Washington and Lee University Historic District
The central campus of Washington and Lee University, one of America’s oldest institutions of higher learning, was built between the 1820s and 1930s and features a Greek Revival colonnade, or "symmetrical line of columns." It is now a National Historic Landmark. The University survived near-destruction in the Civil War and, under the presidency of Robert E. Lee, grew into a top-tier modern liberal arts college.
Backstory and Context
“No more impressive expression of the educational ideals of the time could be imagined than this Classic group, its pediment and orders seen through embowering trees, over swelling American lawns, its cupola crowned with the image of the Pater Patriae.” – Architectural historian Talbot Hamlin, in Greek Revival Architecture in America.
Washington and Lee’s historic central campus, as described in this quotation, today consists of nine buildings. Though mostly architecturally congruent, the mix of educational and residential structures was in fact built over a nearly-150-year period between 1822 and 1936. The earliest, Washington Hall, was designed by self-taught builder/architect John Jordan and constructed out of brick made on campus between 1822 and 1824. Its roof was altered and the cupola was added in 1842-44. Matthew Kahle, a Lexington artisan, sculpted an 8-foot, 700-lb statue of George Washington out of a single log; christened “Old George,” it was hoisted to the top of the cupola in 1844 (it was replaced by a bronze copy in 1990). Washington Hall was originally known as the Center Building, as it sat between Graham and Union Halls (built 1804), both of which were demolished to make space for two larger buildings. The west of these larger buildings, the Lyceum (now Payne Hall), was constructed in 1830-31; the east, Robinson, was built between 1840-43. Two other dorms were built further to the east and west but were demolished in the 1880s, most likely to make space for Newcomb Hall, which was built to the west in 1881. Its eastern counterpart was Tucker Hall, built out of stone in the Gothic style in 1900 as a home for the law school. This building burnt in 1934 and an architecturally corresponding replacement was completed in 1936, also named Tucker. All of the central buildings, which now formed part of a Colonnade – or “symmetrical line of columns” – were completely renovated in 1935-36; no original interior was left. These buildings were also given official names: Washington, after Old George; Payne, after a major renovation donor; and Robinson, after an early donor and trustee who left his estate (including 73-84 slaves) to the college in 1826. All of these buildings were brought up to modern standards between 2009 and 2014; they are still used and house many offices and academic departments.
The remaining four buildings include Lee Chapel, covered in a separate Clio entry, and three faculty dwellings – Morris, Simpson, and Lee Houses. Morris and Simpson were two of four faculty houses built in the early 1840s; Simpson (formerly known as Lee-Jackson) served as the President’s house until 1869 and was the home of Stonewall Jackson for several years in the 1850s (after he married the President’s daughter). The Lee House was designed by Robert E. Lee (then University President) and completed in 1869; its wide porches were constructed for his wheelchair-bound wife. Lee himself died in the house in 1870 and it still serves as the University President’s official dwelling.
As for the University itself, it was Washington Academy when it moved to Lexington in 1803 after a series of catastrophic fires and was not officially called “Washington College” until 1813. (See the Clio entry “Liberty Hall Academy Ruins” for more information on the school’s preceding history.) The school managed to survive high tensions and near- destruction in the Civil War; Unionist President George Junkin was forced to flee by students and faculty after Virginia’s secession, and, according to legend, only the statue of “Old George” atop Washington Hall saved the school from ruin during a Union raid in 1864 (neighboring VMI was not so lucky). In fact, the students' support for the Confederacy went so far as forming the “Liberty Hall Volunteers,” a company that fought as part of the Stonewall Brigade and was with Lee at Appomattox. After the war, and with few repairs completed from wartime vandalism, the Board of Trustees selected Robert E. Lee as president. He successfully took the school from subsisting as a tiny and struggling college to entering the national stage as a top-tier liberal arts university. Upon his death in 1870, the College’s name was changed to Washington and Lee University and Lee’s son succeeded him as President. The school’s first African American students in 150 years matriculated in 1966 and it became co-educational in 1985. Today, it is famous for its achievements, including the first college Journalism education program, and its longstanding traditions, such as the student-led Honor System, the “Speaking Tradition” of greeting others, the Fancy Dress Ball (established in 1907), and the Mock Convention (since 1908, it has successfully predicted the non-incumbent party’s presidential candidate 20 out of 26 times).
In recent years, calls have been made to rename several buildings on the University’s campus and further disassociate it from the Confederate South and the Lost Cause movement that arose in the following decades. These movements have resulted in the renaming of the Lee-Jackson House after Pamela Hemingway Simpson, the first tenured female W&L professor and an instrumental leader in the school’s move to co-education, and of Robinson Hall after John Chavis, who graduated from W&L in 1799 and was “the first known African-American to receive a college education in the United States.” In July 2020, during the nationwide George Floyd protests, the executive committee of the student body and a vast majority of the faculty voted to remove Lee from the University's name; the issue then passed to a special committee created by the Board of Trustees.
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3) Adams, Susan. Washington And Lee Faculty Vote To Remove ‘Lee’ From University’s Name, Forbes. July 7th 2020. Accessed August 17th 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2020/07/07/washington-and-lee-faculty-vote-to-remove-lee-from-universitys-name/#73db191a7c87.
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19) Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission Staff. Washington and Lee University Historic District, National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination Form, Virginia Department of Historic Resources. December 18th 1970. Accessed February 12th 2020. https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/117-0022_WashingtonLeeHD_1970_NRHP_Final.pdf.
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21) What is Mock Convention?, The 27th Washington and Lee Mock Convention. Accessed February 12th 2020. https://www.mockconvention.com/what-is-it.
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Author (Benjamin Woodard)