In his first “Report of the President” dated June 1866, Lee requested that the Washington College board of trustees appropriate funds to build a larger chapel. Lee pointed out that the college needed a space large enough to accommodate the growing student body and suggested that the trustees convert the old chapel room into much-needed classrooms. The board assigned a committee to investigate the matter. One month later, the committee recommended approving Lee’s request and submitted “a plan prepared by President Lee.” Other evidence, however, including an 1866 letter from Colonel Thomas Williamson, the Virginia Military Institute‘s professor of civil and military engineering, indicates that Williamson was the architect, while Lee and his son Custis Lee served as consultants. Illustrations of John Renwick’s 1847 Smithsonian Institution building, also known as “The Castle,” strongly influenced Williamson’s delicate Romanesque design of University Chapel & Chapel Galleries. Its gracefully flared tower and tall latticed windows stood in stark contrast to the rest of classical Washington College, whose distinctive colonnade it faces, and the gothic VMI campus.
The chapel, which Lee described as “a pleasing as well as useful addition to the College buildings,” was dedicated on the morning of June 14, 1868. Later that afternoon, inaugurating a Washington College tradition, commencement exercises were held inside the chapel. With the start of the September term, the new chapel was used for daily religious services and as an auditorium. Lee attended the chapel service each morning and then walked downstairs to work in his office in the basement.
After Lee’s death, his widow selected the chapel as his burial location. A funeral procession carried his remains to the chapel on October 14, 1870, and cadets from VMI provided the honor guard through the night. Lee’s funeral was held the next morning, followed by his burial in a cement-lined brick vault in the chapel basement. A ceremony at the chapel on January 19, 1872—Lee’s birthday—featured an address byin which the former Confederate general argued for Lee’s “marvelous ability and boldness as a military commander.” The speech was delivered in the context of arguments among former Confederates over who was to blame for Confederate defeat in the Civil War (and especially the defeat at the in July 1863) and was a landmark event in the creation of the so-called view of the war.
Just one year after his death, in 1871, the Lee Memorial Association commissioned a life-sized marble statue from Edward Valentine. No suitable home was found for it until June 28, 1883, when the Lee Mausoleum and a memorial room were dedicated at the back of the chapel.
Lee’s tomb and statue were venerated from the moment of their creation—in line with Lee’s status as the ultimate hero in the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War—but the chapel only gained recognition as a sacred shrine after the turn of the twentieth century. Discussion of enlarging the chapel in the 1920s helped solidify its status as a memorial to the life and character of Lee, but the chapel was fireproofed instead. Restoration work in the 1960s updated the structure but resulted in the loss of much original material. More conservative renovations in the 1990s provided modern wiring and amenities while protecting the chapel’s architectural integrity. Although it is no longer large enough to accommodate the entire student body, the chapel and its grounds continue to serve as a site for important collegiate and civic events and to honor the legacy of its namesake.