Brooks Hall at the University of Virginia: Unraveling the Mystery

Authored By: Jeffrey L. Hantman


©1989 Albemarle County Historical Society
originally appeared in The Magazine of Albemarle County
Vol 47, 1989. pp. 62-92.


One of the most imposing, yet controversial, buildings on the grounds of the University of Virginia is the three-story Victorian/Gothic structure known as Brooks Hall. (1) Standing prominently on University Avenue, just east of the Rotunda, the building is a forceful part of the visual landscape which surrounds the original core of Jefferson's Academical Village. It is a forceful part of the historic landscape as well, testifying silently to many interesting themes in late nineteenth-century history which have only barely been explored to date. As George Shackelford wrote in this journal in 1982, the Victorian era at the University of Virginia is an often neglected part of the University's history. (2) In this paper I hope to provide a context in which one Victorian event, the design and construction of Brooks Hall, can be better understood. Brooks Hall opened in 1877 as the "Lewis Brooks Hall of Natural Science," and it was among the most impressive and innovative museums of natural history in the nation in its day.

The importance of this museum and building is underscored when one considers that when Brooks Hall opened in Charlottesville, the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago were all still years from completion. In short, the building and the museum were an important addition to the University, both intellectually and architecturally. Nevertheless, history has not been kind to the building. Although at first warmly received by the University and the community alike, from the early twentieth century on Brooks Hall has been controversial due to its perceived lack of architectural and historical "fit" with the neighboring neo-classical Academical Village. Brooks Hall ceased functioning as a museum by the 1940s, and antagonism toward the building peaked in 1977 when the Board of Visitors passed a resolution calling for its demolition, stating that the location of Brooks Hall next to the Rotunda does detract from the appearance of the Rotunda as a focal point of the University." (3) Objections from the University and the state preservation community prevented the demolition, and the building still stands as the current home of the Anthropology and Art departments.

Most people know the building today simply as the one with the carved animal heads on the walls, or as the one with the names on the walls (the names of prominent natural historians are written in stone on the building's facade). Many older residents and visitors to Charlottesville recall it as the building with the elephant in it," as it did in fact house a reconstructed life-size mammoth in its main gallery for seventy years. Brooks Hall is also the subject of one of the most common bits of fanciful folk history concerning the University that passes from generation to generation among students and visitors to the Grounds. That folk tale suggests that the building's presence is the result of a mix-up with a design that was intended for a northern university (most often Yale), where it is suggested that a neo-classical structure designed for Virginia can be found. There is no truth to this story, but folklore often serves to offer a rationale for that which seems mysterious and otherwise unexplainable. Brooks Hall remains to many just such an enigma.

As an occupant of an office in Brooks Hall, I became particularly intrigued by the mystery of the building. Like many people today, I questioned why this building is here in this seemingly intrusive architectural style. In addition, I became curious about some specific questions, such as who was Lewis Brooks, and what was the context in which he donated money to the University for this building? Finally, I was haunted by the names written in stone around the perimeter of the building, some of which were familiar to all, others now fairly obscure. Researching the answers to these questions has resolved the mystery of Brooks Hall and has provided a context in which the historic value of the building to the University and the region can be understood. The story that the building tells on its facade everyday is anything but hidden, but it is one perhaps that requires translation in the late twentieth century.

Brooks Hall: A Brief History

The context in which Brooks Hall/Brooks Museum was constructed at the University of Virginia is best told from letters, newspaper accounts, and the minutes of the Board of Visitors from 1876 to 1878. On April 14, 1876, a letter was delivered to A. H. H. Stuart, Rector of the University of Virginia, which required a pledge of secrecy from Mr. Stuart. He was instructed not to reveal the source of the letter, but was of course requested to share the contents of the letter with the Board of Visitors. The letter read as follows:

To the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia


Prof. Henry Ward, of this city, will deliver you herewith 45 bonds of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad Company of $1,000.00 each -- $45,000.00.

This sum being deemed by Prof. Ward sufficient to enable you to provide a suitable building for a cabinet of Natural Science and to provide through him, on terms which will be mutually satisfactory, the necessary material for such cabinet, which, in event, and all respects, will be well adapted to the purpose of instruc-tion in this department of education in the University of Virginia. I respectfully tender for your acceptance the bonds above mentioned: the avails of 25 of them to be devoted to the procurement of material for such cabinet, and the remaining 20 to the erection of a suitable building.

I am gentlemen,
Respectfully yours,

Lewis Brooks (4)

On April 18th, the Minutes of the Board of Visitors acknowledged the receipt of an anonymous gift proposal from a "Northern friend of Southern Education," but Brooks' name was not mentioned. We know from a letter housed at the University of Rochester library that on April 19, 1876, Stuart wrote to Brooks.

The University of Virginia may justly be considered as the representative of the highest system of intellectual culture in the southern states. It may therefore be regarded as having a wider range of usefulness than a mere state institution, and upon your liberal donation will thus confer lasting benefits on the youth of all the southern states. Permit me to add that your gift, coming as it does from a citizen of New York, has, in the opinion of the visitors, a peculiar value as evidencing a broad and catholic spirit of patriotism.... We earnestly hope it may prove to be the harbinger of the permanent restoration, during this centennial year, of that fraternal feeling which existed in the earlier years of the republic. (5)

On May 25, 1876, Henry Ward showed preliminary drawings to an executive committee of the Board of Visitors, and in June 1876 Henry was officially commissioned to build and fill the cabinets. The minutes of the Board of Visitors show that by June, Mr. John R. Thomas of Rochester, New York, was hired as the architect for the building and was paid $75.00 for one trip to the site. Furthermore, a location for the building was selected as "that parcel of land between Washington Hall and the Staunton Turnpike." It is interesting to note that at the time the Rotunda was not a consideration in selecting the building's location. (6)

The Jeffersonian Republican followed the construction of the building with great interest. In November 1876 it briefly reported that the construction contract was awarded to a Mr. Carroll of the company of West and Carroll of Baltimore, Maryland, and that Mr. Carroll let the stone work to a Mr. Sisson and the brick work to a Mr. Kirby. According to this report, Mr. Kirby threw up his contract, and thus Mr. Carroll directly supervised the brick work himself. Commenting on the workmanship, the paper wrote:

"all of the work on this building is being conducted by skillful workmen and will be rapidly completed. The heads of the different animals are being carved or finished in a manner that speaks well of the workman, Mr. Mann." (7)

The foundation was started on July 1, 1876, and by June 25, 1877, the building was essentially completed.

