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W&L's Simpson Draws Parallel Between Architecture, Educational Objectives in Convocation Address

Addressing the Fall Convocation to open Washington and Lee University’s 263rd year, Pamela Hemenway Simpson, the Ernest Williams II Professor of Art History at the University, told the Warner Center audience that development of the W&L campus over several hundred years resulted in not just a collection of buildings, but a symbol.

“What we so value today came together over a period of several hundred years,” said Simpson, a member of the Washington and Lee faculty since 1973. “Each generation built on the past. What resulted was not only a collection of historic, distinguished buildings; we also ended up with a symbol.

“This is who we are. When we think of our most deeply held values – academic excellence, collegiality, civility, and most of all, honor, all of them are embodied here.”

• See an audio slide show below or at this link.

Although originally scheduled to be held on the historic Front Campus between Lee Chapel and Washington Hall, the convocation was moved inside because of weather conditions.

Simpson had planned to use the location to present an on-site lecture on the University’s architecture, while the audience sat in the midst of the real thing. Instead, she fell back on the art historian’s familiar tool – a slide show – to illustrate her story about the institution’s growth over time.

She took the audience, which rewarded her with two prolonged standing ovations, on a guided tour of the buildings as they were originally constructed – from Liberty Hall Academy, the ruins of which are just west of campus, to the design and construction of what is now Washington Hall in the 1820s.

That building, currently under renovation in the center of the Colonnade, was designed by the local firm of Jordan and Darst and was Lexington’s first classical revival building, Simpson explained.

“Jordan and Darst had already worked for (Thomas) Jefferson at Monticello and drew on that experience to introduce Jefferson-championed neoclassicism to the campus,” said Simpson, who also recounted the raucous dedication featuring a 40-gallon barrel of rye whiskey and leading to what University historian William Henry Ruffner described as “a glorious exhibition of what free whisky can do to the noble creature made in the image of God.”

She also recounted the construction of Lee Chapel and the Lee House, both designed by VMI professors and built during Gen. Robert E. Lee’s presidency. “Both buildings were influenced by contemporary ideas about the picturesque, and both were based on design books,” Simpson said. “That was typical for architectural design at the time. The goal was to create something practical, but also minimal in cost. The Colonnade and the resulting chapel certainly form a contrast.”

The Colonnade reflects antebellum optimism and confidence while the Romanesque chapel “evokes an ecclesiastical tradition of medieval churches.” The contrast between the two buildings was not as obvious when the chapel was first constructed because they were separated by a road in front of the chapel. In the early 20th century, that road was removed, and the contrast became obvious. In fact, in the 1920s, the University’s board of trustees wanted to tear down the chapel and replace it with a neo-Georgian structure.

“During a controversy that lasted for two years, college officials fought with the local United Daughters of the Confederacy who led the preservation effort,” said Simpson, “arguing that the associations between Lee and the chapel were so sacred that no matter what one thought of its style or its small size, it was too important a building to change in any way, let alone tear down.”

In the end, the trustees decided to use the money they had raised to repair and fireproof the chapel.

As Simpson noted, the historic Front Campus, now a revered space by generations of alumni, did not come together all at once.

“Instead, like the institution itself, it grew over time as each generation built on the past,” she said. “The unity that we now so value was the result of a shared vision about who we are as much as it was an architectural statement of coherence.”

In his introductory remarks at the convocation, Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio ’76 told the gathered students – members of the Class of 2015 along with the senior and third-year law classes – to consider the value of community.

College, Ruscio said, is not only a place where individuals learn about their unique strengths but also a time to discover “what we share in common.”

He added: “Convocations like this with all their pomp and circumstance remind us that being with each other, and not being alone, is fulfilling and that working together for the common good is immensely gratifying. Here at W&L that sense of community reaches across generations. Our longevity and strong traditions cause us in surprising ways not to look back to the past but forward to the future. The debt we owe to those who preceded us becomes our deep obligation to sacrifice for those still to come.”

Undergraduate classes at Washington and Lee begin on Thursday while the School of Law is completing its second week of classes.