UMass Amherst Plans Repair and Restoration of Historic Old Chapel Clock Tower

AMHERST, Mass. - The historic Old Chapel, overlooking the Campus Pond, is one of the most recognizable symbols of the University of Massachusetts. But age has taken its toll on this venerable stone edifice built in 1884.

The chapel’s clock tower is currently in serious need of structural repairs and campus officials are planning a major effort to bring it back to its former glory.

The deterioration of the tower, according to James Cahill, director of facilities planning at UMass, was discovered after an extensive investigation that began when the Class of 1944 donated funds for the installation of new faces for the tower’s clock. Cahill says that in preparation for that work, University architects and designers from the firm of Caolo & Bieniek, of Springfield, discovered structural cracks around the clock faces, and further investigation uncovered additional problems in the belfry and the spire. "What we thought was localized deterioration," he says, "kept getting worse and worse as we moved further up the spire."

Additional analysis by Cape Stoneworks, of Brewster, a stone masonry consultant with expertise in analyzing and restoring historic stone structures, confirmed the structural deterioration of the spire and belfry is significant and must be addressed.

The problem, says Cahill, is that the cast iron framework that supports the tower structure has corroded and expanded over time. This has resulted in movement of the inner and outer masonry layers of the tower, he says, causing cracking and displacement of the structure. Water penetration and the "freeze/thaw" cycle that comes with changes in temperature, Cahill notes, have exacerbated the situation. "This problem," says Cahill, "is typical of old Victorian structures."

As a first step toward stabilizing the tower, Cahill says bands will be placed at intervals around it and the structure will be literally encased in netting to keep the tower and the stonework intact. A fence has already been installed in the area around the tower, and Cahill expects the banding and netting to be completed by the end of January.

This short-term stabilization, he says, will give the University time to prepare detailed plans for a comprehensive restoration of the tower which Cahill hopes will begin in the late spring. That would most likely entail dismantling the tower from the belfry upward to the spire, and rebuilding it stone by stone, he says.

Cahill estimates the total cost of such a project would be slightly under $1 million.

Though the stonework on the rest of the building is in need of re-pointing and other repairs, says Cahill, that portion of the Old Chapel remains structurally sound.

The clock tower was last re-pointed in 1941, and minor repairs have been made over time, according to Cahill. "This type of structural deterioration, however," he says, "is not easily detected. It can only be discovered by a careful, thorough investigation. We have done that, and now we’re taking as quick action as we possibly can."

Cahill says money is available in his budget for banding and netting the tower, which he expects will cost less than $20,000, but he does not yet know for certain how the rebuilding of the tower will be funded.

Emphasizing the significance of the Old Chapel to the campus and the community’s affection for it, Cahill says he’s hopeful the University’s rebuilding the tower might generate additional funding from other sources for further restoration of the building.

The cornerstone for the Old Chapel was laid Nov. 6, 1884, and the building was officially dedicated two years later as the New Stone Chapel and Library Building. Constructed of granite from the Pelham quarry owned by what was at that time Massachusetts Agricultural College, now the University, and trimmed in brownstone, probably obtained from East Longmeadow, the building was designed by architect Stephen Earle of Worcester. The tower clock and bell were presented to the College in 1892. The 10-bell chime, a gift in memory of alumnus Warren Hinds, was dedicated in 1937. Serving for many years as the campus library, the Old Chapel was also used for lectures and military drill. More recently, the music department, the Minuteman Marching Band, and Continuing Education’s performing arts division have used the historic structure.