Massachusetts Historical Commission - 2017 Preservation Award Winners
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Photo of Old Chapel, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Old Chapel, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Rehabilitation & Restoration

The Old Chapel building at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst campus is the university’s most iconic building and a lasting reminder of its early history as the Massachusetts Agricultural College. Designed by prominent Worcester architect Stephen Carpenter Earle and completed in 1885, it is a richly detailed Richardsonian Romanesque-style building. Two and a half stories in height, with a square footprint, the building features a four-story belltower, cross-gable roof, round-arched window and door openings, rough-cut gray Pelham granite blocks, and red-brown Longmeadow sandstone trim. The construction of the Old Chapel marked an important milestone for the fledgling Massachusetts Agricultural College. As the school’s reputation grew, the need for a library and additional classrooms became essential to firmly secure the college’s future as an academic institution. Old Chapel was conceived as a multipurpose building, with a chapel for lectures and religious services, and a library with a reading room. Serving both spiritual and intellectual needs, the chapel quickly became the pride of the campus. By 1936, increased student enrollment, combined with the opening of the Goodell Library, led to the renovation of the first-floor library into additional classrooms, seminar rooms, and a lecture hall. The Old Chapel served as a classroom building for the next sixty years, and as the home of the Minuteman Marching Band in the 1960s, but it was closed in 1996 due to code and access deficiencies and the deterioration of the tower. Although not in use for almost 20 years, Old Chapel’s location at the heart of the campus meant that it was passed by most students in the course of the day, and it continued to be a visual centerpiece of the campus.

In 2014, a committee began the process of evaluating the building for restoration and rehabilitation. The goal was to find a design solution that met accessibility and code requirements while maintaining the building’s historic integrity. The solution, known as the “The Pavilion,” created an integrated, landscaped terrace with accessible ramps and a glass entry pavilion on the chapel’s south elevation. The Pavilion also allows the addition of contemporary systems without significantly disturbing historic architectural fabric. Creative interventions, such as lowering the basement floor, adding an underground mechanical vault, and strategically inserting an elevator further solved code, access, and building performance needs while preserving the distinctive features of the building.

The careful balance of historic preservation with contemporary needs has positioned the building as a sought-after venue for programs that extend learning outside of the classroom, from lectures to presentations and special events. In between programs, the building functions as a day-to-day student gathering place for groups and individuals to study, socialize, and relax. This restoration and rehabilitation project has returned Old Chapel, with its distinctive stone tower, clock, and carillon, to its rightful place as the actively used, emblematic center of the University of Massachusetts/Amherst campus.

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