UVA Darden’s New $130 Million Gathering Space

Darden School of Business

The Forum at the Darden School of Business

The second that Clare Atzert stepped. into the soaring lobby of the newest building on the Darden School of Business campus, she was utterly stunned. “We all just stopped and stared in amazement,” says Atzert, who with her Executive MBA class was among the first to stay in the new building for a leadership residency. “It was definitely an aha moment.”

She and her 134 classmates arrived on April 12th and slept in one of 198 guest rooms of the hotel and community gathering place that has replaced the UVA Inn at Darden. Though the five-story Jeffersonian-style building will be used for executive education classes and visiting students from Darden’s Washington, D.C., metro campus, it is also open to the public for $269 a night. Proceeds from the building, completed on time and on budget, will help feed the Darden School Foundation.

“It’s like sleeping on a cloud here and it’s really quiet,” adds Atzert. One of her EMBA classmates agrees. “This is probably one of the two nicest hotels I have ever stayed in,” says Jarred Mack, who with Atzert is graduating from Darden’s EMBA program later this month on May 21.


The sheer scale of the place, where students can come together for food, drink, entertainment, conversation, education, and reflection, is both overwhelming and formidable. The Forum Hotel even eclipses Darden’s iconic Saunders Hall where most of the MBA classes are held and where students and faculty mingle for the morning ritual of First Coffee, served each morning for free after the first class of the day. The square footage for the hotel (195,000 square feet) with the renovation of the adjacent C. Ray Smith Alumni Hall (48,000 sq. ft.) is roughly equal to the 250,000 square feet space for the Darden Grounds in Charlottesville. The total build cost, which includes Smith redo, came to $130 million, funded by borrowing and philanthropy.

Returning to campus for a 20th-year MBA reunion, mbaMission Founder Jeremy Shinewald was most struck by the ambition behind the project. As a Canadian, who earned his MBA at Darden in 2003, he rarely sees anything approaching the size of the building on a university campus outside the U.S. “It is hard for most Americans to understand the scale and scope of their educational institutions,” says Shinewald who spent a night in the facility.

“Most universities around the world are underfunded, desperately pleading with governments for support for mere upkeep, rather than leaning on private donors for ambitious building projects, he adds. “I was fortunate to stay at the hotel this weekend and it is a magnificent exclamation point on a spectacular campus that is virtually unrivaled globally. It is far more than a hotel – it is a massive, first-class gathering place for the entire community of students, professors, alumni, and the entire business community.”


Besides the three new tiered and flat classrooms along with an external amphitheater overlooking a man-made pond for outdoor class sessions, the building features a modern steakhouse, a craft beer pub, a 6,000-square-foot ballroom for up to 600 guests, and, eventually, a six-acre arboretum with 5,500 trees and botanical garden with walking trails. That’s not to mention the 1,917-bottle wine cellar, or the modern fitness center, an executive meeting room, and a library, which has been named the glass-walled Bruner Case Study room, a nod to former Darden Dean Bob Bruner. The latter room will be filled with Bruner’s books and those he recommends on his blog, along with most of the 349 cases and tech notes he has written. His cases have sold more than one million in the last decade.

All told, the massive structure adds more than 22,000 square feet of gathering and classroom space to Darden, including a 4,000-square-foot event lawn. It is a more impressive place to study, to meet and to socialize than anything that Harvard, Stanford or Wharton has for their MBA students. For a school already known for its highly collaborative culture, the new space makes it possible never to leave campus. “It extends our community,” says Yael Grushka-Cockayne, senior associate dean for professional degree programs. “Once our hours are done, we tend to scatter around town. There wasn’t a natural place to get together. Now there is a new way to extend the day outside the classroom.”

Darden School of Business

The Bruner Case Study Room is named after former Darden Dean Bob Bruner


The project was fueled by alumnus Frank Sands Sr. and his wife, Marjorie Sands, who in 2019 made a $20 million gift to jumpstart the hotel’s construction. More than 100 donors eventually followed their lead, with pledges as high as $5 million. As is customary in academic settings, many of the spaces have been or will be funded by philanthropy. In total, there are 231 naming opportunities worth an estimated $32 million in the building, including the nine hotel suites, five of which have been reserved already at $200,000 each. The Aspen Bar in the lobby was funded with a $5 million gift from the Altec/Styslinger Foundation which has given $7 million in support of the building and is the second largest donor. The Styslinger family loves Aspen, Colorado, and named the bar to recognize the area. The wine cellar is dubbed Casa 88, a $500,000 gift from Darden School Foundation Board of Trustees Board Chair and Class of 1988 MBA Martina Hund-Mejean and her husband Bruno Mejean.

