What is Happening to the UMass Old Chapel?

The Old Chapel and the W.E.B. DuBois Library at UMass Amherst

This past Sunday, I had a rare opportunity to take a spin through the campus of UMass and visit the old alma mater. That’s twice in the past few months. I seldom get back to Amherst that often.

I had my daughters with me. They’ve seen the campus before, but they were quite young the last time they were there and they barely remembered it. So, I had the chance to show them some of my favorite spots. It really doesn’t seem all that long ago that I was haunting the halls of UMass. And now, twenty years later, I have these two new people with me asking me questions about this building and that building and which ones I liked most.

We gravitated quickly to the Old Chapel. I have addressed in a prior post how this building was played a large part in setting me on my career path as a historian. No hyperbole. Seeing a photo of campus c. 1892 with the Old Chapel prominently in the center motivated me to dig into campus history. Been researching the past ever since.

I tried, in my limited capacity as a lowly undergrad, to attract attention to the fact that the UMass campus actually had a history. I encouraged my fellow students to visit the Special Collections and University Archives in the Tower Library (now W.E.B. DuBois Library) where there was always an interesting exhibit on campus history. I twisted arms and convinced obliging friends to go along on impromptu historical tours, introducing them to old buildings they had never noticed before (these tours were briefly “formalized” as a short-lived program, through the support of my boss at the Admissions Office). I published some articles on campus history in the Collegian. I even went so far as to piece together a “ghost tour” of UMass based on old articles I had dug up and stories I had heard from the older alumni. A few years ago, I learned that a version of this tour is now given annually by the UMass History Club which I think is splendid. Anything that raises an awareness of the fact that the campus actually has old buildings–-and buildings in need of preservation–-is a wonderful thing.

So, I suppose that bit background is simply to point out the fact that I have a long-standing interest in the old buildings of UMass. Particularly the Old Chapel.

The “Chapel Library,” as it was originally known, was built in 1885, the first library building of the Massachusetts Agricultural College. The first floor housed the library collection and the second floor housed an assembly hall in which the students gathered every morning. The hall was used at times for prayer services, but it was never exclusively a chapel or church, despite its appearance. The college eventually outgrew the small assembly hall and that function was taken over by Bowker Auditorium in Stockbridge Hall when that building was constructed in 1915. The building continued on as the library until 1935 (the institution by that time had changed its name to Massachusetts State College) when the second college library was built–the building now known as Goodell Hall. I have read that, before the move was made, the old Chapel Library was absolutely bursting with books.

My favorite anecdote concerning the Old Chapel: the first student to be expelled from the University of Massachusetts (or the Massachusetts Agricultural College as it was called at the time) was dismissed for his role in a brawl that took place in 1890 on the winding wooden steps leading to the second floor assembly hall. Professor Charles S. Walker, the college chaplain, tried to break up the fight which involved most of the freshman and sophomore classes. He naturally went for the most burly of the students and tried to restrain him. Instinctively, the student spun around and slugged the man who had grabbed him, not knowing it was a professor. Harlan Fiske Stone, the first student to be expelled from the college, is now better known as the 12th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

The Old Chapel has become the unofficial symbol of UMass Amherst. And yet it sits unused. During my time at UMass it was the home of the UMass Marching Band. I knew (and still know) several people who were in the band and I know how they loved that building. But how neglected the Old Chapel was at that time! I cringed when I went inside. When the band moved out in 1996, the building was closed up. And it’s been vacant ever since.

In 1999 an effort got underway to restore and stabilize the exterior of the building, which was in danger of falling apart. You can read about the exterior restoration here. I applaud those who managed to secure the $1.65 million necessary to keep the building standing. It looks beautiful, far better than it did in the early 90s (on the outside, at least). As the article describes, Project Manager Richard Nathhorst has long been working on this effort to preserve the Chapel. He has created a splendid webpage here containing plenty of excellent historical information and some wonderful old photos.

It sounds to me as though the University is very fortunate to have people like Mr. Nathhorst and others who are promoting historical preservation at UMass…particularly the preservation of the Old Chapel.

The interior still awaits restoration. It has been closed now for 15 years. A matter of money, of course. The economy is rough, the job expensive, and I do not know, honestly, if there is a plan as to how the building would be used if restored. In short, I suppose this rambling article is my way of confessing my ignorance as to what has been going on with the Old Chapel at the University of Massachusetts. And I suspect that I am not the only UMass alum in that boat. I know there are others out there who admired and even treasured this building.

I intend to pay a little more attention to the efforts to save this building at the heart of old UMass. In between my ongoing historical squibs, I hope to report back here as to what is happening with the Old Chapel.

