Cover Story

A UMass Landmark Has a New Lease on Life

Blast from the Past

Old ChapelBuilt when Chester A. Arthur was patrolling the White House and UMass Amherst was known as the Massachusetts Agricultural College, Old Chapel has witnessed a great deal of history. Yet, much of its own recent history has been one of neglect and disuse. But thanks to the vision and determination of the school’s chancellor, this landmark that has been such a big part of the school’s past will now play an intriguing role in its future.

It’s a story that many within the broad UMass Amherst community have heard already. But if they haven’t, they’re almost certain to hear it over the next few months.

Kumble Subbaswamy, then a candidate to become chancellor of the university, was on site for some interviews and, as part of that process, was being given an elaborate tour.

According to what has become local lore, he was walking through the center of the campus and past the building known colloquially as Old Chapel — although by most accounts it wasn’t really used for religious services — and paused to admire it.

He then asked to go inside for a look at this handsome structure that was opened in 1886, said Ed Blaguszewski, a spokesman for the school, and was told that he couldn’t; the building had been locked and shuttered amid safety concerns. Actually, by that time, 2011, few, if anyone, had been inside Old Chapel in years.

Moving the story along, Blaguszewski said that ‘Swamy,’ as he’s now known to most, made a pledge of sorts. If he were to be named chancellor, he would make it one of his priorities to see to it that the chapel, a rich part of the school’s past, would also be part of its future.

And to make a long story short, he made good on the pledge.

Indeed, Old Chapel, a building few alums can claim to have been in, even though it is considered the iconic, signature building on the flagship campus, is nearly ready to begin its next life. And in that role, few members of future classes will be able to say they never had cause to go inside.

That’s because the building will become a true community center, said Blaguszewski and Jeff Quackenbush, UMass project manager, noting that the spaces on the first and second floors can and will be used for everything from lectures to recitals; from receptions to weddings.

No bridal ceremonies or receptions have been scheduled yet, said Quackenbush, but he noted that calls of inquiry have started to pour in, many from alums looking for a unique location for their special day.

Getting Old Chapel ready for such functions has been an elaborate, 30-month-long effort that has been a blend of new construction and careful restoration and reconstruction of many of the original facilities, said Quackenbush, adding that the project has presented a number of stern tests.

“It’s been a challenge on many levels, with the biggest challenge being the building itself,” he said, noting that, while in the course of giving Old Chapel a makeover, construction manager Barr & Barr and the subcontractors that worked with it uncovered a host of problems and hurdles to be cleared. “We took this building back to the structure, and we found a lot of bad structure.”

The Old Chapel, seen in an undated postcard.

The Old Chapel, seen in an undated postcard.

Jim Alexander, senior principal with Finegold Alexander Architects, which added the chapel to an impressive résumé of work with historic structures, agreed.

He said there were three main challenges to this endeavor: creating suitable access to the building and all its levels, finding space for the mechanicals (heating, air conditioning, etc.) without taking valuable square footage on the ground floor, and determining what the structure could and should be used for moving forward, and designing spaces accordingly.

In each case, creative answers were found, he said, referring to his company as “problem-solving architects.”

The end results are dramatic, Alexander and Quackenbush noted, although few will actually know just how dramatic, because they’ve never seen the ‘old,’ and can only bask in the ‘new.’

And while the $21 million Old Chapel project will restore a landmark to prominence, it is, in many ways, merely part of a larger effort to revitalize and reinvigorate the historic center of the campus, an area that also includes the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, the campus pond, nearby South College, and some recent additions, such as the Honors College, just a few hundred feet from the chapel.

“The chapel is part of a larger investment in the core of the campus,” said Blaguszewski, listing everything from new construction to renovation of the campus center to conversion of the old Blue Wall tavern into a huge dining facility. “The goal is to connect students to the school’s past, honor our history, and build a community.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Old Chapel project, and how a university that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to add new facilities to the landscape has made an equally important investment in preserving the past.

History Lessons

When asked to describe that aforementioned ‘old,’ or what he found when he ventured inside Old Chapel before the restoration project commenced, Quackenbush used a number of words and phrases to convey the picture.

Perhaps none drove the point home better than ‘frightening.’

Jeff Quackenbush inside the renovated great room at the Old Chapel.

Jeff Quackenbush inside the renovated great room at the Old Chapel.

“It was not a safe place, really; I found myself wondering what was around the corner,” he said while referencing some early tours. “It was old, it was dirty … you were wondering if something with four legs might be lurking about.”

This was quite a sad state for a building that has seen all but a few decades of the school’s 153-year history and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places only a year ago.

“It has served many students over many generations,” said Blaguszewski as he explained its important place in the history and psyche of the university. “And it speaks to the history and community of UMass; this building has endured through the transformation of the university through many phases, from small land-grant startup, if you will, to one of the best public research universities in the country today.”

