New Book Uncovers Untold History of Law School's Architecture — And Its Infamous Murals

Library Publishes Story of Clark Hall, Expanding Law Grounds
"The Law School at the University of Virginia: Architectural Expansion in the Realm of Thomas Jefferson" cover

A new book by Philip Mills Herrington is a window into the Law School's architectural past.

March 16, 2017

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.

Philip Mills Herrington
Author Philip Mills Herrington

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.


  • Academical Village

    The Law School's first homes were at Pavilion III (starting in 1826) and a few years later, Pavilion X (pictured right, foreground) on the Lawn. This view of the Academical Village is from the south, circa 1891.

  • Rotunda Annex

    The Law School was next housed at the Rotunda Annex. It was largely invisible from most points on the Lawn. This view is from Carr's Hill, circa 1890.

  • Students and faculty pose for a class shot

    Students and faculty pose for a class shot at the annex, sometime during the 1890s.

  • The Rotunda burned on Oct. 27, 1895

    The Rotunda burned on Oct. 27, 1895, damaging the Law School's annex home and forcing its move. After the Rotunda was renovated, law classes were conducted in the Rotunda's basement.

  • Minor Hall

    The annex was never rebuilt. In 1911, Minor Hall became the new law building, marking a departure from the integrated Lawn setting Thomas Jefferson originally envisioned. The building is pictured prior to the construction of McIntire Amphitheatre.

  • Clark Hall

    In 1932 the Law School moved into Clark Hall, pictured, once it outgrew Minor Hall, after two decades of use.

  • Clark Hall's entryway

    This is what Clark Hall's entryway looked like with only the memorial mural installed, before the massive paintings on either side.

  • Scott Commons

    Today, Scott Commons echoes the design of Clark Hall's entrance.

  • A painting representing the civil war

    This painting represents the civil law, and is a depiction of the trial featured in drawings on Achilles' shield in Homer's "Iliad."

  • Painting depicting Moses

    This painting depicts Moses presenting the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, representing the moral law.

  • Grisaille paintings

    Grisaille paintings were executed entirely in shades of grey to increase dimensional effect. They appeared over doors and depicted other aspects of the history of law.

  • The Mosaic mural

    A close-up view of the Mosaic mural, in color.

  • "Last Tango in Mural Hall"

    The formal "Last Tango in Mural Hall" in May 1974 featured a nine-piece band and muralist Allyn Cox as the Law School's guest of honor.

  • Original plans for North Grounds

    Original plans for North Grounds, which opened in the fall of 1974, included a dining hall and dorms, behind the school.

  • Phase II of the North Grounds law building

    Phase II of the North Grounds law building, 1977-78. Named Brown Hall, the new building had a cantilevered top floor with ribbon windows and projecting window bays.

  • An original plan to join the two buildings (Law and Darden) through a walkway.

    A 1992 architectural plan to join the two buildings consisted of a pergola atop a cryptoporticus.

  • The architects' final rendering of the expanded Law Grounds building

    The architects' final rendering of the expanded Law Grounds building. Construction was finished in 1997.

  • Clay Hall entrance

    The Law School's Clay Hall entrance, today.

  • Clark Hall's exterior

    Clark Hall's exterior today.

  • Clark Hall still houses the murals

    Clark Hall still houses the murals, and is home to the University's Department of Environmental Sciences and the Charles L. Brown Science and Engineering Library.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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