Jeffersonian dorm rooms in Charlottesville

What’s the hardest part about living in a dorm room designed by one America’s founding fathers in the early part of the 19th century? Braving the elements when nature calls in the middle of the night.

“But guys have it easier,” says Anne Allen, a fourth year student at the University of Virginia (UVA), who lives on The Lawn in Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village at the University of Virginia, along with 53 other students and several faculty members, in a dorm room with a sink but no toilet or shower. “They just pee in the sink.”

Allen and her neighbors are the only college students in the country whose dormitory rooms are a tourist attraction. I met her and several other “lawnies” recently and our conversation was interrupted three times by groups of tourists who saw that her door was half open and asked to come inside for a look around. Why the fascination surrounding some 12 * 13 dorm rooms?

The village retains its allure largely because it remains true to the ideals Jefferson had in mind when he designed it in the 1820’s. Each year hundreds of third-year students apply for the honor of securing one of 54 lawn rooms, which feature a fireplace, a rocking chair and a framed list of the room’s inhabitants over the last century but no A/C, and no nearby parking.

Students are given bathrobes and have to brave the elements to get to the showers and toilets. Interspersed among the 54 dorm rooms are nine beautifully appointed “pavilions,” which serve as the homes for deans and professors. According to Allen, there is never a dull moment living on the Lawn. Streaking across the Lawn stark naked is a UVA tradition, and “lawnies” have front row seats for the action.

The construction of the University was Jefferson’s obsession in his twilight years and most of the architectural flourishes, including Doric-style columns, triple-sash walkout windows, and Chinese trellis railings, were his ideas. “Lawnies” are extremely proud of this rich architectural heritage and some go to great lengths to make smart use of their small but unique spaces in this UNESCO World Heritage site.

Charlottesville is one of the best college towns in the country and the grounds at UVA are stunning. And if you walk the Lawn, Anne or one of her neighbors will be glad to show you around. Provided you have some clothes on.