The school’s leadership believes the new building, which is being managed by Kimpton Hotels,  will help recruit students and faculty, make stays for corporate recruiters more comfortable, and serve as an additional draw for alumni to return to campus for social and sports events. “We recruit a lot of faculty and this is going to be a game changer,” adds Grushka-Cockayne. “In this building, they will see a lot of potential. Before we would put prospective candidates up in random places around town or in the Darden Inn. You get to know people when you break bread with them and this place invites that kind of interaction and is a world-class experience with small town hospitality.”

The new structure also will invite local citizens onto the campus. “It’s going to bring the community of Charlottesville closer to Darden because it is open to the community,” says Carolyn Miles, Darden school foundation president. “It will be a game-changer for executive education. It’s a way for people to feel a part of the Darden community.”

It’s a far cry from the old and dated 180-room Darden Inn, built in 1983, with its windowless bar in the basement. The Inn was closed in 2020 and demolished in 2021 to make way for the new building. The super sleek and swanky Aspen Bar & Terrace in the hotel’s lobby serves up craft cocktails and boasts a high-pressure artisan coffee & espresso system from Italy selected by Dean Scott Beardsley.  Every day, between 5 and 6 p.m., the hotel offers for free a Belgium beer, a favorite of the late Frank Sands, along with a red and a white wine. On a recent day, the staff was pouring a Trinity Oaks chardonnay and a cabernet sauvignon.

Darden School of Business

The Good Sport pub features the Sands Special: A Belgium beer with pork rinds


Saunter down from the serving station and into The Good Sport, a classic pub with a wood-beamed ceiling offering an array of craft beers, including pints from several local breweries including Devil’s Backbone, Potter’s Craft, and Blue Mountain, along with traditional tavern fare as well as the Frank Sands Special, a Belgium ale with pork rinds, something he often enjoyed at 5 p.m. every day. Across the building from the pub is the Birch & Bloom restaurant.

The menu highlights Virginia farmers, growers, brewers, and vintners such as Michael Shaps Wineworks, Honey Brook Farms, Angry Duck Farm, Caromont Farm, and Polyface Farm. On the current menu are such starters as roasted bone marrow ($19) and a mushroom tartine ($14) with a portfolio of entrees that includes Chesapeake Bay scallops ($38), mountain trout with a grapefruit-vanilla beurre blanc sauce ($34) or a duck breast with l’orangerie sauce ($32). A half-dozen steaks range from a center-cut New York strip ($48) to a 28-ounce porterhouse special ($84).

.Though the exterior of the building pays homage to Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village with its stately white columns, red brick façade, and stone accents, the interior is in every way modern and contemporary. There are plenty of organic textures and geometric shapes, with familiar UVA colors throughout. The centerpiece of the lobby is a custom installation by local artist and University alumna Brielle DuFlon, who uses reclaimed materials in her work. Guestrooms feature robes designed by Darden alumnus Richard Loh, complimentary yoga mats, a minibar with treats from local businesses, including $20 Gearharts Chocolate, $18 La Vache Microcreamery Caramels, and $6 Three Notch’d Brewing Company beers, and bath products from Atelier Bloem. The hotel bedrooms have Juliet balconies and even the flat-screen televisions are in heavy wooden frames.

The opening of The Forum is the second major construction project completed under Dean Beardsley. The UVA Darden DC Metro campus opened in 2018 in the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, along the Potomac River and is the home base for Darden’s Executive MBA, a new part-time MBA, the UVA Darden/McIntire master of science in business analytics and the school’s executive education offerings in D.C.

The school is also planning to build a new graduate student housing facility with 440 beds as part of its master plan. Beardsley has noted that the business schools at Stanford, Harvard, and Dartmouth all have residential housing, a competitive advantage. Currently, most Darden students live at nearby Ivy Gardens and other areas close to the Darden Grounds. The new building will accommodate roughly half the MBA student population.


Darden School of Business

The Aspen Bar & Terrace in the hotel lobby


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