomas Jefferson's name may not instantly elicit an attitude of unqualified awe as it once did, the artistic and intellectual vision of America's third president is palpable when one walks the grounds and contemplates the deeply satisfying realization of one man's ideal. To stand on this Lawn is to inhabit a venue in which philosophical and aesthetic promise have been passionately executed and fully realized, its maker's spirit enduring and ever present.
In lieu of a school chapel, Jefferson wanted the grand Rotunda - and the library housed within it - to be his university's center. To this day, students symbolically face the domed building during Convocation exercises that mark the beginnings of their university education. In fitting contrast, the full academic procession of Commencement moves in the opposite direction: students descend the Rotunda steps and walk the entire length of the Lawn, heading south toward Old Cabell Hall, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the world beyond, leaving their undergraduate years symbolically behind them.
In a popular list of "100 things to do before you graduate," students are unofficially encouraged to streak the entire length of Mr. Jefferson's lawn. Three o'clock in the morning during the month of December is probably a good time to attempt this activity.
Undergraduates and professors who live on the Lawn are among the university's most distinguished leaders and scholars, the community's elite. "I could not find anyone, male or female, who regretted having bid for the honor of living where they do for one (their senior) year. To win a place, they must submit applications to a screening board, presenting their academic qualifications and their record of service to the university. There is an extraordinary camaraderie among those who take the lodgings 'Mr. Jefferson' designed for them. This is felt not only by those living on the Lawn at any one time. It is a social tie felt across generations," writes Garry Wills, who came to regard the magnificent design as a true reflection of Jefferson's "entire personality, its naive flaws as well as its towering strengths."
UVA students consider the Lawn to be "the soul of the place." Indeed, just as we are moved when experiencing our nation's most important monuments, hallowed shrines, and even its loveliest ballparks, visitors may feel in the Lawn and its environs something mysterious yet palpable that can only be called "a soul."
Students' quarters are at once elegant and rustic, each offering a charming brick entryway, weathered rocking chairs, tidy piles of wood, working fireplaces, high ceilings and elegant moldings, inspiring views of the Lawn, but no plumbing and limited privacy, since all rooms open directly onto the common ground which continues to be the scene of spontaneous play, outdoor classes, admissions tours, anti-war protests, concerts, and many public gatherings both formal and informal.
Ballplayers, a capella singers, student government leaders, legacies, poets, all ethnicities (black students were admitted to these rooms before women were invited to apply, the latter delayed thanks to inadequacies of plumbing). Students must travel outdoors and in public when accessing shared bathroom facilities. In one sense, a Lawn room is just one step up from living in a tent or cabin; on another level, however, it affords students a quality of life redolent with elegance, charm, architectural greatness, and living history.
While pulling for the Cavaliers (a.k.a. 'Hoos) in this year's College World Series, we've enjoyed laughing about Robin Ventura's misconception of the Lawn, but it's all in good fun. I imagine him today, sitting in the broadcast booth with a perfect view of the field. He surveys a meticulously groomed lawn, a brand new state-of-the-art facility with its underground cooling system, gleaming stainless steel, and immense standards of lights that eclipse constellations. From his seat high above, he looks down upon the coach named O'Connor who has turned a struggling college program around, nurturing talented young players like Ryan Zimmerman, who himself then turned around and gave a quarter of a million dollars back. Ventura looks out toward left field and notices a few young men clowning around. He sees the number 2 pick and seven others recently selected in the 2011 first-year player draft. The kids are stretching and sprinting on the lawn.
A college player once told me that the whole concept of student-athletes is a joke. Admittedly, these individuals are expected to maintain a ridiculous schedule, an unrealistic balance of work and play. But I like to think that on some level he was wrong about the entire thing being a joke, NCAA violations notwithstanding, and that something of an ideal remains. Otherwise, why college ball? Why college? Why Omaha?
TD Ameritrade Ballpark in downtown Omaha, Nebraska is located a considerable distance from Jefferson's Rotunda and the blue hills of Virginia. 1157 miles to be exact. The stadium does not yet qualify as an historic landmark or national shrine, just as Charlottesville's Davenport Field cannot claim to be a component of Thomas Jefferson's original academical vision, though both facilities speak to who we are as a culture and a nation of educated people. Nor, I daresay, did Jefferson ever contemplate the possibility of a few young scholars standing on a small diamond of grass, shouldering a rubber hose and preparing their lawn for a really big game of catch.
Those who play in the so-called losers bracket of the double-elimination NCAA Division I Baseball Championship are hardly losers. Sure, baseball is ultimately about winning and losing, but the special beauty of Omaha is that it represents the culmination of a long journey that blends academics with athletics, however imperfectly. The joy comes in lessons learned both on and off the field, in friendships forged through victory and loss, and in the privilege of representing a beloved school in a city far from home.
Once upon a time there was a ballplayer who lived on the Lawn, just as he played to his heart and mind's delight on another stunning expanse of grass a mile from where Thomas Jefferson once marked fertile ground for a new university. In the grand scheme of things, it strikes me that these two very different expanses of grass are part and parcel of the same Edenic dream or longing that is at the heart of our restless souls, at the core of what we sometimes call the human condition.
I can write only what I seem to know in my own soul. From whatever direction I approach it, walking the Lawn at the University of Virginia is an experience that takes my breath away in the very same way that a ballpark transports me to a higher plane of being.
This post is dedicated to the 2011 University of Virginia baseball team, now 2-1 in the losers bracket at Omaha, and to my daughter, who graduated from Virginia this past May.