Robert E. Lee Hall
Robert E. Lee Hall is the oldest, largest, and perhaps the most recognizable structure at YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly. The massive building stands on a hillside in the middle of Blue Ridge grounds and overlooks the beautiful Craggy Mountain range. Throughout the years, thousands of guests and conferees have sat on the rocking chairs of the building’s wide portico and watched memorable sunsets and moon rises. Lee Hall’s captivating presence and commanding size reflect and reinforce the communal ideals of the it’s founder, Dr. Willis D. Weatherford and constantly reminding visitors of the unique history, strong values, and beloved traditions of the Assembly.
Part I: “Yesterday”
Construction of Lee Hall began in 1909, three years after the Assembly was founded. It was designed by Louis E. Jallade, a well known Canadian architect who was an active member of the YMCA in New York. After learning of the plans for the Assembly, Jallade volunteered his services and commissioned a contractor and supervising architect for the project.
One of the most outstanding features of the neoclassical, plantation-style building are the eight, three-story wooden columns, all of which were fashioned in the Midwest and brought by train to Black Mountain. The rest of the wood in the building came from timber harvested from Blue Ridge property, which totaled over 1,500 acres at the time. Lee Hall’s monumental size (at 55,000 square feet) and stark-white color make it hard to miss against the lush woodland backdrop that surrounds it.
The four-story building was named after the great Civil War general, Robert E. Lee, who exemplified the traditions and ideals of the Old South and was an active supporter of the YMCA. Dr. Weatherford described Lee as “the finest flower of Southern chivalry. He represents the truest type of Christian manhood, the loftiest moral life, the purest and noblest ideals of the old South” in a 1920 issue of the Blue Ridge Voice. The building is therefore a tribute to this historical icon and represents the values of education, leadership, moral character and Christian principles.
Completed in the summer of 1912, Lee Hall was originally designed to house around 400 people and was to be used primarily for year-round conferences and schools. The first conference held at Blue Ridge, a YWCA student group, attracted almost 1,000 delegates. They overflowed into tents on the Assembly grounds and it soon became clear that the necessary capacity of Lee Hall had been underestimated. Weatherford immediately began plans to expand the accommodations and two additional wings were added to form a large informal courtyard at the back of the building. This expanded capacity came in handy in 1916 when the YMCA joined the war efforts and nearly 2,400 workers were trained at the Assembly to work with U.S troops.
Lee Hall, 1923
Decades later, in 1933, Black Mountain College was established at the Assembly. BMC used Lee Hall as their main campus for many years until it eventually relocated in 1941. The expansive size of the building provided the perfect accommodations for this small college community. Classes, lectures, meetings and performances were held in the lobby, the dormitory-style rooms housed students and faculty, and the porch and rooftops provided perfect places for social gathering. While attic space offered additional housing, the Lee Hall basements housed a Library, provided the location for the College’s legendary Halloween parties, and even operated its own Post Office in the summer months.
After years of intense year-round use, the future of Lee Hall eventually came into jeopardy during the 1960’s. In 1968 the Board of Directors considered demolishing the historic building and replacing it with a modern structure with the same architecture. It was to cost around a quarter of a million dollars and YMCA’s all over the South would raise the money to cover the project. However, many people quickly realized that the unique structural integrity and heritage of the building simply could not be reproduced. There proved to be very little support for the demolition and only about 10 percent of the necessary funding was raised. Frank Washburn, the Executive Director at the time says, “(Lee Hall) meant too much to too many people.”
Lee Hall’s strong following became clear again in 1970 when the Blue Ridge Center was purposefully constructed at a lower level to preserve the building’s scenic view of the mountains. Finally, in 1979 Blue Ridge Assembly was registered as a Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places. The Assembly’s beautiful grounds and cherished structures deserved this honorable recognition. Lee Hall serves as a landmark to a historic legacy that will never be forgotten.
Coming soon…Lee Hall, “Part II: Today”
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