What we can learn about the discovery of Thomas Jefferson’s chemistry lab at the University of Virginia

We’re still probing the depths of Thomas Jefferson’s accomplishments.

Over the weekend, the University of Virginia announced that Jefferson's chemistry lab was discovered during renovations of the school’s famous Rotunda.

The United States’ third president, who founded the Charlottesville university, helped to design the 1820s “chemical hearth,” part of an early chemistry classroom — underscoring his appreciation for the natural sciences.

“It’s one of only a few — if not the only one — left in the world of this period that has not been fiddled with or changed over time,” Jody Lahendro, the university’s historic preservation architect, said in an interview with Yahoo News.

The chemistry lab survived because it was bricked up and forgotten about in the 1840s, when experiments were moved to another part of the building. This protected the room from a devastating fire in 1895 and the gutting of the building in 1976 (when the university wished to restore “Jefferson’s interior”), according to Lahendro.

Matt Scheidt, a project manager for John G. Waite Associates, an architecture firm overseeing the two-year renovation of the Rotunda, found the room while looking for evidence that masons may have thickened the walls of the rotunda following the 19th-century fire.

He looked inside one of two small, square firepits that had been exposed in the lower east oval room during the 1970s renovation.

“Matt actually had his head in and was looking up and realized there was a cavity above what we were seeing,” Clay S. Palazzo, a principal at the firm, told Yahoo News. “All of a sudden we had a lot of curiosity about what we were seeing. We pretty quickly determined that there was more behind that wall than anybody really knew about.”

John Emmet became the school’s first professor of natural history in April 1825. He quickly complained that his room was too tiny to dissipate heat and petitioned for another lab.

Two months later, Jefferson agreed to give him two rooms in the Rotunda’s basement — one for lectures and one for experiments.

According to Lahendro, Emmet would tell Jefferson, who designed the Rotunda to begin with, what he wanted for his chemistry lab; Jefferson would then work with Arthur Brockenbrough, the construction superintendent onsite, to make the changes.

The fireboxes, through which Scheidt discovered the room, were once used to burn wood and coal. This supplied heat for student experiments at five workstations on stone countertops.

“Jefferson brought John Emmet to the university to teach, among other things, chemistry,” Scheidt told Yahoo News. “We have correspondence between the two of them about what Emmet’s needs were going to be. We know that Jefferson was very involved.”

In one such letter, Jefferson explained that a chemistry professor needs furnaces, which cannot be used in regular lecture halls, for lessons.

“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,” he wrote.

John Waite, lead architect at John G. Waite Associates, said extensive archival research has been completed on the lab since it was uncovered in February 2013. The Jefferson lab appears to be based on British models from that era.

“All of this was based on English precedent. Emmet’s father was from Ireland. He emigrated to the United States, taught at Columbia, but was in touch with people from England,” Waite told Yahoo News.

Historians of science at the British Museum, the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford know of no comparable laboratory in England, because theirs were research-oriented and renovated every few years, Waite said.

“This is a major find,” he said. “Nothing of the same type of laboratory from that period survives as far as they know anywhere in England or throughout the rest of Europe for that matter. … We’re just very lucky that it wasn’t taken out unknowingly during the previous work campaigns.”

The school plans to make the chemistry hearth a part of the Rotunda’s permanent display when renovations are finished next spring.