Update 2016: I encourage anyone interested in the progress of the UMass Old Chapel renovation to read the comments below. Since 2013, Mr. Joseph Larson of Preserve UMass has been posting informative updates in the comments section, which is much appreciated. The renovation is well underway (latest project summary can be viewed here) and the Chapel has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places. I look forward to getting back to campus this summer and seeing the work in progress.

About Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate View all posts by Patrick Browne

22 responses to “What is Happening to the UMass Old Chapel?

  • Jacob Dinkelaker

    Just been catching up on my blogosphere reading and this post caught my eye. I love College/University history projects/exhibits – there is just something about that particular type of environment that just creates little interesting episodes of history. I too love looking/searching for photos of my soon to be Alma-mater, the College of Wooster.

  • Dan Stratford

    Splendid article! I am currently a Senior at UMass, a Senator in the Student Government Association, and an ardent enthusiast of our campus’ illustrious history (regrettably, I am one of the few). I feel that if we place a special emphasis on passing down the history and traditions of our institution’s past, the reverence for the institution itself will grow. I am actually currently working on compiling a history of the SGA for this purpose. University Archives is an amazing place!

    • Patrick Browne

      So glad that you read and commented on this article. Fantastic that you are working on a history of the SGA. Keep at that. Anything you can do to encourage an appreciation for the history and traditions of the campus would be well worthwhile. Promote the history and you’d be surprised how positively people react when they realize that the campus actually has a history. I know the SGA has plenty of priorities on their agenda, but I wonder if perhaps they might take an interest in promoting the preservation of the Old Chapel and other historic sites on campus?

  • john mauriello

    Th old Chapel should be made into a Library /Museum focused on the history of the chapel (and other umass buidings on the umass campus) UMass in general , Amherst, and the pioneer valley in general( including the 5 colleges)and a welcoming information center for new students. and returning alumni including a gift shop to purchase historical memorabilia and rare books, and CDs. The top floor should be used a general areas to study with a coffee /espresso bar with photos of the campus history and the chapel bells of the past . The Clock tower should always be functional and include a wide variety of chimes based on the time of year, and other events ….and CDs should be sold that include these chimes. and the historical umass marching band CD’s. Cornell has a clock tower that is also a symbol of the university and widely used in campus photography ect…see http://chimes.cornell.edu/about.html

  • Joseph S. Larson

    The current Chancellor, Kumble Subbaswamy, has initiated a campaign to renovate the interior of Old Chapel. His advisory committee has recommended that the second floor auditorium be restored to its original historic condition as an auditorium for special events and the first floor be used for public receptions and exhibits by students and academic departments. This has prompted many single interest groups to fiercely lobby for exclusive use for their offices, a 5-star restaurant for the well-heeled and well connected. Some of these groups want to remove the old windows and install large picture windows and outside terraces for a cafe. Future student use and historic displays are at risk.

    • Patrick Browne

      Thanks for the update. I am glad to hear that there is renewed interest in renovating the interior but it is unfortunate about the competition. Whatever happens, I hope they stick to decent standards of historic preservation.

  • Joseph S. Larson

    A further update on Old Chapel – The Chapel was deemed by the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) as eligible for listing in the National Register in 2007. This month Preserve UMass (PUMA), a private historic preservation group, filed Register nomination papers with the MHC and Chancellor Subbaswamy.

    Several other buildings on the campus are also deemed eligible for National Register Listing by MHC. The Frank A, Waugh Pond Landscape in the middle of the campus has recently been judged eligible for listing on the Register as a historic landscape by MHC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. PUMA is pursuing these candidates as well.

  • Joseph S. Larson

    UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy has secured funding to renovate the interior of Old Chapel from the UMass President’s Office and Trustees. The UMass Building Authority is in the process of contracting with key project supervisors to oversee the project. It appears that the second floor will be restored to its original condition since much of the historic fabric is still in place. The first floor has been altered so much and so often that it is destined to be a space for permanent and temporary exhibits, and certain student activities. The basement will be devoted to serve modern utilities and mechanicals.

    Meanwhile, the private historic preservation organization, Preserve UMass, which filed nomination papers with the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) to place Old Chapel on the National Register of Historic Places has just been advised by MHC that our nomination package is complete except for a letter approving the nomination from Chancellor Subbaswamy. We expect that this will be forthcoming soon, but it would not harm if he were to receive letters complimenting him for his support for the renovation and to ask for his support of the nomination as well.

    • Patrick Browne

      Mr. Larson, this is very interesting news. Thank you for posting it. Clearly some wonderful work is being done to preserve the Old Chapel and all those involved should be applauded. I, for one, plan to write a letter to the Chancellor praising his support. Very good news indeed.

