Tourist Attractions: The Lee Chapel, A National Historic Landmark – Must Visit In Virginia
The Lee Chapel, now known as University Chapel, located in Lexington Virginia, is a National Historic Landmark. The Chapel is a clock tower that rises high above the tree-shaded campus of Washington and Lee University.
It was built between 1867 and 1968 at the request of Robert E. Lee. Lee was the president of the school, then known as Washington College.
Lee called the chapel “a pleasant as well as practical addition to the College buildings” and it was dedicated on June 14, 1868. Commencement exercises were held in the chapel later that afternoon, which began a Washington College tradition.
The Lee chapel, which is nondenominational, was designated a National Historic Landmark on June 18, 1961. It continues to host large gatherings and special events. The public can visit the chapel and the museum at the basement level.
Chapel Construction & Design:
Robert E. Lee was the president of Washington College from 1865-1870. The University started construction on the Chapel in 1867. George Washington Custis Lee, his son from Virginia Military Institute (VMI), suggested the simple Victorian design.
Col. Thomas Williamson also from VMI drafted the plans and specifications. The Lee Chapel was built of native limestone and brick. It was finished in time for the graduation exercises in 1868. Lee attended weekday worship services here along with students.
Lee requested funds be appropriated by the Washington College trustees to construct a larger chapel in his first Report of the President, dated June 1866. He suggested that the college need a larger space to house its growing student body.
He also suggested that the trustees convert an old chapel room into needed classrooms. The board designated a committee that would investigate the matter.
A month later, the committee recommended Lee’s request to be approved. They also submitted a plan prepared and signed by President Lee.
Williamson’s delicate Romanesque design at Lee Chapel was heavily influenced by images of John Renwick’s 1847 Smithsonian Institution structure, also known “The Castle”.
The tower’s graceful curves and tall, latticed window frames stood out in stark contrast with the rest of Washington College, which has a distinctive colonnade and the Gothic VMI campus.
The lower level contained his office, the treasurer’s and the library. Lee Chapel on Digital Humanities has more information about the 20th century history and activities of the Chapel.
Two paintings are found on the chapel walls. One is a portrait of President George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart in 1796. The other is a painting of Lee by J. Reid in 1866.
These were replaced by a portrait by Charles Willson of Washington and another by Edward Pine of Lee in his uniform. This is to reflect the time period of each university’s association with Washington.
In the basement a crypt (added after Lee’s burial) contains the remains of much of Lee’s direct family: Lee himself, his wife Mary Anna Custis Lee, his seven children and his parents. Many visitors leave flowers, coins, and apples as tributes.
The Lee Chapel’s basement houses a museum that reveals the history of both the university and the families of George Washington. The office of Lee has been preserved in the same condition as when he died.
The modern operation of Washington and Lee is aided by the Chapel. It can seat 600 people in the main area, and another 300 in the small, three-sided balcony.
Lee was a soldier in the Army and won numerous victories. It is well-known that Lee served in the Civil War’s early days. He is now an American icon for military leadership. Lee also supported Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction project.
He resigned as an officer in the United States Army after the war was over. Lee also lost his citizenship. His family fled Arlington, Virginia after Union troops occupied it for many years.
Robert E. Lee was the president of Washington College from 1865-1870.
His widow chose the chapel to be his final resting place after Lee’s passing. On October 14, 1870, a funeral procession took his remains to the chapel. His burial took place in a brick-lined vault in the basement of the chapel.
One year after his death, the Lee Memorial Association ordered a marble statue of Edward Valentine in life-size from Edward Valentine. It was not found a suitable home until June 28, 1883 when the Lee Mausoleum opened and a memorial room was dedicated.
Lee’s statue and tomb were revered from their creation. This was in keeping with Lee’s status of ultimate hero in the Lost Cause interpretations of the Civil War.
The Lee chapel became a sacred shrine only after the beginning of the 20th century. The chapel was fireproofed after discussions about expanding it in the 1920s.
The structure was updated by restoration work in 1960s, but much of the original material was lost. Modern wiring and other amenities were added to the chapel by more conservative renovations in 1990.
It is no longer large enough for all students, but the chapel and grounds still serve as a venue for important civic and collegiate events and to honor its legacy.
In June 1883, a mausoleum was added to the chapel. It housed Edward Valentine’s beautiful memorial statue of Lee.
The University’s president, a student-run Executive Committee, has spoken to first-year students about the Honor System. There are important school-wide lectures, concerts and other notable activities that take place there from time to another.
The Chapel hosts the school’s annual Omicron Delta Kappa convocation, which is a national honor society that was founded at Washington and Lee on Dec 3, 1914.
Large doors that were placed in front of the chamber housing Lee’s statue have been closed since 2018. This has obscured the chamber and the statue and kept it functionally apart from the chapel’s assembly hall. The intention is to make the chapel more welcoming for all members of the community.