On August 10, 1877, Lewis Brooks died at the age of 84. His death was the occasion of the first announcement of his name in association with the building given to the University of Virginia. The New York Times carried the following obituary on August 13, 1877, reprinted from the Rochester Democrat:

Our readers will long remember the curiosity awakened upon the announcement that Brooks had bestowed $120,000.00 on the University of Virginia, at Monticello, had erected new buildings, endowed the University with a large fund and provided it with a museum selected by Prof. Ward in a European tour.... Mr. Brooks was a peculiar man.... He had no family and no relatives in this city, and hence very little regarding his life may be said.

From the day of his death on, the museum building became known as the Lewis Brooks Hall of Natural Science, now Brooks Hall.

On September 28, 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes visited the University, where, according to a newspaper account, he was "shown through the entire grounds and buildings, including the new [Brooks] museum building. The whole party seemed to be very much interested in what they saw at this grand old institution." (8) Although Hayes's itinerary is hard to reconstruct, it would appear that on this visit, President Hayes was taken to an empty but architecturally impressive building. It is worth noting that he was taken there as a special point of his tour of the University.

On December 12, 1877, the Jeffersonian announced that "the mammoth at the Brooks Museum is ready for the reception of the public," having tracked the status of the mammoth since June, when the bones had arrived in Rochester from Germany. On January 2, 1878, the Jeffersonian prominently published the full text of a letter of appreciation that went out from the Board of Visitors to Henry Ward, thanking and praising him for his work in seeing to the execution of the museum. In the following week's paper, January 9, 1878, a full description of the contents of the building was given, proudly proclaiming the museum and its collection of 25,000 specimens, including the mammoth and a dinosaur, to be the best owned by any college in the nation. The collections were noted to be "remarkable" because of their "completeness," and because of the "admirable scientific classification" by which they were arranged. The building itself was called both imposing and striking by the Jeffersonian, (9) and "handsome, substantial and an ornament to the University grounds" by Professor William Fontaine in his opening day remarks. (10) There is no hint whatsoever in the accounts of the late nineteenth century that anyone saw the museum or its archi-tecture as being an affront to the rest of the University. It was clearly an object of pride.

The building itself was impressive by any standard. Reaching a height of 75 feet, the building in its original construction had a high basement, a 25-foot high double story alcove, a 19-foot-high second story above that, with a high attic over all. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine, a highly respected science journal of the day, described the building and its contents in 1878:

The building is of Italian Renaissance style, with modern adaptations.... The basement to top of the first story and entranceway is Richmond granite. The walls are pressed brick with heavy trimmings above the windows and doors of cream colored freestone from Ohio.... Over the main entranceway, a tablet of the finest marble, bearing the inscription, Lewis Brooks Hall of Natural Science has been placed.... A handsome flight of massive granite steps at the east end of the building 1eads up between columns of Scotch granite, with carved capitals to the outer door, which opens into the spacious vestibule. (11)


Entering the main gallery, the article noted:

Here is a full procession of life through the ages, starting with the earliest animals of the Silurian and leading along in the series and down through time to the advent of man, who, while the most modern of all, has lent his remains to the series in a cast of the famous fossil man of Guadaloupe. In the central area are standing on broad pedestals a few colossal forms--the great Siberian mammoth and the glyptodon of South America. (12)

The Jeffersonian ran a full column on January 9, 1878 describing the mammoth and the glyptodon in the most excruciating detail:

The most conspicuous and striking object in the Lewis Brooks Museum is the mammoth.... In its shape it appears to the eye as an ordinary elephant, but the scientific naturalist readily discovers a difference in the shape of its forehead.... Its height is 16.5 feet. It is 49 feet-2 inches around the body. Around the hind leg at its junction with the body it is 21 feet-7 inches. Around the fore leg at its junction with the body it is 18 feet-1 inch. Around the foot where it rests on the floor it is 8 feet-7 inches. It is 4 feet across the eyes. Its trunk is 22 feet-8 inches long. It is covered all over with long coarse hair.

The museum officially opened on June 27, 1878, and by August of the same year the Board of Visitors noted there were so many visitors that a janitor was needed. Three months later the first professor of Natural History, William Fontaine, was hired with a $50,000.00 endowment from W. W. Corcoran, the Washington philanthropist. A second professor, Professor Page, was hired in 1880. (13)

The initial response to the building appears to have been singularly positive. A book published in 1888 entitled Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia said of Brooks Hall, "this building is much admired." (14) A postcard held by the University Archives, from A. L. M. to Miss Buena V. Flynn and dated 1906, shows a picture of Brooks Hall (again suggesting pride in the building) and carries the message:

There is in this building a mastodon, a copy of the original of which is in the British Museum. There is only one other in this country, in Boston, I believe. Many thanks for the cards from your and cousin G - tell her I'll write soon. (15)

