By Shauna Muckle
A local building commission affirmed Lexington officials’ ruling that a proposed wall in Washington and Lee’s University Chapel violates fire safety regulations this week.
Building inspector Steve Paulk and Fire Marshal Trent Roberts previously told university officials that plans to build a wall separating the recumbent statue of Robert E. Lee from the rest of the chapel were not up to code.
The reason: The wall would block access to a rear exit from the chapel and make the building less safe. W&L appealed that decision.
At an appeal hearing Nov. 14, Steve Blaine, a Charlottesville-based lawyer representing the university, and Charles Piper, an architect from Quinn Evans who designed plans for the wall, said that the chapel’s designation as a historic landmark means it doesn’t have to conform to current code.
Architects added a concealed door to the wall that would automatically unlock if a fire alarm goes off. But Paulk said blocking off the rear stairwell would still make the chapel less safe in case of an emergency. Adaptations to historic landmarks that make them less code compliant aren’t allowed, he said.
“As a building official for the city, it is my responsibility to protect the health and the safety of citizens of the commonwealth,” Paulk said. “I wouldn’t be living up to my oath as a building official if I approved this.”
The Lexington and Buena Vista’s joint board of building code appeals sided with Paulk.
“In my mind, it’s a simple question. Does the wall increase the nonconformity or decrease the egress potential? Any time you have to put up a wall, simplistically, it does,” said Keith Holland, a building commission member.
While ostensibly about fire safety, the meeting was well-attended by groups who oppose any changes to the chapel. The Generals Redoubt (TGR), an organization that advocates for restoring Lee’s legacy, advertised the meeting to its members. The notice, from Kenneth G. Everett, a 1964 W&L graduate, said Lee’s statue “has become the primary target” of W&L’s Board of Trustee’s campaign of “desecrating the Chapel.”
The meeting was occasionally interrupted by audience outbursts. Skip Ravenhorst, chair of the building commission, warned the public that they were permitted to speak only about safety.
W&L’s Board of Trustees first announced plans to construct a wall in June 2021, when it decided against removing Lee’s name from the university. Instead, the building was renamed “University Chapel” and the board pledged to build a wall separating Lee’s statue from the main auditorium.
Now that the local building commission has ruled against the wall, the university plans to appeal the ruling to the state’s building code technical review board in the next few weeks.