Regular readers of this blog (God bless ’em) know that for the past few months I’ve been in the habit of posting brief reviews of the museums and historic sites I visit. I debated long and hard whether to take a crack at Lee Chapel & Museum, located on the campus of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA.
It was one of my favorite stops from my recent Virginia trip, but it’s also as much a shrine as a place of historical interpretation. These reviews are meant to be assessments of how well museums and historic sites present themselves and educate their visitors, based on the time I spent working in the public history business. This approach just didn’t seem appropriate for a sacred space. However, since W&L has constructed a kind of interpretive center in the chapel’s lower level, I’ve decided that it’s a legitimate subject for a review, so here goes.
This particular site owes its existence to the two figures who cast longer shadows across Virginia’s history than anyone. On the one hand, you’ve got George Washington, whose donation to the college led to its being re-named in his honor. On the other hand, you’ve got Washington’s relative-by-marriage Robert E. Lee, who became the school’s president after the Civil War. It was Lee who directed the building of the chapel (1867-68) that bears his name, and who now lies in a vault below the sanctuary level.
By any measure, visiting the sanctuary itself is an incredibly impressive experience. On the outisde, it’s a beautifully constructed nineteenth-century brick church; on the inside is an auditorium with a seating capacity of 500, which is still in use by W&L. Two portraits, one on each side, flank the front of the sanctuary. On the right is a painting of Lee in uniform, similar to some of the famous photographs taken of him during the war. On the left is an absolute gem, the oldest portrait of Washington, painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1772, which depicts him wearing his colonel’s uniform from the French and Indian War. I had no idea the original was at Lee Chapel until I walked in the door, and seeing it was an experience that was hard to beat.
The sanctuary’s other highlight, though, comes pretty darn close. When Lee died in 1870, he was buried underneath the auditorium, until the addition of a new section to the building in 1883. Under the sanctuary, the addition contains the Lee family crypt. Upstairs, it houses Edward Valentine’s magnificent recumbent sculpture of Lee, which rivals any monument or work of art I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s an incredibly lifelike work of art, practically life-size, with a uniformed Lee lying in repose underneath a folded drape that looks far too natural to be made of stone. (Here’s a photo that gives you the general idea, although it doesn’t do it justice.) The one-two punch of this amazing sculpture and Peale’s famous Washington portrait in the same space is quite a thing to experience, and I don’t think I can convey the impression it makes on you if you’re a history enthusiast. You just walk into the door and they’re right there.
Since the chapel area is meant to be more of a shrine than a museum, the interpretation upstairs is pretty discreet, as it should be. There are a couple of interpretive panels near the sculpture with background information on Lee’s funeral and the construction of the addition. During visiting hours a guide is on hand to talk about the chapel’s history and answer questions.
Most of the interpretation takes place in the “museum” of Lee Chapel and Museum, which is downstairs from the sanctuary. In 2007 the college installed a beautiful new exhibit, “Not Unmindful of the Future:” Educating to Build and Rebuild a Nation. Although it’s a relatively small display, you should plan on spending some time here. There’s a lot of fantastic material to see. The exhibit tells the story of the school’s founding, with an emphasis on Washington’s role and the inclusion of some of his personal items. There’s a fine assemblage of Lee material here, too, including not only personal belongings from his years at the college, but also artifacts from his life before and during the Civil War. The exhibit also explores W&L’s evolution within the context of the history of American higher education (Lee, for instance, helped launch the inclusion of professional and practical programs of study in U.S. colleges) and the role the school’s students and alumni played in the Civil War.
Stepping outside the museum, you’ll see the Lee family crypt on your left. Robert E. Lee isn’t the only famous American commander laid to rest here. His father, “Light-Horse” Harry Lee of Revolutionary War fame, is buried next to him. Just a few steps away from the crypt is yet another grave, this one for Traveller, the horse Lee rode during the war and after. (You know you’ve made it into the pantheon of heroes when your horse’s grave becomes a pilgrimage site.)
It’s a lot of history for one building, and well worth a drive to Lexington. The collection and interpretation in the museum at Lee Chapel are both first-rate, and the sanctuary itself is not to be missed.