The first negative comments concerning Brooks Hall began to appear in the 1890s when the student guide tentatively described it as "perhaps too profusely decorated." John Shelton Patton's 1906 history of the University initiated the standard twentieth-century reaction to Brooks Hall and set a tone that would be dominant for years to come. He described Brooks Hall as "too elaborately ornamented," and "an offensive intruder." He went on to write: "the architect Mr. J. R. Thomas arrived at the University with his drawings made, and all efforts to convince him of their unsuitableness to their surroundings were ineffective." There is no evidence to support that assertion, yet it has become part of the accepted folklore concerning the building. It is from this point on, ca. 1910, that Brooks Hall has been routinely maligned for its lack of fit with Jefferson's Academical Village and its "uncertain" architectural style. By 1913, in Corks & Curls, it is said that the building "jars the aesthetic sense, its prominent position on the verge of the campus adds to the affront of its existence, and its everstood, the cynosure of scorn. A frieze of paleolithic monster heads girds its middle height, the symbol of an anachronism producing a discord." (16)

Brooks Hall remained a museum in limited form until the 1940s, although an increasing amount of space was given over to office space and classrooms at the expense of museum space throughout. It was in 1948/1949 that the Geology Department, needing more office space, had a second floor added and brought the museum era of the building to an end. The Daily Progress of November 30, 1948, ran an obituary of sorts under the headline "Prehistoric Monsters Yield Their Space to Virginia Students:"

Two life size replicas of the gigantic fauna of prehistoric ages were disposed of yesterday by the University of Virginia Brooks Museum to make room for the present generation expanding student body. And, in the opinion of the head of the Corcoran and Rogers School of Geology, there will be no wailing or gnashing of teeth.

It took a corps of Buildings and Grounds workmen most of yesterday to reduce the mammoth and dinosaur to rubble. The job proved what has been suspected, the dinosaur was a plaster of paris cast, and the mammoth was made of plaster and hollow inside. The hair of the mammoth, it was revealed today, was pampas grass from Argentina.

A 1952 newspaper article in the Daily Progress, summarizing local history, wrote of Brooks Hall:

The fact that the building did not follow Jefferson's ideas in architecture can perhaps be explained by the fact that the architect was a Mr. Thomas of Rochester, New York, a "Yankee" who did not feel about Mr. Jefferson and his work as local people did. Since the building and collection were gifts, and Lewis Brooks also selected the architect, no one felt they could quarrel with the type of building. The papers, on the whole, did a very good job of covering up the dismay local people may have felt in having this harmony of Mr. Jefferson's University invaded by a Victorian structure. They spoke of the building as being impressive and imposing, but never as beautiful. (17)

In 1961 the Cavalier Daily ran a story on Brooks Hall calling the building the most maligned structure on grounds, which lay "quietly decaying." (18) In 1970 Brooks Hall was without great ceremony included in the historic district drawn up by the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission as a protected historic area. When the Board of Visitors later voted to condemn the building, the inclusion of Brooks Hall in the historic district helped deter the Visitors from achieving the demolition they sought.

A new respect for the building began to grow in the mid-1970s with the excellently researched and detailed study for adaptive re-use undertaken by Anthony O. James, (19) a graduate student in architectural history, and with an articulate defense offered by Architectural History Professor Richard Wilson. Wilson, in a letter to the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission, and in a brief article in the Daily Progress, described the building with reference to its roots in the French Ecole des Beaux Arts style of the mid-nineteenth century. Wilson wrote:

Brooks is ... a tall, awkward building, ungainly one might say, that shows the new French elegance coming into conflict with the English derived American Victorian. An important building that should be preserved, one can sense here the new striving for elegance that would replace Victorian crudity.... Brooks Hall occupies an important position on the grounds, it provides a visual balance in concert with the chapel for the Rotunda and ranges. To remove it would irreparably damage the fabric and visual interest of that end of the grounds. (20)

The University was dissuaded from tearing the building down, and rear doors were added in 1976 to reduce the fire hazard restrictions on its use. Today, we find it in a decaying state internally, but with its impressive facade still very much in place.

Brooks Hall and its Place Within the University

The construction and history of Brooks Hall show an interesting cyclical pattern of reaction to the building. Today, most people still view the architectural style of Brooks Hall as incongruous and intrusive, and its location as being somewhat arbitrary and poorly articulated with the rest of the Grounds. Some authors have suggested that it is an affront to Thomas Jefferson. In short, it is often said, the building "just doesn't fit." This perspective is only accurate in terms of Brooks Hall's relationship to the restored historic landscape created in the twentieth century. In its original context, the building did fit, and it was not the intruder it has been made out to be since John Shelton Patton's book initiated that perspective. There are a number of key points that support this interpretation.

First, it must be noted that the Rotunda in 1876 looked neither as it does in the present, nor as it did in Jefferson's day. It had a large classroom annex wing attached to its north side that projected the lines of the building much closer to what is now University Avenue. When Brooks Hall was built it was, in fact, in harmony with the existing landscape; the north wall of Brooks Hall was in a direct line with the north edge of the classroom annex. Thus it was only when the Rotunda burned in 1895 and Stanford White eliminated the annex in his restoration of the Rotunda that Brooks Hall became "lost" on the landscape Even then, however, a rampart still defined a northern line that matched with Brooks Hall, maintaining a certain balance until the mid-twentieth century. To suggest that the building was not placed with the existing 1876 landscape in mind is an unfair and inaccurate assessment.

Secondly, with construction of the University Chapel in 1890, Brooks Hall contributed to a pattern of symmetry on the northern end of the University. Spatially, having structures on either side of the Rotunda provided a balance to that area. Noted architectural historian William B. O'Neal has written:

the Brooks Museum and the Chapel are perfect foils for the buildings on the lawn, a very good contrast. Had the two buildings been bad copies of Jeffersonian architecture, the lawn would have been weakened. It was wise for the builders to have done what they did. They were very forward to use the best of their period....(21)

Further, the alignment of the Rotunda, Brooks Hall and the Chapel can be thought of in richly symbolic terms. The placement of the Rotunda library in the center, representing all knowledge, with religion on one side and natural science on the other, is a visual metaphor for the important philosophical dialectic between religion and science ever present in western thought.

