The Lee House: Inside the President’s Home

By Catherine Torrey Stroud ‘05

Lee HouseWashington College was virtually broke when the venerable Gen. Robert E. Lee agreed in 1865 to serve as its new president. Here was a dilemma: the Lee family, which included an invalid Mrs. Mary Custis Lee, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, and three grown daughters deserved an elegant and gracious home, but the college had little money. The solution was to pick a design out of a catalog, but build with as much elegance as thrift would allow.

C.W. Oltmanns, a member of the Engineering Department at Virginia Military Institute, selected a design from John W. Ritch’s American Architect, a popular house pattern book. Oltmanns, probably working with R.E. Lee and his son Custis, modified Ritch’s design by adding a porch on three sides to enable Mrs. Lee, who was confined to a wheelchair, to move freely into the open air. Fireplaces were trimmed in slate instead of the more-expensive marble. A brick stable for Lee’s famous horse, Traveller, was attached off a back corner.

Lee House Plans

C.W. Oltmann’s signed original drawing for the first floor of the president’s house, 1868.
The front steps are on the lower right; on the upper left is Traveller’s stable.

In October 1870, R.E. Lee died in the dining room, and was buried in the crypt of Lee Chapel on campus. Not wanting to evict Mrs. Lee, the college Trustees elected Custis as president. He moved in with his mother. Since then, all succeeding presidents of what was renamed Washington and Lee University have lived in the Lee House.

Over the years, important objects have been given to President’s House. Some, such as a piano, were in the house with the Lee family. Others, such as the eighteenth century grandfather clock and kneehole desk, were donated more than a century later. The house’s furnishings, most of which are American, signify generations of love for the University and its history. For photographs of some of the finest and most important of these decorative objects, see the photo gallery

Lee House Interior, 1880s

Interior of the Lee House, Late-1800s
Photo: Michael Miley, courtesy of Virginia Historical Society

Lee House Interior, 2005

Interior of the Lee House 2005
Photo: Jeb Brooks ‘05

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