New Book Uncovers Untold History of Law School's Architecture — And Its Infamous Murals
The University of Virginia is releasing a new book that tells the story of the Law School through its buildings, one by one, while making no attempt to put a fig leaf on history.
A reception for the book, "The Law School at the University of Virginia: Architectural Expansion in the Realm of Thomas Jefferson," will be held on March 23, 3-5 p.m., at the University's Rotunda. The book is published by the University of Virginia Press and was spearheaded by the Arthur J. Morris Law Library.
"I was worried it would be tremendously boring," confessed author Philip Mills Herrington in recalling his first discussion on the book with Library Director Taylor Fitchett, who came up with the idea. Herrington, now a James Madison University professor, began work on the project while doing postdoctoral research for the library. He earned his Ph.D. in history at UVA and has a master's in historic preservation.
"At the University of Virginia all the attention goes to the Rotunda and the Academical Village," he said. "That makes a lot of sense. What other campus in the United States was designed by a founding father? I really didn't know a lot about the individual law buildings, but as I researched them, together they told a very compelling story."
One story the book tells is how the Law School's relatively modest former home, Minor Hall, made way for a major upgrade — the more opulent and artistically controversial Clark Memorial Hall. The building would open as the new School of Law in 1932.
The Law School originally had several homes in the Academical Village, the last being the Rotunda's basement, a renovated space after the fire of 1895. The move to Minor Hall marked a departure from the village concept. But after 20 years, Minor Hall had run out of room for its burgeoning law student population.
"They built a great building for 1911," Herrington said.
Dean William Minor Lile, who served from 1904 to 1932 as the Law School's first dean, hoped to build something grander, perhaps in the tradition of Virginia's Ivy League peers.
Lile and University President Edwin A. Alderman saw an opportunity in Lile's former student William A. Clark Jr., an 1899 graduate and wealthy attorney living in Los Angeles. Clark wanted to give back to his school, and to do so in memory of his late wife, Mabel. The initial talks involved an addition to the existing law building.
"Then Lile and Alderman got to thinking about it: They wondered if they could get enough money for an all-new building, rather than an addition," Herrington said. "So they're very sneaky. They gave him two architectural renderings. One was for an addition to Minor Hall and one was for a new building."
Clark went with the new, which ultimately would have enhanced amenities, more space and include a marbled central hall with skylights. The building was to be designed by the University's Architectural Commission.
But the metaphorical blank canvas meant allowing Clark more room to fill in the fine details.
"Clark was kind of an eccentric person, and he liked the decorative arts," Herrington said. "Part of the deal was the Law School would have big murals in it."
Clark chose Allyn Cox, a second-generation muralist in the Beaux-Arts tradition who had created paintings for Clark's personal library. Because the architecture of the new law building was in classical style, Cox utilized scenes with nude and partially clothed figures in the two main murals. The more blatant was the trial scene from Homer’s "Iliad." That scene joined the second mural, Moses presenting the Ten Commandments, to commemorate the origins of law and complement the architects' grand scheme.
"People thought they were going to be historical murals that had a specific connection to Virginia," Herrington said. “Thus when the murals went up in 1934, everyone was a bit surprised by the content.”
Herrington said what followed were some "funny exchanges" between Cox and Alderman's successor, John Lloyd Newcomb, as they each tried to walk the fine line between pleasing their benefactor and the University community.
In one letter, Cox sought to confirm if fig leaves needed to be added before locking in the paintings with a coat of varnish.
"We hear less complaints about the nudes as time goes on," replied Newcomb, giving his blessing. The president, faculty and State Art Commission raised no objections, allowing the subjects in question to remain au naturel.
The faculty may have later regretted the concession. Herrington noted that law professors on at least one occasion passed the Homeric scene, featuring abundant male nudity, to see their faces pasted over the visages.
Herrington noted that the dominance of this scene at the center of the Law School, given the time period, "really gendered the space and said it's a space for men."
Over time, people tended to either love the murals or hate them. (Dean Hardy Cross Dillard referred to them as "those God-awful murals.") By the 1970s, however, the Law School simply sought a building that was more forward-thinking in its style, Herrington said. So when the school moved to North Grounds in the 1970s, "nobody seriously thought about moving the murals over."
But there were still some people who missed them. In 2008, the Law School installed a mini-mural that reproduced the images — at the back of the school and in much smaller form — as a nod to history and nostalgia, courtesy of alumnus John D. Fowler ’55.
These days, Clark Hall still houses the murals, along with the University's Department of Environmental Sciences and the Charles L. Brown Science and Engineering Library. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
Herrington's book is dedicated to the Law School’s alumni. "Their donations built our walls, our character and our reputation," writes editor Loren S. Moulds, the Law School's digital and special collections librarian, in the foreword.
The book is available for pre-order and is slated for an April release.