A third point relates to the criticism of Brooks Hall that suggests it is an affront to the Jeffersonian spirit and history of the region, if not to the man himself. This, too, seems unfound-ed. Professor Fontaine, in his introductory lecture in 1879, suggested that Lewis Brooks was influenced to support the University of Virginia because he was, in fact, a "devoted admirer" of Mr. Jefferson. (22) More compelling is the observation noted by James, based on a Louisville obituary of Lewis Brooks, that Brooks Hall was built and positioned east-west so as to face directly toward Monticello. (23) According to the obituary, this was done to meet a particular wish of Lewis Brooks. It is true that the front door to Brooks Hall faces directly toward Monticello; Brooks Hall is the only building so positioned on the grounds. Thus, it appears that the intent was to honor and include Jefferson in the building's design, even though that design did not mimic Jefferson's (and the later University's) passion for the Classical.

Finally, a defense must be made of the style itself. It is not classical. But far from being the indecisive and unstructured mix that many claim it to be, the building is very firmly rooted in the nineteenth-century French architectural tradition termed variously Neo-Grec or Second Empire, and all aspects of that style were taught at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. (24) Architectural historian Neil Levine has explained the style as being a reaction against rigid classicism. (25) According to Levine, Neo-Grec was a somewhat looser style, which "replaced the rhetorical form of classical architectural discourse by a more literal and descriptive syntax of form." (26) The classic example of Neo-Grec architecture is Henri Labrouste's Bibliotheque Sainte Genevieve in Paris. In his master's thesis, Kevin McHugh made the observation that the architect of Brooks Hall, J. R. Thomas, must have been very influenced by Labrouste's design of the Bibliotheque Sainte Genevieve. On the facade of that building are twenty-seven panels inscribed with the names of 810 authors whose books are contained in the library. In addition, the date of construction is set in stone in the keystone of the arched en-trance, as it is at Brooks Hall.

Architectural historians say of the Neo-Greco style that it is a readable architecture. Levine read the facade of the Bibliotheque Sainte Genevieve and discerned a structure to the names on the wall. The first name was Moses, and the last a chemist who died in 1848. "The inscriptions thereby circumscribe the library's three visible faces spanning the entire history of the world from monotheism to scientism." The 409th name, right in the middle, is the Byzantine philosopher Psellus, whose works and name suggested the "meeting of east and west," and located it temporally at the millennium. Levine says the meaning of the walls are open to all those who can read--an appropriate design for a library. (27)

The Names on the Wall

In the style of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and like the Bibliotheque Sainte Genevieve in Paris, Brooks Hall has names written on its facade. They are all the last names of prominent natural historians. These names tell at least two stories. The first is a "history of natural history." The second is the story of nineteenth-century tensions in the study of natural history, and of tensions between Europe and America. Before explaining how these stories are told on the walls of Brooks Hall, it is worthwhile noting simply who each of the individuals listed on the facade is. While there is no surviving documentation of the exact identity of the "names on the wall" (for some of the names there is room for debate), I am confident that the information presented in Table 1 is correct. While volumes can and have been written on each of the following, the table provides only the most basic identification of the scholars. The source for the list is the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, volumes 1-16 (1980).


Table 1: Scholars Whose Names Appear on the Facade of Brooks Hall


EAST WALL (front):

  • Linnaeus, Karl (1707-1778): Swedish botanist and natural historian; developed system for classifying plants and animals.
  • Aristotle (384 B.C.-322 B.C.): Greek philosopher noted for studies in logic and metaphysics.
  • Cuvier, George (1769-1832): French naturalist; director of Museum d'Historie Naturelle in Paris; proponent of scientific theory of catastrophism.



  • Huxley, Thomas (1825-1895): British zoologist and natural historian; strong defender of Darwin's theory of evolution.
  • St. Hilaire, Etienne Geoffrey (1772-1844): French natural historian and evolutionist; emphasized embryonic change.
  • Darwin, Charles (1809-1882): British author of Origin of Species; founder of modern evolutionary theory of natural selection.
  • Owen, Richard (1804-1892): British anatomist and paleontologist; rejected natural selection model of Darwin and Huxley.
  • DeCandolle, Augustine Pyramus de (1778-1851): French botanist and agronomist; studied plant domestication.
  • Lyell, Charles (1797-1875): British natural historian and "father" of science and geology; developed uniformitarian principle of geologic chance.



  • Wemer, Abraham Gotlob (1749-1817): German geologist; developed classification system for rocks and minerals.
  • Pliny (23-79): Roman natural historian and writer; author of 37-volume Natural History.
  • Humboldt, Alexander von (1769-1859): German natural historian, explorer and writer; interested in North American natural history.



  • Rogers, Wlliam Barton (1804-1882): prominent American geologist; taught at the University of Virginia and studied local geology.
  • Dana, James (1813-1895): noted American geologist; taught at Yale. Agassiz, Louis (1807-1873): Swiss-born natural historian, zoologist and geologist; directed museum and taught at Harvard.
  • Audubon, John (1785-1851): noted American ornithologist and artist. Gray, Asa (1810-1888): Harvard botanist; considered to be strongest defender of Darwinian evolution in the United States.
  • Hall, James (1811-1898): New York State paleontologist; considered to be America's foremost paleontologist.


There is a structure to the order of the names that appear on the wall. The first element of that structure relates to the names on the east and west wall. Each of those named were natural historians who, in a real sense, laid the foundation for the study of natural history (and evolution) prior to the middle and late nineteenth century. Aristotle and Pliny form a straight line from east to west, symbolically centering and anchoring the building in the classical philosophical tradition. Linnaeus and Humboldt form a southeast to northwest cross-anchor line relating to the concern for order and classification (Linnaeus classified all living things and Humboldt classified rocks and minerals). The other cross-anchor is formed by a line connecting Cuvier and Humboldt, two natural historians concerned explicitly with how the present order of the earth was arrived at in the context of a changing world. The east and west walls then summarize, via the names presented, the major themes of order and change that frame the study of natural history from its dassical origins to the nineteenth century.

