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W&L Stages a New Exhibition Illustrating Chapel History The University Chapel and Galleries recently opened an exhibition titled "Setting the Stage: A Glimpse Inside 150 Years of the University Chapel Auditorium."

Setting-the-Stage4-1105x768 W&L Stages a New Exhibition Illustrating Chapel HistoryThe exhibition will be on display throughout the academic year.

Washington and Lee University’s University Chapel and Galleries recently opened a new gallery exhibition titled “Setting the Stage: A Glimpse Inside 150 Years of the University Chapel Auditorium.”

The exhibition documents the various changes to the chapel’s auditorium during the last 150 years.

“After the university’s Board of Trustees announced their decision last summer to return the University Chapel’s auditorium to its ‘simple and unadorned’ format, we realized that most of our visitors, unless they were a W&L alumnus or employee from the Class of 1961 or earlier, had never seen the interior style of the chapel during its first 90 years,” said Lynn Rainville, director of institutional history and museums at Washington and Lee.

With that realization, W&L’s museum staff decided to create a new exhibition featuring a retrospective view of the space. The exhibition displays an enlarged version of one of the historic photographs of the chapel’s interior during the first century of its existence, as well as some of the many works of art and artifacts that once adorned the building’s stage.

Changes over time

Construction on the chapel began in 1867 at the request of Robert E. Lee, who served as president from 1865 to 1870 of what was then called Washington College. His son, George Washington Custis Lee of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), proposed the simple Victorian design, and Colonel Thomas Williamson, also of VMI, drew up the plans and specifications. The builders and laborers for the project were local residents. Construction of the structure, known as the College Chapel, was completed in 1868.

Throughout the decades, the chapel’s auditorium has gone through multiple physical and aesthetic changes. During its early years, the interior was decorated for specific events such as centennials, celebrations and anniversaries.

“Over time, many changes have taken place inside the chapel,” said Rainville. “For example, the original gas lights were replaced with electric ones, an embroidered university banner came and went, fabric draperies were removed, metal gates were changed and furniture on the stage was frequently added and subtracted.”

“Setting the Stage”

The new exhibition documents many of those changes and includes portraits and artifacts that decorated the stage during the chapel’s earliest years. Portraits were first added to the auditorium in 1875, and their presence multiplied over the years. The collection in the new exhibition includes paintings of historical figures, university donors and university presidents.

Notably, it includes two of the famous namesake portraits that appeared in the chapel’s auditorium: the 1796 Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington in the year he gave the then-Liberty Hall Academy a substantial gift of James River and Potomac Canal Company stock, and the 1866 J. Reid portrait of then-president Robert E. Lee during his second year as the leader of Washington College. The portraits were relocated from the chapel’s auditorium into the gallery earlier this fall.

Rainville says developments inside the chapel continue to help spark creativity on campus.

“As we work to complete the tasks set forth by the Board of Trustees —returning the Chapel’s interior to a place of gathering, instead of a museum space — our community can envision new uses for the space,” said Rainville. “The chapel is more than a museum. It is an active learning space on campus. We look forward to exciting new programs within its walls in the coming years, and we hope the public will visit the new exhibit to learn more about the history of this important structure and how the space has evolved over time.”

The collection will be on display through the academic year. The University Chapel and its various galleries are free and open to the public to view in person Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Read more about the University Chapel online.