Lessons from UVA’s “Grounds”

by Michelle Miles

The University of Virginia is known as an architectural wonder, home to Thomas Jefferson’s academical village––the iconic Rotunda presiding over all.

Three decades ago, however, a group of people were barred from entering this school’s landmark spaces. Three decades ago, these people wouldn’t have been welcome on this university’s buses, they wouldn’t have been welcome in the majority of its classrooms, or dorms, or cafeterias––and if they were, they probably would have been asked to use a separate entrance.

As a UVA student who belongs to this group of people, I grow more aware of the legacy of this invisibility every day. It was not until the American with Disabilities Act in 1990, when people with disabilities, like myself, began to matter, legally. Before this act, if we couldn’t climb stairs, navigate curbs, or open doors, well? That was considered our problem, not a problem with the architecture.

* * *

Before classes started during the fall of my second year, I met with Brown College’s director of studies in the Monroe House, since I was enrolled in a class there. He explained that before UVA was UVA, the house was home to America’s fifth president, James Monroe.

I grew up in Charlottesville. As a kid, I went on the annual class field trips to Monticello, playing in the gardens and learning about all of Jefferson’s various inventions. But it was never anything more to me than another old, brick building that I had to be well behaved in. Now, as I’ve grown more aware of the complicated context in which these buildings stand, I realize I’ve never felt quite as moved by a space as I did in that room of the Monroe House. I felt as though by just breathing the air I had somehow become connected to the historical moments that occurred in it, like I had entered some sort of time capsule.

The entrance to the reading room in Monroe House consists of two doors. There’s an outermost screen door which swings out, in the direction of whoever is entering the room. And then there’s a large, wooden door which swings in, toward the interior of the room.

I use a motorized wheelchair, which I control with one hand. This leaves me with one free hand––but two doors with only one free hand presented a bit of a challenge. My professor and I decided to put in a request for UVA to install an automatic door opener. Then, I could manage the screen door myself, or it could be propped open, and the inner door would open automatically at the push of a button. We were told that the opener would be put in around mid-October, no problem.

Until then, I timed my arrival to class each day to match when I knew our supervising professor would be standing outside enjoying the fall air. He would greet me warmly, and then open the doors for me––so this was the solution for the time being.

* * *

As much as I can go on about the challenges I’ve faced at the University—believe me, there are more than just a few doors that are not up to code—accessibility isn’t just a student issue. I met Sarah Cole at an advocacy meeting last semester. She is one of UVA’s Assistant Deans of the Echols Scholars program, as well as a professor of English. Like me, she also uses a motorized wheelchair. She kindly agreed to meet with me in her office in Monroe Hall, which, unlike Monroe House, was built in 1930. As a result, getting an automatic door opener installed was not difficult, since the building had been renovated after the ADA was passed.

While she praised the accommodations UVA has been able to make for her, she also spoke of a time before the automatic door opener in her office was installed, when she relied on fellow members of her department who “pitched in” to help her prop her door open. I, too, have felt fortunate to have experienced many “acts of goodwill” at the University. Whenever there’s a barrier, as long as it’s seen as “fixable,” UVA is beyond willing to address it, even going so far as to express their gratitude to me for pointing it out. After four years here, Professor Cole has found this true as well. But she turned my attention to something I hadn’t thought about.

Professor Cole told me stories of a number of times that she had given talks or been on panels at UVA, and how inaccessible the entrances to the stages had been, as opposed to the audience seating. Cole’s stories added to my growing understanding of space, and of how architecture itself greatly reveals many values that underlie our society. Values that determine who deserves to be represented.

But accessibility is not just about physical access. Even a building that is “accessible” can have a dehumanizing and hostile demeanor towards people with disabilities. Imagine an entrance, just for you, that’s tacked onto the side of a building, or in the back, out of sight and away from everybody else. Or an entrance that’s only possible for you to use with the assistance of a grumbling security guard that you must inconvenience to open it for you. These situations convey to a person that their presence is not expected, wanted, or worthwhile, and sometimes even physically prevents it. While this is inconvenient and perhaps embarrassing, the repetition of these scenarios eventually begin to convey to a person that they are not a welcome member of society.

* * *

Back at Brown College, at James Monroe’s old house, winter approached. The days grew colder and the semester grew busier, and my professor, my makeshift door-opener, disappeared. With no professor to hold a door for me and no electronic door opener yet, I devised a new plan: get there as early as possible so that I could navigate the doors myself, without anyone seeing, in case I struggled.

As I continued coming to class each week, I realized I no longer paid much attention to the history of the space that once had energized me. The awe it had once inspired, had vanished. The charm was hidden behind the anxiety I faced every day when my independence was threatened by those doors.

* * *

At a school like the University of Virginia, maintaining a purity of history and upholding the “Jeffersonian fabric” is a top priority. From the doorknobs on our classrooms, to how we refer to ourselves and our “grounds,” the tangibility of this historical fabric is everywhere. The university even selects its highest achieving and most involved students to live and learn in Jefferson’s original academical village––the Lawn.

