The University began construction on the Chapel 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, may have proposed the simple Victorian design; Col. Thomas Williamson drew up the plans and specifications. (Both men were professors in the engineering department of neighboring Virginia Military Institute.) Built of brick and native limestone, the Chapel was completed in time for graduation exercises in 1868. Lee attended weekday worship services here with the students and the lower level housed his office, the treasurer's office and the YMCA headquarters (student center).
Lee died on Oct. 12, 1870, and was buried beneath the Chapel. In 1883 the University made an addition to the building; it houses the memorial sculpture of the recumbent Lee by Edward Valentine and a family crypt in the lower level, where the president's remains were moved. His wife, mother, father ("Light-Horse Harry" Lee), all of his children and other relatives are now buried in the crypt as well. The remains of his beloved horse, Traveller, are interred in a plot outside the museum entrance.
Lee's office is preserved much as he left it for the last time on Sept. 28, 1870. The rest of the lower level became a museum in 1928, exhibiting items once owned by the Lee and Washington families.
Lee Chapel was named a National Historic Landmark in 1961, and from 1962 to 1963 the University restored the Chapel with the support of the Ford Motor Company Fund. In 1998, W&L completed a major renovation of the Lee Chapel Museum to celebrate the University's 250th anniversary in 1999. W&L installed a new exhibition in 2007 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Robert E. Lee's birth.