The second story told on the walls of Brooks Hall relates to the contemporary study of natural history in the nineteenth century, and to the tensions between European and American natural science and museums. In short, the building reflects the cultural and geographic opposition between Europe and America. The names are organized by continent or origin. The south wall names are all European scholars of importance at the time of the construction of Brooks Hall. The names on the north wall represent American scholars of importance at the same time. Evolutionist and anti-evolutionist appear randomly; geologist, botanist, and zoologist appear without order; Charles Darwin is accorded no special recognition in this formulation. The primary structure I discern in the placement of the names is the opposition between old world and new.

The meaning of this structure is not insignificant. Tensions between old world and new in the emergent arenas of natural history museums were quite high when Brooks Hall was built. In an article reviewing American museums of natural history published in Science in 1884, a European scholar concluded with the following nationalist sentiment:

[American museums] are almost all supported by societies or schools. There is therefore no lack of interest in scientific studies; nor is money wanting. But still the number of those is very small, who, out of pure enthusiasm for science, prefer the modest existence of a learned man to a materially better- paying occupation. In this respect Europe is still far ahead. Circumstances, however, will change, together with the great development of North America.... We must therefore keep our eyes open, if we do not wish the experience of having our young cousins across the ocean outstrip us in a field the thorough culture of which, so far, has been the glory of old Europe. (28)

A second line of evidence with regard to American-European tension in the study of natural history is also found in the names on the wall, particularly in the conspicuous absence of one name from Brooks Hall. The original plans for Brooks Hall are on file in the University of Virginia Archives. A point of interest that has struck all those who have examined the original drawings concerns some changes between the plans and final building. Primary among these is the disappearance of the noted French natural historian Comte de Buffon from the building wall despite his presence on the original architect's drawings.

Why was Buffon's name eliminated from the wall at the last minute? Some have suggested the need to make room for William Rogers, the University of Virginia professor and geologist who also contributed a substantial amount of his own money to see the building completed when its costs ran high. This contingency may well be true, but as an explanation it begs the question of why Buffon was the one eliminated. I believe the answer lies in Buffon's well-known antipathy to things American. Buffon was even known to challenge and belittle the size and variety of America's fauna in relation to Europe's. Americans involved in natural history studies and museums, such as Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia, were agitated by Buffon's comments to a very real degree and sought to prove him wrong with their own displays of native American fauna. (29) However strange that sounds today, such were the real competitive tensions between American and European natural historians in the nineteenth century. Buffon's reputation was known to someone at the University when Brooks Hall was built, and it was on that count that I suggest he was eliminated.

The Rochester Connection: Why Brooks Hall is at the University of Virginia

Having discussed the building and its design in some detail, the question remains as to why Brooks Hall was built at the University of Virginia. How did it come to pass that Charlottesville and the University of Virginia became home to the "world's best cabinets of natural history housed in the modern Brooks Museum" (30) as early as 1877?

The answer, surprisingly, is found in the Third Ward of Rochester, New York, on Fitzhugh Street, where to this day stands two houses designed by none other than John R. Thomas, architect of Brooks Hall. (31)

In the mid-nineteenth century, Rochester was in the midst of a scientific renaissance, and the Third Ward with Fitzhugh Street as its main artery, was a center of that action; "Here on quiet oak-lined streets, lived the city's merchants, bankers, lawyers, judges, and councilmen, fashioning as distinct a society as that of the Back Bay or Murray Hill." (32) The magnet for the intellectual businessmen of the day was one particular resident of Fitzhugh Street, a lawyer who had made a substantial amount of money on railroad investments and mining, and who by 1851 had converted his pioneering study of the American Indians of New York into a landmark publication entitled The League of the Iroquois.

This lawyer was Lewis Henry Morgan, today regarded as the Father of American Anthropology, and the founder of the Anthropology section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was in Rochester, New York, between 1851 and 1877 that Morgan wrote The League of the Iroquois, called by John Wesley Powell the first scientific account of an Indian tribe given to the world; Systems of Consanguinity, the first analytical treatment of kinship; and his classic evolutionary thesis, Ancient Society. Morgan's international reputation grew rapidly between 1851 and the 1870s, but he always centered his attentions, and tried out his ideas, in the context of a local Rochester gentleman's club called the Pundit Club. This dub, which Morgan had organized in his home on Fitzhugh Street, was "devoted to scholarly pursuits." The goal of its membership was "to find man's place in a world full of change and new discoveries." (33)

The club followed closely the teachings of geologist Charles Lyell and Harvard's famous natural historian Louis Agassiz, who came to Rochester in 1854 to speak before the group. Morgan was the Pundit Club's link to the broader American scientific community, and the ideas he learned from the scholars he befriended at the early meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science became the substance of the discussions and debates carried on in the Pundit Club's meetings in Morgan's home. In particular, Morgan's biographer, Charles Resek, identified the following among a group of eight who had the greatest influence on Morgan: James Hall, Louis Agassiz, Asa Gray, and James Dana. All four of these are among the six names found on the north wall (American) of Brooks Hall--the other two are Audubon and Rogers.


It is now clear that sitting in Morgan's home on many occasions, probably members of the Pundit Club and friends of Lewis Henry Morgan, were none other than Lewis Brooks and Henry Ward. Letters in the Smithsonian Archive (to be described later) confirm these personal ties. Beyond this, however, it is well-documented that on Morgan's ethnographic journeys to the western United States he collected rock specimens for Henry Ward, who became the supplier of geologic specimens for the Brooks Museum. There is little doubt then, that the philanthropic and educational approach to natural history that manifested itself in the construction of Brooks Hall at the University of Virginia was developed in the context of Lewis Henry Morgan's friendship with and influence on Lewis Brooks and Henry Ward in the Pundit Club of Rochester, New York.

