UMass Amherst’s Old Chapel Named to National Register of Historic Places

Old Chapel

AMHERST, Mass. – The University of Massachusetts Amherst’s iconic Old Chapel, the 129-year-old landmark at the heart of the Commonwealth’s flagship campus, has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The federal designation signifies national recognition of the building’s historic and architectural significance.

UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy said, “This well-deserved national recognition affirms our commitment to preserving the rich historical past of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The restoration of Old Chapel will revive this beloved UMass emblem and place it once again at the center of campus life. I am grateful for the efforts of Preserve UMass and the Massachusetts Historical Commission in achieving this historic designation for our campus.”

A $21 million renovation of the Old Chapel is under way with completion anticipated for October 2016. Once restored, it will provide faculty, students and alumni access to this beloved campus centerpiece with venues for gallery displays, receptions and formal dinners.

The private advocacy group Preserve UMass started the application process with the support of the university. The Massachusetts Historical Commission completed the formal application and submitted it to the National Park Service, which administers the register.

The application detailed the Old Chapel’s architectural value and cited it as a reminder of the early history of Massachusetts Agricultural College and an icon that provides “lasting memories to generations of students and faculty.”

Joseph Larson, emeritus professor of environmental conservation and spokesman for Preserve UMass, said a number of actions were critical to achieving the listing. He cited Subbaswamy for publically supporting the application and for committing the university to the Old Chapel renovation.

Larson also cited the work of Richard Nathhorst of UMass Amherst facilities and campus services, who was project manager for the restoration of the Old Chapel bell tower in the 1990s. “That restoration of the exterior was important because it was done right. That showed state and federal officials that UMass was serious,” Larson said.

Juanita Holler, associate vice chancellor for facilities and campus services, said the current renovation preserves the building’s appearance while adding architectural necessities, like an elevator. “Our goal always is to respect historic buildings and turn them into contributing buildings for today and the future,” she said.

The renovated chapel’s top floor will provide a large open space for performances and lectures and will be available for weddings and similar events. The first floor will provide a flexible layout for displays and events and will serve as a general campus resource.

Originally called the New Chapel and funded by a $25,000 state grant, the building was planned to house a natural history collection, a library and reading room, and a chapel for lectures and religious services. Noted Worcester architect Stephen Carpenter Earle designed it in the Romanesque style. It was constructed of local stone—Pelham granite and Longmeadow sandstone—and opened in the fall of 1885.  

The building became known as the Old Chapel shortly after Stockbridge Hall opened in 1915 with its new auditorium and chapel. The Old Chapel then served primarily as the college library, although that space soon proved inadequate.

New Deal money erected the overdue Goodell library building in 1934 and paid for alterations to the Old Chapel. A 10-bell tower chime was added in 1937. An automatic carillon was installed in 1962. In the 1960s, the Old Chapel was used by the music department and by the Minuteman Marching Band, which made use of it for rehearsals and equipment and uniform storage.

The building was closed in 1996 because of deterioration of the tower, which was restored using as many original stones as possible over the next three years. Thirty-two new bells were added to the carillon and a new carillon keyboard was installed.

“Old Aggie,” the campus bell that first chimed in 1892—the first year women were admitted—was restocked as a swinging bell and hung in the new bell frame, making it the 43rd in the tower.

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Register is part of a national program to coordinate and support efforts to identify, evaluate and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.