Back to top

Something Old, Something New

Since its opening in 1885, Old Chapel has been the most iconic and beloved of UMass Amherst buildings. Closed in 1999 due to structural deterioration, it has now emerged from a two-year, $21 million renovation as a vibrant, versatile, highly accessible space ideal for displays, performances, lectures, weddings, and other events. The renovation led us to ponder what Old Chapel has meant to past generations of alumni. At our request, readers have shared some of their most cherished memories.


I had freshman English in Old Chapel during 1942–43 with Professor Max Goldberg. It was on the cold side, which kept us awake. I’ll always remember the bells ringing from the tower as I walked around campus.

Barbara C. Thompson ’46
Billings, Montana

I entered Massachusetts State College in September of 1946, shortly before it became the University of Massachusetts. Our class consisted of 100 boys and 100 girls directly out of high school and hundreds of World War II veterans, some living in temporary housing on campus.

My sophomore year, I took German with Professor Julian in the Old Chapel. He reminded me of the professor in the movie Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

My good friend Patricia Chadwick ’50 played the Old Chapel chimes every morning when classes started and at the end of the day, too, as I recall. That made my 8 o’clock classes bearable. I loved those chimes.

Janice Rittenburg Rossbach ’49
Lexington, Massachusetts

Watch an exclusive mini-documentary on the past, present, and future of Old Chapel, featuring interviews with many members of the UMass Amherst community and rarely seen material from the university archives. Producer Elizabeth Wilda, assisted by Gustavo Rodriguez ’18. Archival photos courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library.

I grew up on Mount Pleasant Street in Amherst hearing the chapel chimes almost every afternoon. As kids, we loved to play on campus. It was great fun to go into the Durfee range greenhouse or the cow barns and skate on the pond in view of the beautiful chapel.

I graduated in landscape architecture. My required speech class was in the chapel. From my art class, I could see the chapel across the pond and affectionately drew it in pen and ink. Thirty years later, my daughter Francine ‘82, who graduated with a BFA in printmaking, also did a chapel pen-and-ink.

Joan France Jasinski ’51
Springfield, Massachusetts

In 1948, as a freshman with six years’ experience as a professional drummer, I hauled my drum set to Old Chapel’s second-floor music offices and was greeted by Professor Ezra Schabas, who let me store my drums in his office. “We’ll start the first UMass big band,” he said, and we did. We practiced there, along with the military band and the marching band. In 1949, the big band played an Old Chapel dance. I also remember seeing Patti Page perform there. That was great—I loved it.

Al Hixon ’52, ’56G
Longboat Key, Florida

I remember taking a consolidated English final in Old Chapel in 1954; the teachers all had offices there and it was convenient to have one final. At that point, the building wasn’t being used for anything except the offices, so the upstairs hall was musty, dirty, and sort of scary. It’s nice to hear of the chapel being restored and reborn.

Gerald Murphy ’57
Phoenix, Arizona

Old Chapel reopened in spring 2017. 

Photo by
Robert Benson Photography

In either 1955 or 1956, I was in one of Old Chapel’s second-floor classrooms, where Professor Scanlon, I believe, was teaching geometry. He had a habit of throwing a blackboard eraser at any student he spotted napping. One day he took aim at a student sitting against the outside wall. His aim was a little off, and the eraser sailed out an open window next to the student. No one was dispatched to retrieve it. The class continued once the laughter ended, with everyone wide awake.

Donald A. Abt ’57
East Falmouth, Massachusetts

I first saw Old Chapel when I went to take the university’s entrance exam. Not only was I happy to be there, but was impressed by the age of the building, which reminded me of the English churches of my ancestors. Although I was accepted by another school, it took me only two seconds to choose the University of Massachusetts, and I have never regretted my choice.

Richard Gamble ’58
Alexandria, Virginia

When I first walked on campus in the fall of 1950, Old Chapel stood pretty much alone, with a great view, from the pond side, of Goodell Library in the background and the old administration building and the “C” Store to the right. I had one class in the chapel and learned my way around it before entering the Air Force for four years. Discharged in early 1957, I returned to UMass on the GI Bill. I signed up for two history classes, among other courses in government, and sat in on classes in Old Chapel and was hooked for life. Later, as a graduate history student, I spent pretty much my entire academic life in Old Chapel. I look forward to returning to campus and wandering once again in the nooks and crannies of this wonderful old building.

