Is This the Nation's Oldest Surviving Chemistry Classroom?

Kirstin Fawcett
Dan Addison/UVa University Communications
Dan Addison/UVa University Communications / Dan Addison/UVa University Communications

Conservators recently discovered what might be one of the nation’s oldest chemistry classrooms, providing modern historians with a rare glimpse into how science was taught during the 19th century. 

While renovating the University of Virginia's historic Rotunda, workers found a "chemical hearth" hidden behind a brick wall. Dating back to university founder Thomas Jefferson’s era, the semi-circular niche was once part of an early science lab, and contained vents and heat-controlling sources used to demonstrate scientific experiments.

Jefferson designed the Rotunda himself, intending for the building to be used as a library and a center of learning. Completed shortly after his death in 1826, the Rotunda hosted myriad classes, including chemistry courses on its lower floor. In the mid-1840s, laboratory facilities were moved to the building's southwest wing. The old chemical hearth was sealed up due to disuse—a fortuitous action that allowed it to survive a giant fire that gutted the Rotunda in 1895.

While the university will continue to repair and modernize the domed building as part of an ambitious two-year renovation project, the centuries-old lab will be set aside as a historic site for visitors and students. Administrators also plan to create a classroom space across the hall from the hearth, ensuring that the Rotunda will be used as a place of learning for years to come.  

[h/t The Washington Post]