Planned University Chapel updates not fire safe, city inspectors say

Luke Fountain, News Editor

Washington and Lee hasn’t begun renovations to University Chapel that were originally planned to be completed by the start of the 2022-2023 academic year. City officials said the planned updates don’t comply with fire safety regulations.
Drewery Sackett, the university’s executive director of communications and pulic affairs, aid the university hasn’t begun to construct a planned permanent wall separating Robert E. Lee’s crypt from the rest of the space.
Lexington Fire Marshall Trent Robert wrote in an email in May that the university’s plans pose safety risks.The wall will “eliminate access to the rear stair,” he said, which functions as a second exit from the chapel.
Robert also said the wall will reduce the building’s “life safety.”
Life safety refers to the design and operating features of a building that provide its occupants with a reasonable level of safety during fires and other emergencies.
Robert went on to add that he “disapproves of the occupancy number for the Chapel Sanctuary” if a wall were built, particularly because there would be only one exit.
Meanwhile, building inspector Steve Paulk also said he disapproved of the original plan to install a wall.
Robert restated his reservations about the university’s plan in an email on Sept. 22.
“I would like for the University to do as it pleases with its properties,” he wrote. “That acknowledged, I just don’t see how this wall provides any improvement of the life-safety of the structure.”
The Board of Trustees initially announced the university’s plan to construct a wall in the chapel in June 2021.
“The planned renovation will physically separate the original 1868 chapel from the 1883 annex containing the Lee memorial sculpture and family crypt,” the Board wrote in its 2021 announcement of the plan. “Once complete, the structure will consist of two distinct spaces: a simple, unadorned chapel for university gatherings and a series of galleries, including the sculpture chamber and adjacent antechamber on the upper level of the annex. All parts of the building will remain accessible to the public.”
The Board reiterated its intentions in an email to students this fall.
“The Board’s plan restores the building to its original name and recreates two separate, publicly accessible spaces: one for university events and the other for the study of history,” the Board wrote Sept. 9. “A more visible, physical separation between the chapel and the annex helps signify this distinction.”
To that end, the university submitted a new renovation plan to be approved for a building permit on Sept. 19. It is unclear what changes the university made to its original plans as Sackett said that the plans “are not for public distribution.”
It is unknown if this new plan addressed concerns city officials had or if it has been approved by the city.
In regards to fire regulations, it is unclear which regulation the chapel must abide by, as it is grandfathered in to older regulations rather than the current day code. Paulk said current fire regulations would restrict occupancy in the chapel to 49 people.
Nevertheless, the renovation plans have cleared at least one regulatory hurdle: National Park Service regulations for National Historic Landmarks. The chapel was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.
The regulations state that “owners of National Register properties can remodel, renovate, sell, or even demolish their property with no restrictions. However, significant modifications may result in removal from the National Register.”
In an email to university officials in May, Laurel A. Racine, an official at the National Parks Service, said she supported their approach to the project.
Despite this nod of approval, the university faced other regulatory issues throughout the summer.
“The university did not stop initial renovations to the chapel. We had closed the chapel in anticipation of the renovations but reopened it in July when it became clear that there was more work to do regarding the permitting process,” Sackett said.
Sackett said no university official was available for an interview nor would comment when exactly that work to the chapel would begin.
In the meantime, the chapel remains open today. Many events have been held in the chapel this school year, such as honor system orientation for first-year students and hosting former First Lady Laura Bush and her daughter Barbara.