Norman Winnerman ’59, ’60G
Danbury, Connecticut

 

I remember the bells announcing Spring Day. You never knew when to expect it, except it was always a gorgeous day. Everyone left their books and notebooks and headed out to enjoy the sun and flirtation around College Pond.
Judy Moore Adams ’60
GROTON, MASSACHUSETTS

 

November 22, 1963: I was a sophomore nursing student on my way to the Goodell Library. It was a cloudy afternoon. All of a sudden, the bells of Old Chapel started ringing and everyone was running toward the Union Building. It was very frightening. In the Union, the televisions were on with the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated. Everyone was stunned and speechless. The bells kept ringing. I remember that day like it was yesterday.

Janet Deckers Bingle ’66
Indianapolis, Indiana

I was in a chemistry quiz class when we heard the bells announcing President Kennedy’s assassination. After that, the ringing of the bells—for whatever reason, on the hour or to announce Spring Day—inevitably brought to mind that tragic day in my freshman year.

Donald A. Dupont ’67
Lafayette, California

I was an elementary school major and remember having “Merry Music” classes in Old Chapel. We even had to learn to play piano on a very basic level.

Donna Helfen ’67
East Sandwich, Mass.

As an undergraduate, I was on the WMUA staff when the station was located at the top of the tower of South College. When we signed off, we’d stick a microphone out the window and pick up the sound of the Old Chapel bell striking midnight.

Students were not told when Spring Day would be celebrated. The Old Chapel bell would ring, canceling classes for the day, and celebrations would start around College Pond. One year, a student took a rifle to a secluded location, took aim at the tower, and rang the bell with a couple of shots. Spring Day started and couldn’t be called off—much to the consternation of the campus administration.

I attended two memorable Old Chapel performances. Stephen Vincent Benét’s The Devil and Daniel Webster was performed “in the round” on a round stage with the audience seated in a series of surrounding circles. And the chapel was the site of a public hearing on a charge of theft of horse feed leveled at the university’s head horseman by the dean of agriculture. The horseman was to be fired but had the right to have the charge challenged in a formal public hearing. UMass President J. Paul Mather presided. The dean presented his case and was cross-examined by the horseman’s lawyer, who so effectively demolished the dean’s evidence that President Mather dismissed all charges.

Joseph S. Larson ’56, ’58G
Pelham, Massachusetts

I arrived at UMass Amherst in July 1963 for freshmen orientation week and learned that a new marching band director, John Jenkins, would be arriving. Already a band lover—with my flute, piccolo, and whistle from six band years in junior and senior high schools, two of them as the drum major—I signed up immediately. Learning that band practice would be headquartered in Old Chapel, I visited long enough—probably two seconds—to fall in love with it.

After four years at Old Chapel, I could claim hundreds of musicians as friends for life. I had had daily classes, rehearsing, and meetings there. Our instruments and uniforms were housed on the ground floor, the stairway to the third-floor rehearsal hall was a daily climb, and the fourth floor was sometimes a setting for cribbage playing as we waited for rehearsals to start. Band staff offices were also on the auditorium floor.

I had a music history class in Old Chapel as well, plus flute lessons and rehearsals with a flute quartet under the direction of the former band director, Joseph Contino. Our symphony band met three afternoons per week, the concert band twice per week, and marching band for six days a week during the fall season.

Over the 50 years since, I’ve visited UMass, Old Chapel, and John Jenkins many times. My most recent visit, September 2014, included attending the football game, and being interviewed for a special memorial video for Helen Perry, who had served many years as the music department administrator.

I have a framed artist rendition of Old Chapel displayed prominently, bought on campus a generation ago.

Joyce Bottenberg ’67, ’69G
Sammamish, Washington

Inside the renovated Old Chapel in 2017.

The downstairs lounge includes an impressively large digital wall.

Photo by
Robert Benson Photography

From the moment I stepped on the campus for the 1965 All States and saw the pond and Old Chapel, I knew this was where I wanted to attend college. I was a music major, entering in 1966, the year before the bachelor of music program was approved. Our music professors were in trailers, our choral groups rehearsed wherever there were large enough rooms with pianos. We practiced individually in the chapel’s basement rooms, reserving them carefully. (I wasn’t there the day Doc Severinsen visited and gave impromptu lessons to the lucky trumpeters in the practice rooms, but I sure wish I had been!) I was a voice major, but was lucky to have been in the symphony band my junior year, rehearsing in the chapel’s upper level. I am elated that the chapel has been restored to its former glory.

