Jefferson originally designed the Lawn to be the center of the university, and as such it is surrounded by housing for students and faculty. Its most famous building is the Rotunda, which sits at the north end of the site, opposite Old Cabell Hall. Framing the other two sides of the Lawn are ten Pavilions, where faculty reside in the upper two floors and teach on the first, as well as 54 Lawn rooms, where carefully selected undergraduates reside in their final year. Opposite the Pavilions and Lawn rooms are ten gardens, and similar to the Pavilions, each garden is designed in a distinct way; no two gardens are the same. The outermost row of buildings on either side constitute the edge of the Academical Village; these are known as the Range and house graduate students.
The Lawn has remained the symbolic center of the university since 1819, when the university was founded. It annually serves as the site of the university's graduation ceremonies, as well as other ceremonies during the year.
The Lawn is used to refer either to the original grounds designed by Thomas Jefferson for the University of Virginia, or specifically to the grassy field around which the original university buildings are arrayed. The Lawn consists of four rows of colonnades on which alternate student rooms and larger buildings. The inner rank of colonnades, facing the central Lawn proper, contains ten Pavilions (which provided both classrooms and housing for the University's original professors) and 54 student rooms, while the outer rank, facing outward, contain six Hotels (typically service buildings and dining establishments) and another 54 student rooms. At the head of the colonnades, facing south down the Lawn is the Rotunda, a one-half scale copy of the Pantheon in brick with white columns, that originally held the University's library.
There are a total of 206 columns surrounding the Lawn: 16 on The Rotunda, 38 on the Pavilions, 152 on the walkways. The columns are of varying orders according to the formality and usage of the space, with Corinthian columns on the exterior of the Rotunda giving way to Doric, Ionic, and Composite orders inside; Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian on each of the pavilions; and a relatively humble Tuscan colonnade along the Lawn walkways.
Jefferson's design for the Lawn sought to find an alternative to traditional single-building college architecture, such as that he experienced as a student at the College of William and Mary, due to its being "noisy, unhealthy, vulnerable to fires, and affording little privacy." The overall model for the Lawn (the U-shaped plan with a central dome) is similar to, and may have been influenced by, Joseph Jacques Ramée's design for Union College and Benjamin Latrobe's design for a military academy, as well as by the designs of Palladio and by his own house, Monticello. Along the legs of the U, the colonnades provide sheltered, but outdoor, communication between the pavilions and the student rooms, and while everything in the Lawn communicates with the Lawn or the outside world, there is privacy afforded by the walled gardens.
Jefferson separated the buildings of the lawn into 10 units, or Pavilions, to reflect his classification of the branches of learning, and designed the relationship between them and the rest of the Lawn. Each of the ten Pavilions has a unique design, intended to give individual dignity to each branch of study, and the whole was intended to serve as a sort of outdoor classroom for architectural study, as he wrote to William Thornton, architect of the United States Capitol:
What we wish is that these pavilions, as they will show themselves above the dormitories, shall be models of taste and good architecture, and of a variety of appearance, no two alike, so as to serve as specimens for the architectural lecturer. Will you set your imagination to work, and sketch some designs for us, no matter how loosely with the pen, without the trouble of referring to scale or rule, for we want nothing but the outline of the architecture, as the internal must be arranged according to local convenience? A few sketches, such as may not take you a minute, will greatly oblige us.