Wednesday, November 13, 2019

'Do you have 15 minutes?': A history-packed visit to Lee Chapel

W.C. "Burr" Datz holds a copy of a circa-1873 image of artisans working on the recumbent 
sculpture of Robert E. Lee in Edward Valentine's studio in Richmond, Va. 
The sculpture of the "Marble Man" is behind Datz. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
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Moments after I pass through the white doors of Lee Chapel on the Washington and Lee University campus in Lexington, Va., docent W.C. "Burr" Datz springs into action.

Exterior view of Lee Chapel.
“Do you have 10 minutes?” the Long Island native asks from atop the stage. Datz, whose white beard gives him a passing resemblance to Robert E. Lee, is flanked by a large painting of George Washington to his right and one of Lee to his left. Next to him is the chapel's original wooden podium, a work of art that dates to 1868. Behind Datz is the main attraction: a small room that houses Edward Valentine's impressive memorial sculpture of the recumbent Lee.

Seconds after I mention my deep interest in the Civil War, docent Datz eagerly snatches the bait. “Do you have 15 minutes?” he says.

Datz gestures for the me to sit in a front-row pew -- the same pew where the former Army of Northern Virginia commander sat for services when he was school president (it was then called Washington College) from 1865 until his death in 1870. Like an auctioneer rattling off bids, Datz delivers stories about Lee. Clearly the Washington and Lee graduate, Class of 1975, is a deep admirer of the "Marble Man." Deeply knowledgeable, too.

"The function of Lee as a gentlemen," Datz tells me, "has had a deep impact on my life."

    PANORAMA: A view from behind podium in Lee Chapel; Lee's pew is first on right.
                                      (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

Fifteen minutes turns into, oh, 25 or so. Worth it? You bet.

A rookie mistake: Hat on head not a good look
for a certain blogger.
"Do you have some more time?" asks Datz. He welcomes me to the stage, where he tells the story of the marble sculpture of Lee, completed in 1875. The stone for it was quarried in Vermont. Ah, Yankee marble. Would Lee approve? Probably. He would detest, however, a statue of himself, says Datz. A man of class and distinction, Lee was no "me" guy.

Circling the Lee sculpture, I shoot images from myriad angles, twice setting off an alarm when edging too close to the general. Obviously a rookie mistake.

Before I depart, Datz encourages me to visit Lee's office on the bottom floor -- it's kept just as he left it the day he died Oct. 12, 1870. Then he invites me to sit in the front-row pew for another dose of history.

"Let's take your picture," he says. Aiming in vain to find my good side, he shoots two photos.

Sadly, a blue toboggan remained on my head.

The general, according to sources, definitely would not approve.

Lee Chapel was constructed from 1867–68 at the request of Robert E. Lee, who was president
of Washington College, now Washington & Lee University. This mausoleum addition was dedicated 
in June 1883 to house Edward Valentine's memorial statue of the recumbent Lee.
                        PANORAMA: A view of the recumbent sculpture of Robert E. Lee.
                                     (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

Robert E. Lee's office in the chapel is left as it was on the day he died in 1870.
Lee and his family are buried beneath the chapel. 

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  1. we visited the Chapel along with General Jackson's house and grave site while in Lexington about three weeks ago. So much history abounds.. It was a lovely visit and a lovely town.

  2. Thank you John. Very interesting as I have never been there. Just curious who the portrait was of hanging in his office? I couldn't make it out.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I would really like to make a trip there. And, to the many other CW memorials and battlefields.

  4. I liked it better when the battle flags were hung around thee statue ceiling.

  5. Anonymous4:26 PM

    We were actually married there (many years ago). The folks in charge we're very nice, and kept visitors out until the end of the ceremony - a very short one, since we had eloped and had no guests. They also served as our witnesses.

  6. Thank you for sharing this. I haven't gotten there yet, but I will.