  • dan alumnus


    • Patrick Browne

      Thanks for the heads up on the new design. I was aware that the design phase was underway but missed that drawings had been posted. Anyone interested can see them here http://www.umass.edu/fcsadmin/Chapel.htm
      I’m really not sure how I feel about the plans. I’m pleased that this building won’t languish any longer as it has for decades. But I’m not thrilled about the designs either. There are certainly some difficult challenges with making this building accessible and up to ADA code, so I imagine it has to have some kind of atrium added. All glass may not be a good choice. But better than trying to alter one of the existing entrances…I’m glad they’ve left those alone. I’m maybe a bit more troubled by the open floor plan of the first floor which doesn’t seem to preserve any of the historic fabric of the building. And does the campus really need another “multi-purpose” space? On a positive note, I will be very happy to see the second floor meeting hall used again and look forward to seeing the windows restored.

    • Joseph S. Larson

      Old Chapel has presented a lot of tough issues to overcome, especially ADA compliance. None of the existing entrances comply and each has important architectural details worth preserving. The glass seems to be intended to avoid obscuring as little of the exterior as possible. I have seen photos of this kind of approach used on historic structures elsewhere. No ADA compliant entrance means sealing up the building forever. Several exemptions from various codes have been secured to reduce adverse impacts on the interior. The top floor “Great Hall” is to be returned to almost its original state. Both rose windows will be restored, the stage lowered to its original level and false walls removed to expose the original historic fabric.
      The first floor has been significantly over the years. The original state was a library. So this floor will be opened up and made into a combination display area and folding walls installed to allow for small meeting or display areas open to campus-wide use.
      The basement will include a small warming kitchen so “finger food” can be served at events. An elevator will be installed to serve the basement, the ADA compliant entrance and the top floor. The top floor gallery cannot be made ADA compliant so the existing railing will be replaced by reproduction at the correct height and the space restricted to AV equipment and operators. Most of the new electrical, air conditioning, heating equipment, etc. will be outside below ground level on the north side.
      When the steeple became unstable certain parties on the campus wanted to have the tower capped with a flat roof. Some wanted to seal up the whole building forever. A pitch was made by campus Auxiliary Services to turn the building into a multiple-star restaurant, which would have closed it to student use. Some wanted to tear out the east side windows to create walk-outs to a food plaza.Without the Chancellor’s recognition of its importance as the icon of the campus and his success in obtaining multiple studies by competent historic preservation firms and funding (approx. 18 Million) it would have been left to deteriorate. It has taken a lot of effort to defeat those who would vandalize the building and the ADA compliant entrance is something we will have to live with.
      Joseph S. Larson ’56 G’58
      Corresponding Secretary, Preserve UMass.

  • Joseph S. Larson

    Old Chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the US National Park Service on May 11, 2015. The nomination was first drafted and submitted to the Massachusetts Historic Commission (MHC)by Preserve UMass, a private association of alumni, active and retired faculty and professional staff, and friends of the campus. MHC did further research and revised the nomination to meet stste and federal standards.

    UMass Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy endorsed the nomination and secued funds to renovate and restore the interior so that the bulding could be put into service for current use. Restoration is now underway. The lower floor that was formerly a library will be used for student and campus displays and small meetings. The upper hall will be restored to its original appearance and used for special meetings and cultural events. A practice carillon will be installed so that students may learn how to play the 44 bell tower carillon.

    Joseph S. Larson ’56 G’58
    Preserve UMass

    • Patrick Browne

      Congratulations on the National Register listing. What a great thing for the Chapel and the campus. I really need to get out to Amherst sometime soon and see the progress.

      • Joseph Larson

        Thanks for posting this on your blog.

        Joseph S. Larson, Ph.D. ’56 G58

        Corresponding Secretary

        Preserve UMass

        27 Arnold Road

        Pelham, Massachusetts 01002-9757


      • Patrick Browne

        I’ve been spreading the word via social media to my UMass alum friends regarding the good news about the Chapel. I’m looking forward to getting out to Amherst relatively soon to see the progress.

      • Joe Larson

        Please let me know when you plan to make your visit. I would like you to meet, if you have not before, Richard Nathhorst, who was Project Manager for the restoration of the exterior of Old Chapel. That project won the highest award from the Massachusetts Historical Commission in that year.
        He is also largely responsible for the re-casting and expansion of the carillon to 43 bells.
        Joe Larson

      • Patrick Browne

        I certainly will, Joe. Thank you. I’ve not met Mr. Nathhorst and would be very pleased to meet both of you.

  • Joseph S. Larson

    The Massachusetts Historical Commission has found (Jun 11) that the renovation proposed for Old Chapel meets the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation with some conditions. 1. The glass proposed for the covered handicap entry pavilion needs to be rated to hold snow and ice. 2. The bannisters, including handrails, balusters, and newal posts must be reinstalled once the stairwells are repaired, 3. the proposed elevator overrun must not penetrate the existing roofline.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: