‘Save Lee Chapel’ effort underway by critics of changes
An ongoing series of changes and edits to Washington and Lee University’s historic Lee Chapel has drawn controversy and criticisms from students and alumni.
Most recently, administrators have announced plans to build a permanent wall this summer to separate the chapel’s main auditorium from a section of the building that features a recumbent statue of Robert E. Lee resting during a Civil War battle.
The statue is directly behind the podium from which students are addressed. Currently, the statue is fully visible from the pews, except when a temporary partition is erected during all official university events.
Last summer, officials removed portraits of President George Washington and General Lee from the chapel, as well as plaques honoring alumni and veterans from various wars, not just the Civil War.
Campus leaders have said the changes are motivated by a push to make the campus environment more inclusive. Traditionally, the chapel is used for mandatory freshmen orientation sessions, including the introduction to the school’s renowned honor system.
The changes have sparked criticism as the Virginia-based institution grapples with the complicated legacies of its namesakes. In particular, a student at the school is leading an effort to reverse the plans to build the permanent wall, efforts underscored by an active alumni group concerned about the university’s ongoing sanitizing of the chapel.
Junior Kamron Spivey, president of Students for Historical Preservation, has been vocal over the last school year in opposing the chapel changes. For one, he notes its status as a National Historic Landmark.
He said that when the university accepted National Historic Landmark status for Lee Chapel in 1961, “they pledged to uphold the site and share its historical significance with those who visit it.”
“Changing the [chapel] now is a complete breach of that responsibility, and it’s a major disgrace to historical sites everywhere,” he told The College Fix via email.
Run by the National Park Service, the National Historic Landmarks Program identifies sites with historical and cultural value and promotes their preservation. “Lee Chapel” is the name under which the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It includes the Lee family crypt and memorial sculpture.
In June 2021, university trustees internally changed the name to “University Chapel.”
Professor Lynn Rainville, director of institutional history and museums at W&L, told The College Fix in an email that the changes “are intended to reflect the original vision for the chapel as an elegant but unadorned space suitable for gatherings of the student body.”
However, Spivey has proposed a different solution.
“I understand that many students and faculty do not want to enter Lee Chapel. That’s their choice, and I do not intend to coerce people to [enter] the building,” he said.
“I propose that the university stop using Lee Chapel for mandatory events and restore it to its former status as a museum, and only a museum. Then only those individuals wanting to learn about Lee, Washington College, and the Civil War will visit it.”
Spivey echoes similar calls made by The Generals Redoubt, an alumni group dedicated to reestablishing university traditions. On its website, the group includes a “Save Lee Chapel” proposal to build a different meeting space.
The group has also launched a “Save Lee Chapel” Change.org petition, which has over 3,500 signatures as of May 31.
“The chapel is now being stripped of more than its name. The W&L administration is stripping it of its history, its visible connection to our two namesakes, its very character,” the petition states. “In building a wall to cover up the recumbent statue of Robert E. Lee with little warning and using Orwellian (and demonstrably false) language about historic preservation, the administration is building a wall between W&L’s past and its future.”
On its website, the group states administration “has simply gone too far.”
“Up until very recently, Lee Chapel was rich with meaningful history and memories for the Washington and Lee family. …Now the historical and sentimental significance of Lee Chapel is under attack.”
Spivey gave a speech at the helm of the chapel in late March to urge “all students, alumni, faculty, parents and community members to help save Lee Chapel from upcoming plans to permanently change its structure and purpose,” according to a description of his speech on YouTube.
Both Spivey and The Generals Redoubt have also raised concerns over transparency as plaques and other artifacts were removed from the chapel. According to Spivey, at first the university did not share storage locations or plans for the artifacts.
“Refusing to be transparent about decisions—especially over artifacts that cost millions of dollars—is a huge ethical concern,” Spivey told The Fix. “There is simply no reason to keep it hidden, especially at such an important site. Yet, the university continues to breach community trust and make unreported decisions.”
The university’s honor system is defined in part as a “breach of the community’s trust.”
But more recently, campus leaders have clarified their plans for the artifacts.
Professor Rainville told The College Fix that “the plaques honoring U.S. veterans will be moved to the Memorial Gate at the Jefferson Street entrance to campus” in the fall.
“Later this year, the other plaques will be moved to galleries within the chapel itself or, once completed, to the new history museum,” she said.
She also noted that the portraits of Lee and Washington were moved to an exhibit located in the galleries beneath the chapel.
Asked why the university insists on a permanent partition within the chapel, Rainville said that “a temporary partition does not allow us to simultaneously host University events, while providing access to the Chapel Galleries.”
Critics of the plan argue they have not been fully vetted. Spivey said there has not been consultation with experts and historians nor public hearings before administrators decided on the interior changes.
Spivey said that the university is not contractually bound by the National Park Service to uphold the chapel’s status as a historical landmark.
“If the school wanted to bulldoze the building, they technically could,” he said.
IMAGES: The Generals Redoubt, Andrew Thompson