Sandra Murphy Conley ’71
Prattsburgh, New York

I was a music major and played in the marching band. The late, great George Parks is forever tied to Old Chapel; my freshman year was his second at UMass. I fondly recall band rehearsals, Saturday-morning grinder-making parties, Saturday-night band parties (don’t try the Tuba Water!), band-service sorority meetings, and interviews with Big Sisters while sitting on the back staircase. I taught flute through the Performing Arts Division, also housed in Old Chapel at that time. (I made the very long flowered curtains that hung in the PAD office for years.) Many an hour was spent in one of the dingy practice rooms in the basement. As a music major, I took piano lessons for two years in the main-floor electronic-piano room. As band librarian, I spent many hours in the upstairs loft where we kept the music and the copy machine. And then there were the late-night forays into the bell tower.

Tara Howard-North ’82, ’88G
Oriental, North Carolina

Not to offend anyone, but this is an epic tale: the night before graduation 1984, I climbed the chapel tower with a five-foot cardboard Mickey Mouse and turned the clock into a giant Mickey watch. Alas, in daylight, we saw that one of the clock hands had caught Mickey’s foot, spinning him upside down. The chapel is a cool old building for many reasons!

Kenis Sweet ’84
Queensbury, New York

 

I remember a night in August 1985 when the band rehearsed in the Old Chapel auditorium: we had a break and tumbled into the cool night air outside to see the color guard performing a dance routine on Metawampee Field. My eyes fell on Joan Monaco ’88, the “new girl from San Francisco,” and I couldn’t take them off her. Thirty years later, she still has my heart and my attention.
Tom Carbone ’87
Haverhill, Massachusetts

 

As a songwriter, I was often in search of a peaceful setting away from the loud roommates, parties, and homework that are part of college life. Old Chapel had pianos I could use most any day and night, plus there was always a mysterious, comforting vibe emanating from this historic building that made it my go-to sanctuary. Often, I would finish writing or playing a song late at night and the bells would ring on cue—very strange. I tried to accept it as coincidence, even though it happened several times. Old Chapel will always have a special place in my heart. Here’s a song I wrote and performed about Old Chapel, its mysteries, and how its bells could “send shivers up and down.” Thank you for keeping this gem in the heart of campus alive and ringing!

Kent Earl Nierendorf ’88
Sunapee, New Hampshire

I remember rehearsing with the marching band on those rainy fall-semester days back in the mid-80s. I wonder if George Parks’s voice still echoes through the building: “Uuuuuugggaaaaaiiinnn!!” I also remember a couple of marching band parties there, with the dancing, the grain-alcohol punch, and Pete (I forgot his last name) as DJ, especially that time when part of the sound system equipment suddenly started smoking badly! Ah, those college days of our young adult lives will never be forgotten, and Old Chapel and the Minuteman Marching Band at UMass will always be synonymous with me.

Tim Nugent ’88
Largo, Florida

I spent many an hour in Old Chapel’s lovely confines from 1988 to 1992 as a member of the marching band. From Tau Beta Sigma (the band-service sorority) meetings and inductions, to dancing and practicing musical percussion in the upstairs open space, to pulling music files as the Hoop Band manager, the chapel was my home-away-from-dorm throughout those years. I’ll never forget carrying marimbas (weighing over 200 pounds) up and down the curving steps or the murals painted on the downstairs bathroom walls. I’ll always fondly remember George N. Parks and Thom Hannum in their offices and the way the locker room smelled (those uniforms were heavy!).

Melissa Harmon-Belliard ’92
Haverhill, Massachusetts

I was the student carillonneur at UMass from 1990 to 1993. Ken Samonds, the campus carillonneur and a food science professor, was playing one day, so I went in and climbed my way up. I think I scared him; no one had ever come upstairs while he was playing.

In those days, it was the old 12-bell Meneely set of bells before they were restored, original to the chapel. It was a real workout to play! The handles were the size of shovel handles and were connected to wood pull-rods with leather straps in need of restoration, which Ken and I did. I also spent a bit of time with Dick Nathorst caring for the old clock, a truly wondrous mechanical thing which I hope has also been restored. (The pigeons and I came to an agreement, eventually!) 

It was a real pleasure to become responsible for the upkeep and care of the old bells and then to get to play them every day and for special events. Ken or I tried to play every day about noon and again about 4 p.m., between classes as not to disturb students in nearby academic buildings. We also played for victories for football and basketball games; when I started, they still played basketball in the Cage. We had a full book of things to play, including the fight song and the alma mater, “When Twilight Shadows Deepen.”

I am so pleased to see that the grand Old Chapel has been restored. It is truly a jewel in the center of the old campus. I haven’t returned to campus since the old bells were replaced with a new, larger set. I look forward to doing so one day soon and hope to have the opportunity to play once again.

Jim Olson ’93
Westchester, Illinois