UMass Amherst’s Old Chapel Honored with State Historic Preservation Award

Old Chapel's Great Hall
Old Chapel's Great Hall

AMHERST, Mass. – The renovated Old Chapel, the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s most iconic building and a lasting reminder of its early history as Massachusetts Agricultural College, was honored with a Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) 2017 Historic Preservation Award in a ceremony Nov. 2 at the Massachusetts Archives Building in Dorchester.

In presenting the award, Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who serves as chair of the 17-member MHC, said, “The preservation of UMass Amherst’s Old Chapel guarantees the campus centerpiece for future generations.”

Shane Conklin, associate vice chancellor for Facilities and Campus Services, who represented the university at the ceremony, said the restoration was among the first capital priorities set by Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy when he came to campus in 2012. Old Chapel formally reopened in March.

“Not only did we complete a very thoughtful historic renovation that’s worthy of this recognition – we did it on time, under budget and were able to obtain LEED Gold certification,” Conklin said.

Designed by prominent Worcester architect Stephen Carpenter Earle and completed in 1885, Old Chapel is a richly detailed Richardsonian Romanesque-style building with an exterior of rough-cut gray Pelham granite blocks and red-brown Longmeadow sandstone trim.

It was conceived as a multipurpose building, with a chapel for lectures and religious services and a library with reading room. It quickly became the pride of the campus. By 1936, however, greater enrollment and the opening of the Goodell Library led to the renovation of the first-floor library into additional classrooms, seminar rooms and a lecture hall. Old Chapel served as a classroom building for the next 60 years, as well as the home of the Minuteman Marching Band in the 1960s, but it was closed in 1996 due to the deterioration of the tower as well as code and access deficiencies.

Although not in use for almost 20 years, its location at the heart of the campus meant that it was passed by most students in the course of the day and continued to be a centerpiece of the university.

In 2014, a committee began evaluating the building for restoration and rehabilitation. Its goal was to find a design solution that met accessibility and code requirements while still keeping the building’s historic integrity.

Their solution, known as the “The Pavilion,” creates an integrated, landscaped terrace with accessible ramps and a glass entry pavilion on the south side.

“The Pavilion” also balances the addition of contemporary systems without disturbing the historic fabric.

Old Chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015, and work began on the $18 million renovation.

The revitalized Old Chapel now serves students, faculty and alumni as a campus resource: the first floor provides a flexible layout for student study, video-wall, gallery exhibitions and community events; and the Great Hall on the top floor provides a large open space for performances, lectures, receptions and weddings.

In October, Old Chapel was honored with a commendation from the Victorian Society in America for the university’s “comprehensive exterior restoration and adaptive use of the interior.”

Also attending the MHC award ceremony were members of the University of Massachusetts Building Authority, representatives of the design architect Finegold Alexander Architects, and Joseph Larson and Max Page of Preserve UMass.

Old Chapel was one of 11 projects honored in the 39th year of MHC’s Preservation Awards program.