A hidden chemistry lab was unearthed by a worker doing renovations to the iconic Rotunda at the University of Virginia, and school officials say the room is directly linked to the third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, who helped design the building.
The “chemical hearth,” which dates back to the 1820s, is thought to be one of the few remaining in the world. It featured two sources of heat for conducting experiments, and a system for pulling out fumes.
According to the University of Virginia press release, the room, described as “a semi-circular niche in the north end of the Lower East Oval Room,” was preserved because the walls of the hearth were sealed shut in the mid-1800s:
“The University of Virginia’s Rotunda still has its secrets, as conservators are discovering amid the building’s ongoing two-year renovation.
“One of them is a chemical hearth, part of an early science classroom. It had been sealed in one of the lower-floor walls of the Rotunda since the 1850s, and thus was protected from the 1895 fire that destroyed much of the building’s interior.
“Two small fireboxes of the hearth were uncovered in a 1970s renovation, but the hearth itself remained hidden until the current round of renovations. When preparing for the current renovations, workers examined some of the cavities in the walls and found the rest of the chemistry hearth.”
The discovery was made by Matt Schiedt, who is a project manager for the company overseeing the renovations to the rotunda, according to the Charlottesville Newsplex. Schiedt told the publication he wanted to know how thick the walls were. He added:
“I was laying on my back looking up inside this little space. I saw that there was a piece of cut stone which is very unusual to have in this location. You could see that there was a square cut in the stone and that there was a finished space around that with plaster and painted walls.”
Schiedt tells NewsPlex most chemical hearths from the era have been destroyed, making the new discovery “unique,” he says.
According to the university’s press release, Jefferson, who was the schools founder, collaborated with the university’s first professor of natural history, John Emmet, to equip the space.
In a letter from April 1823, Jefferson requested the class be located on the ground floor so water would not have to be pumped to upper floors, according to the release:
“For the Professor of Chemistry, such experiments as require the use of furnaces, cannot be exhibited in his ordinary lecturing room,””Jefferson wrote. “We therefore prepare the rooms under the oval rooms of the ground floor of the Rotunda for furnaces, stoves &c. These rooms are of 1,000 square feet area each.”
The university says the chemical hearth will remain on display once renovations to the rotunda are complete. A barrier will be set up to keep people from entering the alcove, but the inside of the chemical hearth should be visible, according to university officials.