To live on the Lawn is one of the University’s most prestigious honors. To my knowledge, a student in a wheelchair has never lived on the Lawn, which is not entirely surprising, considering that none of the 54 Lawn rooms are wheelchair accessible. I’ve personally never been inside of one.

Each tier of the Lawn is accessible by wheelchair from one side, along McCormick Road. However, right now it isn’t possible for a wheelchair user to travel between the tiers without exiting the Lawn, and then re-entering at the designated accessible entrance for that particular tier.

There’s currently an ongoing study evaluating ways in which the Lawn can be made more accessible, which I attended the kick-off meeting for. There, two external landscape architects, a few members of the Office of the Architect, and other interested parties, met to discuss making the three tiers more easily navigable by wheelchair. Though I had often had similar thoughts myself, the language used in this meeting made me aware of just how incompatible the spheres of historical preservation and universal accessibility are.

There was an enormous push to keep accessible routes “hidden,” to “minimize the visual impact” of universally compliant renovations, which were described as “invasive” and a “nightmare” to design. They were seen as impediments to preserving the Lawn’s “integrity.” As these words filled the room, I couldn’t help but apply them not only to the changes in the landscape that would accommodate people with mobility impairments, but the people themselves. I took these comments personally. I began to think of my presence in Monroe’s House just a few weeks prior to this meeting as invasive, a burden to the landscape.

* * *

I first met Brian Hogg at that kick-off meeting. Hogg is the University’s Senior Historic Preservation Planner, a career devoted to history and preserving the structures of the past.

Brian told me that the moment a building comes alive for him is when he sees the community engaging with it and actively using it. This happened recently with the completion of the Rotunda. He told me his philosophy, that, “if there are a few dents, and dings, and nicks here, that’s okay. That means people are using it… it can’t just sit here as the icon of the school, it needs to be part of the daily experience of the school.”

These were my thoughts exactly. So how can the desire for preservation coexist with the University’s desire to have those same spaces be living, breathing parts of everyday student life? Especially for students with specific mobility needs?

* * *

Back at the Monroe House, mid-October arrived, and my professor sat down to talk with me. He told me that the automatic door opener would require replacing the door knob on the door, and since it was an original door knob, they really wanted to avoid disturbing it. Also, the clunky metal system that would have to be implemented would detract from the room’s appearance. He asked if it was okay if we didn’t move forward with putting that mechanism into place. And I could understand that.

The more I thought about it, even hearing the click of my wheelchair’s brake fill the room felt invasive, and reconfiguring the entire door might be more embarrassing than me struggling to open it. Most old buildings like this one were not designed to accommodate wheelchairs, and retroactively imposing an accessible design would disturb the untouched nature of the history.

But do we want to leave history untouched?

In the Monroe House, the way that preservation was prioritized led me to feel that my ability to be present didn’t deserve the kind of disruption it would take to make the spaces around me accessible. My presence felt unnatural, because the building’s original design failed to account for me, and others with disabilities. Centuries of architecture have failed to account for me.

Though Thomas Jefferson was the father of this discriminatory architecture, he was also a pioneer. He was an inventor. When something didn’t function the way he thought it should, he set about trying to change it to make it work better, more effectively, and more universally. He was a proponent of change, and of creative solutions. If we, as students at the University of Virginia, are expected to follow in the path he’s laid before us, wouldn’t it make sense to challenge our surroundings, to reinvent the past that no longer represents who we are?

* * *

Michelle Miles is a fourth-year Global Development Studies and Studio Art double major, with a minor in English Literature. She is involved on grounds as a Miller Art Scholar and as the Editor-in-Chief of V Magazine.

5 thoughts on “Lessons from UVA’s “Grounds””

  1. Fine article, Michelle. Very clear to a Californian like me with no idea of UVA’s history. You awake me to multiple dimensions of your experience and to the organizational issues you generously articulate. I’d just be mad as hell and rallying allies to get those doorknobs off and automatic doors in!! I can see why your mom is so proud of you

  2. Young woman, I am proud to know you.
    This article was written with no malice, no excuses. But with a great deal of feeling. Never having been challenged in this manner, I can only image what you go through on a daily basis. Now my imagery has mental pictures and facts to round it out. Thank you for that.
    Your words form a giant step forward at a time when we are just beginning to understand the need to move forward and change the status quo.
    The world climate is demanding that we change our former believes regarding what we think we should expect from the weather.
    We need people like you to change the buildings that protect us (as well as educate) , so that we are safer and more comfortable.
    Historical buildings are quite wonderful. By protecting them, we are saving the memories of people past. Those people are dead. These buildings are for the living.
    As with most things in life, compromise is the answer.

    Old doorknobs? Really?

  3. Hi,

    Here at ODU in Norfolk, there are a # of issues we had to. Would be nice to have some collaboration. We have a few different issues, but the main focus of participation and respect are still there.

  4. Very helpful article. My daughter is physically disabled and it’s very hard to determine which campuses might be accessible to her without visiting every single one she is considering.

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