The aesthetic and function of UMass Amherst has changed dramatically since its establishment as a land-grant college in 1863. In a new documentary, students from the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning (LARP) examine these changes, and what they mean for campus architecture, landscapes, and eco-friendly buildings.
The history of UMass is deeply rooted in the geologic history of the Connecticut River Valley. The valley’s lush farmland owes its fertility to the sedimentary deposits left by Glacial Lake Hitchcock, an ancient lake thought to have formed almost 20,000 years ago that stretched from central Connecticut to northern Vermont.
Over time the lake receded, providing the earliest inhabitants with an area full of natural resources.
“I have seen many generations of students push the sustainability rope on campus and we have gotten as far as we have primarily because of their leadership and advocacy.”
“This was a place rich in thousands of years of Native American occupation by all sorts of different groups,” said Dana MacDonald, adjunct lecturer in LARP, and Department of Geosciences research fellow. “It’s important to acknowledge they were here first and there was a series of rich resources here.”
MacDonald was one of several faculty and staff interviewed for the documentary by five sustainable community development majors: Grace Alves, Olivia Boyce, Jake Butler, Hailey McQuaid, and Justin Risley, who has a double major in journalism.
The video originates from the one-credit honors seminar SustComm 140 taught by Patricia McGirr, associate professor and BSLA program director.
“In the process of brainstorming the project for the honors seminar, they decided to focus on the campus and the changes over time in its visual qualities – and heading toward sustainability,” said McGirr.
McGirr and students prepared themselves for pre-production by making trips to the W.E.B. Du Bois Library to explore archival material, select buildings to focus on, and determine storyboards to set the narrative.
Risley directed and edited the film; and Risley, Alves, Boyce, Butler, and McQuaid all had a hand in cinematography, research, interviews, and pre- and post-production.
“They brought it to my class at the end of the semester and showed it to the class, to a great round of applause,” said McGirr.
From Land-Grant College to Leading Research Institution
Valley area farms produced tobacco, sweet corn, and other sustenance crops and helped establish the region as one of the preeminent agricultural lands in the Northeast.
In 1862, the Morrill Land-Grant Acts provided states federal land to sell and use the profits to establish public learning institutions. In 1863, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts founded the Massachusetts Agricultural College, which grew into Massachusetts State College and later the University of Massachusetts Amherst. (The Morrill Land-Grant Acts also helped establish the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)
College trustees asked celebrity landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, of Central Park fame, to design a plan for the campus, which he modeled after a quintessential New England village centered around agriculture. The trustees ultimately said no.
“One of the most famous architects got the 'thanks but no thanks,'” said Joseph S. Larson, Professor Emeritus.
They did, however, retain Olmsted's idea for a central pond, around which the school grew from a small land-grant college to a nationally recognized research institution. The pond served as a gathering place for the entire community; they hosted annual rope pulls in the summer, and used it for skating in the winter. Today, the campus pond is an impoundment that collects stormwater from Amherst and surrounding towns.
The university underwent its most sweeping changes in the post-war era. Brutalist buildings of glass, steel, and concrete sprung up around the colonial and old red brick buildings of a bygone era. The modernist style helped accommodate the skyrocketing enrollment spurred by the passage of the GI Bill.
“I came here as an undergraduate in ‘51—5,000 students on the campus,” said Larson. It was small but growing fast.”
Hideo Sasaki developed a master plan for the campus in 1963, from which came some of the university's most recognizable buildings: the Student Union, Campus Center, Fine Arts Center, Herter Hall, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, and Southwest Residential Area. By this time, enrollment exceeded 10,000. Today, UMass Amherst serves more than 28,000 students.
The W.E.B. Du Bois Library was particularly notable due to its size and striking brick facade which allowed it to be a taller structure the originally considered limestone. The library “made the campus brand itself as an innovator,” said Ludmilla Pavlova-Gilliam, senior campus planner.
The library’s size also made it a lightning rod for rumor.
“The myth was that it was sinking, and that it had been designed without keeping in line the weight of the books, and that the bricks were falling,” said Pavlova-Gillham. “And in fact for the last 40-years we have never had anything more than small chips off the brick fall off the facade. The library has adapted to four different generations of students… from the initial time it was built as a graduate research library to what it became very soon thereafter which was a library to serve all of the campus community.”
Sustainable Building & Energy Conservation
The 2012 UMass Amherst Campus Master Plan is all about smart development on existing property, building density, and protecting our cultural heritage and ecosystems. This means more thoughtful renovation of existing buildings keeping in mind sustainability goals.
Those who have walked by the Student Union can see that it is undergoing sweeping renovations. As one of the first modernist structures of the post-war era, and as a central site for student events from protests to organized clubs, it is not only an example of UMass’s investment in maintaining history and modernizing structures but also of its commitment to energy efficiency and environmental awareness.
Indeed, the lasting nature of these modernist buildings and their place among the landscape allows for evolution. Solar panels, rain gardens, natural native plantings, and stormwater drainage systems once thought to be unfeasible are now hallmarks of UMass construction.
“The driving force should be energy conservation,” said Larson.
“I have seen many generations of students push the sustainability rope on campus and we have gotten as far as we have primarily because of their leadership and advocacy,” said Pavlova-Gillham.