New Exhibition: Jefferson’s Unbuilt Plan for a University Botanical Garden

Our library neighbors—Alderman Library and Clemons Library—were built into the side of a hill sloping down to a sunken grassy area known as Nameless Field. When not too swampy to traverse, Nameless Field is home to the occasional soccer game or Quidditch match, and the recently added beach volleyball courts are popular with U.Va. students. But apart from the small portion now occupied by Alderman and Clemons Libraries, and a service road, U.Va. has yet to designate the site for permanent development.

Actually, that’s not fully accurate. In April 1826, U.Va.’s first Rector, Thomas Jefferson, selected the site as the location for a university botanical garden. Jefferson then tasked U.Va.’s first professor of natural history, John Patten Emmet, with its construction. But neither funds nor laborers could be spared just then from other U.Va. priorities, such as completing the Rotunda and patching its leaky dome. Following Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826, interest in the botanical garden soon waned. Despite occasional attempts to revive the project—most recently in the early 20th century—it remains unbuilt.

Jefferson had long contemplated a botanical garden for U.Va., and he sought advice from his friend (and frequent Monticello visitor), the Portuguese botanist and diplomat José Francisco Correia da Serra (1750-1823). At Jefferson’s request, probably in July 1820, Correia da Serra drafted a “Plan for a Botanic garden for a public school on the most useful, and less expensive plan.” It was this plan that Jefferson turned to in April 1826 when drafting the specifications for Emmet to follow.

First page of the “Plan for a Botanic garden for a public school,” drafted at Thomas Jefferson’s request by Jose Francisco Correia da Serra ca. 1820. The gift of Joel B. Gardner (Col ’70, Law ’74) (2019-0024)

Jefferson envisioned a four-acre botanical garden—trapezoidal in shape per the site’s awkward boundaries—surrounded by a serpentine brick wall. Inside would be planted approximately 1,500 botanical specimens, carefully selected to serve a range of instructional purposes. Two acres of the sloping hillside above would be turned into a grove planted with specimens of non-native trees.

Conjectural perspective view from within the botanical garden, looking east towards the Rotunda and Anatomical Theater, ca. 1830. Plan by Jenny Jones. From Lily Fox-Bruguiere, “An Uncultivated Legacy: Jefferson’s Botanical Garden at the University of Virginia,” U.Va. Master’s Thesis, 2010 (Masters Arch. Hist. 2010 .F69) (reproduced with permission)

Last October, the original holograph manuscript of Correia da Serra’s plan was generously given by Joel B. Gardner (Col ’70, Law ’74) to the Albert and Shirley small Special Collections Library. In honor of Mr. Gardner’s splendid gift, we have mounted a special exhibition, Jefferson’s Unbuilt Plan for a University Botanical Garden.  On view in our First Floor Gallery through June 29, the exhibition traces through rare books and manuscripts Correia da Serra’s life and botanical activities, his friendship with Jefferson, and Jefferson’s ultimately unsuccessful efforts in his final months to create a botanical garden for U.Va.

52nd U.Va. Student Book Collecting Contest Winners

First prize winner Samuel V. Lemley with selections (top shelf) from his collection of Sicilian printing.

Winners of the 52nd U.Va. Student Book Collecting Contest were announced at the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia’s annual meeting on Friday, March 23, 2018 in the Auditorium of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. The competition, sponsored by the Bibliographical Society, is a tradition dating back to 1948. It offers all U.Va. students a chance to showcase their personal book collections, and to win substantial cash prizes as well. Highlights from the winners’ collections were exhibited in our first floor exhibition gallery.

A closeup of two mid-19th century Sicilian imprints.

First prize was awarded to Samuel V. Lemley, a Ph.D candidate in the Dept.of English, for “Biblioteca Genealogica: Sicilian Printing, 1704-1893.”  Lemley’s collection “offers a representative sample of Sicilian printing and ephemera from the 18th and 19th centuries, a period in which my maternal ancestors lived in the Sicilian provinces of Palermo and Agrigento. The chronological limits, 1704 to 1893, reflect the years for which genealogical records (births, baptisms, and deaths) for the Militello and Marchese families survive: Gabriele Militello, my earliest documented ancestor, was born in Bivona in 1704; my great-grandfather, Pietro Marchese, was born in Pollina in 1893. These are the genetic bookends of my Sicilian family tree and the figurative bookends of this collection.” Lemley will represent U.Va. in this year’s National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest.

Honorable mention was awarded to Philip M. Tan, a fifth-year doctoral student in the Dept. of Biomedical Engineering, for “Singing Through 500 Years of Reformed and Presbyterian Psalters.”  Tan comments: “Unlike most books, meant to be merely read and contemplated, psalters are the gear for an intense athletic activity—singing! In a tradition extending over three millennia, Jews and Christians have united mind, body, and soul to sing these ancient Hebrew compositions, a practice my friends and I continue today. I grew up in small reformed Presbyterian congregations where the 150 psalms were sung from the 1973 RPCNA Book of Psalms for Singing, but we were always discovering new arrangements and adding them to our repertoire. Eventually I began purchasing other psalters, or begging the more obscure ones off of church music directors in the course of travels. Although the collection primarily comprises reformed Presbyterian metrical psalters originating from the Scottish and Dutch traditions, I am eager to expand its scope to encompass the rich heritage of psalm chanting within the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions.”

Philip M. Tan with selections from his collection of psalters.