Who was Lewis Brooks? At this point we know precious little about the man. He was born in 1794 and died in 1877, just prior to the opening of the museum building that was to bear his name. His death was an event significant enough to gain him an obituary in The New York Times and a followup article reprinted from the Rochester Democrat, which tells us only that he was a peculiar man who was not married, who had no heirs, and who made his fortune as a textile manufacturer.

Who was Henry Ward? Of Henry Ward we know a great deal more. A major figure in the history of American science, Ward grew up in Rochester and became a member of the Pundit Club. Following Louis Agassiz's visit to Rochester in 1854, Ward was taken back to Harvard by the famous professor of natural history and became his prize pupil. (34) Ward would eventually become known as the "museum builder," amassing collections for sale based on at least seven worldwide tours. In 1862 he founded Ward's Natural Science Establishment, which primarily supplied casts and fossils to academic institutions and museums throughout the world.

Ward gained his greatest fame when he won the blue ribbon for a massive exhibition at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which department store owner Marshall Field later bought and donated to the City of Chicago as the Chicago Museum of Natural History, or the Field Museum. Ward befriended Buffalo Bill Cody and preserved buffalo heads from his hunting expeditions. He also worked with P. T. Barnum. When Barnum's famous elephant, Jumbo, was killed in a train wreck in Ontario, Canada, Ward and his staff went to the site of the accident to begin preparations for stuffing and mounting the pachyderm. (35) His company survives him and dominates the geological and biological scientific equipment field to this day.


A scholar of great repute, Henry Ward was equally committed to his business ventures in the museum world. He received his training from Agassiz in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, but he was also an entrepreneur in every sense of the word. He recognized that there was a potential fortune to be made in supplying museums with the artifacts and replicas of natural history. As an entrepreneur, he took the risk of accumulating his collections from throughout the world first, and then returning to the United States to sell them to interested museums.

Of course, this business was dependent upon the construction of museums, which in turn was dependent upon the generosity of charitable and philanthropic individuals who were committed to the advancement of natural history education. In the economic depression of the 1870s, such a business venture was possible, but difficult. Anyone attempting to create and maintain such a business had to be a "broker" of unique skill and great perseverance, one who could convince an organization it needed new collections, or perhaps even an entire museum, and at the same time find the individuals who would provide funding for such purchases. Henry Ward was just such a successful broker--but he almost failed. It was his ability to "promote" Brooks Hall, I believe, that saved him and his business concern.

The archives at the Smithsonian Institution contain a series of letters written by Henry Ward to the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian, Spencer Baird. These letters tell us a great deal about Henry Ward that is not included in the standard historical summaries of the man's career. A sequence of these letters, plus one other located in the University of Rochester Archives, leads us directly to Brooks Hall.

What these letters reveal is that in 1874, despite his unique mastery both of scientific knowledge and entrepreneurial skill, and despite the success that would ultimately come to him, Henry Ward and his museum supply company were in dire straits. Ward's first contract had been to provide the University of Rochester with some cabinets of natural history. He lost a lot of money on that contract, but it established his reputation, particularly with Lewis Henry Morgan, who then recommended him to other schools and museums. The arrangement with the University of Rochester also concretely linked Henry Ward to Lewis Brooks, who donated some of the money paid to Ward for that collection. Ward's next project was for Vassar College, where he created a cabinet of natural history, but again he lost thousands of dollars in the process. Finally, Allegheny College contracted with him for $15,000.00 worth of material, which Ward delivered only to discover that the University could not meet its debt. (36)

In late 1874, Ward wrote to Assistant Secretary Baird at the Smithsonian seeking work from that Institution. There is a clear measure of desperation in this letter:

If you might send me any skeletons for preparation or any taxidermy the same will be appreciated by one who has felt the brunt of hard times more than would one in almost any other profession. Still I have managed to hold together and to give steady occupation in my establishment to nine employees.... I dread to lose them and thus I look about for work. (37)

It would appear that the Smithsonian could not provide sufficient work for Ward, because two months later he again wrote to Baird:

...on Tuesday my house was sold at auction for $9,000 and yesterday all my collections, buildings, fixtures, and household property followed for $5,000.... The truth is that it is not an easy matter to manage this natural history business that it shall be both genuine and paying. I shall try again, however, and shall invoke the good feelings of all old clients to help me in getting many new ones. (38)

At the same time, Ward was also writing to Lewis Brooks. In these letters he also complained of his financial problems and promoted new museum opportunities. Mr. Brooks, this final blow [the Allegheny College disaster] has fixed my fate as a cabinet maker instead of a teacher and investigator." Ward continued by seeking funds from Brooks for a museum to be built in Rochester. (39) Ward's intent was quite obvious when he wrote to convince Brooks of the need for a natural history museum in Rochester, which he called his long cherished plan:"

But, Mr. Brooks, what hope can I have? How many men are there in Rochester who will consider such a thing - to give S10,000.00 to zoological sciences? But you know sir how few will understand the bearing of the natural sciences on the practical questions of life. There is no one who I can think of in this city who will start this subscription in this way if you will not. For you understand and appreciate the department of natural sciences better than does anyone in our city. (40)

But Ward was to get no support from Brooks for this particular plan.

