Lexington city official approves construction of University Chapel wall blocking Lee statue

Local building inspector denied original construction plans due to safety concerns. After two years, construction will begin in June 2023


A rendering of the proposed chapel wall obscures the statue of Robert E. Lee. Photo provided by Drewry Sackett

Jenny Hellwig, News Editor

Washington and Lee University’s new plan to build a wall in University Chapel was approved early last month after multiple permit denials and arguments over the chapel’s history.
Building inspector Steve Paulk said in an email that the permits were issued on Feb. 7. The “partial wall” will block Robert E. Lee’s memorial sculpture from view in the chapel’s auditorum.
Instead, the design includes openings for patrons to walk around the sides to access the chapel galleries, Washington and Lee University spokesman Drewry Sackett said in an email. Originally, doors were going to seperate the spaces.
In June 2021, the Washington and Lee Board of Trustees announced their plan to “physically separate” the original 1868 chapel from the 1883 annex. The universityworked with architectural firm Quinn Evans on the project.
But on Oct. 4, Paulk denied the permits for the original plan after an 11-month review process. And on Nov. 14, Lexington and Buena Vista’s joint board of building code appeals unanimously affirmed Paulk’s decision.
Paulk stated at the time that the university’s plans for the wall would have restricted people from exiting the auditorium safely in the event of an emergency, as previously reported in the Lexington News-Gazette.
According to Paulk, the newly approved plan alleviated the life-safety concerns that had previously caused the plans to be denied.
Sackett said that the trustees have seen and supported the final plan.
As part of the decision regarding the chapel wall, the Washington and Lee Board of Trustees voted 22-6 to preserve the name of the university, but renamed Lee Chapel as University Chapel. The decision came in light of calls for racial justice after the 2020 killngs of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of white police officers.
“We regret the university’s past veneration of the Confederacy and its role in perpetuating “The Lost Cause” myths that sustained racism,” the board said in a June 2021 emailed statement.
The decision generated backlash from segments of the Washington and Lee community. Conservative alumni group The Generals Redoubt was vocally opposed to the wall. The group paid for several billboards in the Lexington area featuring the words “Build No Wall” and a depiction of Robert E. Lee’s statue.
Two years after the board’s initial decision, the chapel will close for construction on June 4 of this year, Sackett said.
As originally planned, all portraits, plaques and artifacts previously placed in the chapel will be moved as part of new exhibits, the Washington and Lee Columns stated.
In addition to the changes to the wall, Paulk said that the university’s new plan features “new lighting in the anteroom and sculpture room” as well as “new exit signs in the mezzanine and main egress door.”
The University Chapel will reopen in late August or early September 2023, just in time for events that are regularly held at the start of the academic year, Sackett said.