Meanwhile, Ward had also written to Baird at the Smithsonian about none other than Lewis Brooks. His purpose was dearly to encourage the Smithsonian to cultivate Brooks as a donor, the result of which, of course, would be the generation of business for Ward's museum supply business. This communication also confirms the friendship between Ward, Brooks and Lewis Henry Morgan. Ward wrote to Baird:

One of our city elders is a gentleman of about 70 years by the name of Lewis Brooks. Mr. Brooks is in no active business except to look after real estate, bank stocks, and the like of which he is credited to be worth over a million dollars. He is unmarried with no near relatives. He gives to very few objects, but he is not miserly or penurious. When there - two years ago - was a subscription to my geological cabinet, he signed and paid $5,000.00 toward it. The gift surprised many but since I have known him well I am not surprised at all. Mr. Brooks is without a singular exception the most extensive and assiduous reader of science - cultural and biological -which we have in Rochester. He is a close reader and admirer of Huxley, Spencer, Tyndall, and Darwin and others of that school.

Mr. Brooks has within the last two months asked me concerning the Smithsonian Institution how it is managed, what it is accomplishing, etc.

I hold sincerely the idea that Mr. Brooks would only require a proper presentation of the subject to him to make quite a donation to the fund of your institution. I have judged this from my knowledge of the man, and from the questions which he puts to me about you there. Whether anything will ever come of this may be exceedingly doubtful, but with the views I have of this case it seems to me a great pity that Mr. Brooks cannot meet with someone who - familiar with the subject - would adequately present the Smithsonian to his acquaintance. I will do what I can but I am not strong in such work.

By the way, Mr. Morgan knows Mr. Brooks quite well (though he tells me of late there is a coolness between them), and you might speak to him sometime on this subject if you choose and even mention my name if necessary. But of course there is an institution in this city whose members must not know that I really think that the Smithsonian is doing more for science than they are, and that therefore it should be preferred.

If you come through Rochester let me surely introduce you to Mr. Brooks. (41)

Apparently, the Smithsonian responded with a gift of books to be given to Brooks, but otherwise encouraged Ward to speak to Brooks concerning donations himself. Then, on November 3, 1874, Ward wrote to Baird:

Now I hasten to reply as to the Brooks question. The books came, Morgan's and the reports, for which my best thanks. I shall not at present present the reports as your letter suggested.... I must not go so openly to my mark. If I can induce a first gift from Mr. Brooks to the Smithsonian then the books would come naturally and would tell the story which I wish them to. (42)

Ward further suggested, in great detail, an approach for Baird to take when he finally did come to Rochester to meet with Brooks, but Baird never came.

On December 3, 1874, Ward again wrote to Baird.

Your letter of November 14 came in due time. I read it to Mr. Morgan (without any explanation) and was pleased to hear him say as soon as I closed 'Ward, you must show that letter to Lewis Brooks.' I went to do it and found he was confined to his room for a few days. Then I went to Michigan on business. After this week I hope to be settled in my personal matters and I will undertake the Brooks question. (43)

A few days later, Ward wrote again to Baird, seemingly in frustration: "... I presume gave you an idea of how matters stand in the Brooks question. I consider him an excellent candidate for a large sum for the Smithsonian by continuous, careful, following up. I greatly hope that I can get him to go to Washington with me next summer." (44)

Ward never got Brooks to Washington, Baird never visited Rochester, and Brooks never gave any money to the Smithsonian. On August 17, 1877, Henry Ward wrote one more letter to Spencer Baird in relation to Lewis Brooks:

My good friend Mr. Lewis Brooks is gone. He died on the evening of the 10th, aged 84 years. His death was quite sudden, he having been well and around his room up to the evening before.

I was in New York at the time but came home to attend his funeral on the 11th. All are much surprised that he left no will, or at least none has been found. This is very much unlike him - he was the essence of method and exactitude.

The Virginia University gift - $66,150.00 - has all been paid except $2,500.00 still due to me which I believe is quite safe.

The Washington and Lee University he had given (alike through me) $25,000.00.

To both these institutions as well as to others in the South he was planning additional largesse in the way of improving their appointments for Natural Science purposes.

Unfortunately Mr. Swift of this city - the astronomer - will not now get the powerful telescope which Mr. Brooks has agreed to and all was settled but the payment.

Little is known here of Mr. Brooks' early life. He was born near New Milford, Connecticut in 1793 and came to western New York in 1819. I send you some extracts from Rochester papers which tell the rest. (45)

The difference in the tone of Henry Ward's letters between 1874 and 1877 is dramatic--by 1877 Ward and his company were secure. That difference is explained by yet another letter, from Henry Ward to Lewis Brooks, written from Charlottesville, Virginia, in November 1875:

I have spent many hours at the University of Virginia which is a noble institution in every sense of its history. They [need] here a cabinet of Geology and Zoology.... It is in keeping with their other appointments and they will build a hall. They were going to write me about one but certain state appropriations failed them. They seem much pleased over what was done at Lexington as if it had been for themselves. (46)

Five months after receiving this letter from Ward, Lewis Brooks made his substantial gift of a museum to the University of Virginia as described in the secret letter of April 14, 1876, to Rector Stuart. Henry Ward had finally made the connection he desperately needed. After failing to link the Smithsonian with Lewis Brooks, and after failing to convince Brooks of the need to fund a museum in Rochester, he struck a responsive chord with his description of the situation at the University of Virginia. The terms of Lewis Brooks' gift to the University brought three major effects. The University, of course, received a fine museum and building for the study of natural history; Lewis Brooks found an appropriate outlet for his carefully thought out philanthropic concerns; and Henry Ward and the Ward's Natural History Establishment received a financial reprieve that allowed them to survive.



This then is the context in which Lewis Brooks made his now controversial gift to the University of Virginia. Brooks was a northern gentleman who became wealthy in the textile industry. He was, in the era of Reconstruction following the Civil War, someone who sought to help restore the wartorn South by bestowing upon it, through well-intended philanthropy, "Northern" intellectual traditions and a "Northern" model for society. This model saw a fundamental order to nature, with everything in a proper place, but it also recognized and encouraged change as natural as well. It was also a model that saw progress, both social and biological, evolving through competition, with the "fittest" surviving and prospering. As the members of the Rochester Pundit Club believed, the challenge for the industrial era was to master change by understanding how it "works."

To many businessmen and intellectuals in the nineteenth century, natural history taught that lesson as clearly and dramatically as it could be told, and a natural history museum displayed that lesson in bold strokes. Such was, I believe, the intent of Mr. Brooks' gift to the University of Virginia. Not coincidentally, Brooks simultaneously bestowed a more direct financial gift upon his friend, Henry Ward. In this manner, Brooks Hall came to the University of Virginia. Its continuing presence is dramatic testimony to the unusual Victorian era within the rich and diverse history at the University, and to the fascinating intellectual history of that time.



I would like to extend my appreciation to the following individuals: John Durgavich and Marion Ross, who first made me aware of the references to Lewis Brooks in the Smithsonian Archives; Ellen Contini-Morava, Cathy Cutbill and Fred Damon for their insights into the structure of the "names on the wall"; Robert Carter for his assistance at the Virginia Division of Historic Landmarks; Noel Boaz for sharing a copy of McHugh's master's thesis; and Richard Lindemann for his invitation to publish this article and his patience in receiving it. Finally, I am particularly indebted to Susan McKinnon, Richard Handler and Rachel Most for their encouragement and help throughout my work on the history of Brooks Hall.

There is much more to be written about Brooks Hall, and I would be interested in hearing from anyone with personal recollections or photographs of the museum prior to 1940. Please contact me by writing to the Department of Anthropology, Brooks Hall #303, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, 22904.



  • (1) In preparing this paper I benefited greatly from research done previously by two students in the Architectural History program at the University of Virginia: Kevin McHugh, "Form and Fitness: John Rochester Thomas and Brooks Museum at the University of Virginia" (MA,Arch.Hist., University of Virginia, 1987); and Anthony O. James, "Brooks Museum at the University of Virginia: An Architectural, Historical, and Adaptive Use Study" (unpublished seminar paper [1975], Historic Sites File, Virginia Division of Historic Landmarks).
  • (2) George Shackelford, "Two Victorian Rectors of the University Virginia, Magazine of Albemarle County History, 40 (1982), pp. 45-62.
  • (3) Pres. F. L. Hereford, Jr., to Junius Fishburne, Jr., Exec. Dir., Virgiliia Historic Landmarks Commission, 1977 March 8, Brooks Hall File, Virginia Division of Historic Landmarks. 
  • (4) William M. Fontaine, Introductory Lecture with a Short Account of the History of the Lewis Brooks Museum of Natural History (Charlottesville, 1879).
  • (5) James, "Brooks Museum," p. 61.
  • (6) Minutes of the Board of Visitors, 1876, pp. 1087-1099, University of Virginia Archives, University of Virginia Library [cited hereafter as UVA Archives].
  • (7) Vera Via, "Looking Back," Daily Progress, March 10, 1952.
  • (8) The Jeffersonian, 1877 September 26.
  • (9) ibid., 1878 January 9.
  • (10) Fontaine, Introductory Lecture.
  • (11) Frank Leslie, "The Lewis Brooks Museum of Natural Science," Illustrated Magazine [newsclipping], "Brooks Hall," Prints File, UVA Archive.
  • (12) ibid.
  • (13) Minutes of the Board of Visitors, 1878, p. 1187; 1881, p. 1274. 
  • (14) University of Virginia Alumni News, 52 (1963/64), pp. 2-5.
  • (15) "Brooks Hall," Prints File, UVA Archives.
  • (16) James, "Brooks Museum," Ch. I.
  • (17) Via, "Looking Back."
  • (18) Stephen Andrews, "Myth Surrounds Brooks Museum," Cavalier Daily, 1961 February 28.
  • (19) James, "Brooks Museum."
  • (20) Wilson to Calder Loth, 1977 May 23, "Brooks Hall File," Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission.
  • (21) University of Virginia Alumni News, 52 (1964), pp. 2-5.
  • (22) Fontaine, "Introductory Lecture."
  • (23) James, "Brooks Museum."
  • (24) McHugh, "Form and Fitness."
  • (25) Neil Levine, "The Romantic Idea of Architectural Legibility Henri Labrouste and the Neo-Grec," in The Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, ed. A. Drexler (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1977), pp. 325-416.
  • (26) Ibid., p. 332.
  • (27) Ibid., p. 351.
  • (28) K.A. Zittel, "Museums of Natural History in the United States, Science, 3 (1884), pp. 191-196.
  • (29) Helmut de Terra, Humboldt: the Life and Times of Alexander von Humboldt, 1769-1859 (New York: Octagon, 1979). 
  • (30) Fontaine, Introductory Lecture.
  • (31) McHugh, "Form and Fitness."
  • (32) Carl Resek, Lewis Henry Morgan: American Scholar (Chicago: Univ. Of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 46.
  • (33) ibid., Pp. 61-63.
  • (34) Ibid., p. 61.
  • (35) Ward's Geological Supply Catalog (Rochester, New York, 1987).
  • (36) James, "Brooks Museum," ch. 1.
  • (37) Ward to Baird, 1874 October 18, Record Unit 52, Smithsonian Archives.
  • (38) Ward to Baird, 1874 December 3, ibid.
  • (39) James, "Brooks Museum," p. 61.
  • (40) ibid.
  • (41) Ward to Baird, 1874 October 18, Record Unit 52, Smithsonian Archives.
  • (42) Ward to Baird, 1874 December 3, ibid.
  • (43) Ward to Baird, 1874 December 8, ibid.
  • (44) Ward to Baird, 1874 December 11,ibid.
  • (45) Ward to Baird, 1877 August 17, ibid.
  • (46) James, "Brooks Museum." pp. 59f.