Indeed, positioned just west of the pond, the chapel has seen the school essentially grow up around it. One old postcard, date unknown (page 7), shows the structure on the school’s main thoroughfare with little but trees and a large green around it.

And as that green space was filled in over the ensuing decades, Old Chapel, a two-and-a-half-story Romanesque Revival structure made from Pelham granite with East Longmeadow sandstone trim, assumed a number of roles.

Originally, the first floor functioned as the school library, while the second floor was the college chapel. The library remained there until 1935, when it was renovated and used for classrooms. In subsequent years, the building served as home for the Department of Music and Performing Arts, and, later, the highly acclaimed UMass marching band.

Indeed, all that most students who were on campus during the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s knew of the chapel was the sounds of the band practicing, which permeated its thick walls.

While the chapel’s tower, clock, and bells underwent extensive renovations in 1998 and 1999, the interior was essentially neglected, said Blaguszewski, adding that the school could never seem to find the money for what would certainly be a very involved effort to restore, renovate, and modernize the structure to meet modern building codes.

And that’s where things stood until Subbaswamy’s now-famous tour and his stated commitment to returning Old Chapel to something approximating its former glory.

“After he was appointed,” noted Blaguszewski, “he said that, if the opportunity arises, we really need to restore this building — it’s such a beautiful structure, it’s in the heart of the campus, it’s part of our historic legacy, and it can be a real community builder.”

That opportunity came as the chancellor pushed for the chapel project to be part of a much larger capital campaign, he went on, adding that $21 million, including donations from several thousand individuals, was eventually cobbled together for the project.

The task of blueprinting the renovations and needed structural changes was awarded to Finegold Alexander Architects, which has undertaken a number of similar projects regionally and nationally.

It was a significant player in the massive, $150 million restoration of Ellis Island, for example, as well the extensive renovations to Boston’s iconic Hatch Memorial Shell on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 1990.

Other projects in the portfolio include work on the executive suite at the Massachusetts State House, Worcester’s Union Station, the Wang Performance Center, and, regionally, Holyoke’s Public Library, a project that involved integration of the existing structure, built in 1902, with a large addition, effectively doubling the facility’s space.

“Our interest has been in the reuse of existing buildings, and kind of reimagining or reinterpreting them for contemporary purposes,” Alexander explained, adding that those terms definitely apply to the Old Chapel project.

Designs on a Rebirth

As noted earlier, the Old Chapel project presented a number of challenges, said Alexander, and before any of them could really be addressed, the first order of business was to determine what the structure could and should be used for moving forward.

“There was a lot of back and forth on this, with a number of people involved,” he said. “The chancellor and many others wanted to explore the possibilities, but they knew it had to have a major student component, and there had to be ceremonial aspect to it as well.”

Making this vision reality required a healthy mix of imagination, diligence, and even some science, in the form of microscopic examination of samples from the second-floor space, known to many as the ‘great room,’ to determine the original wall and trim colors.

“It had been painted this unfortunate green color and was in really bad shape,” he recalled. “There had been a paint/stenciling color scheme around the walls, and by doing extensive testing of the original plaster — paint seriation analysis — we were able to figure out what those colors were originally and restore those color bands.”

In some cases, original facilities, including practically everything on the first floor except the support columns, had to be ripped up and replaced, said Quackenbush, adding that other original features, such as the wooden trusses in the great room and most of the elaborate staircases, were refurbished and put back in place.


The great room in the Old Chapel before (above), and after.

The great room in the Old Chapel before (above), and after.

“More than half the structural elements in the building had to be supplemented with additional structural elements,” he explained, adding that this was necessitated by modern building codes, including those dealing with seismic activity.

To create affective access for all, the architects came up with a unique solution in the form of a new entrance, or pavilion, known as the ‘glass box,’ which is essentially what it is.

This new, modern, handicap-accessible ‘addition to the landscape,’ as Alexander calls it, enables the preservation of the original entrances (no longer suited for that purpose) to be preserved and used only for egress.

“As a result, we didn’t have to change the historic character of those entranceways, one of which was right under the main tower,” he explained.

Another challenge was figuring out what to do with the mechanicals, said Quakenbush, adding that locating them within the existing footprint would be impractical and take up too much space. The solution was a vault, designed to be as inconspicuous as possible, located below grade outside the building. It will make use of excess capacity from the nearby library, said Quackenbush.

Placement of the chapel on the National Register of Historic Places presented still another challenge, said Alexander, adding that, while it doesn’t restrict what can be done to a building’s interior, in most cases, it adds another layer of approvals to the process.

“We had to make sure that our new entry, our new accessibility, the mechanical systems … nothing would really adversely effect the original design of the building,” he explained. “That was a bit of a challenge, but one we readily accepted.”

The renovated structure is now ready to play an exciting new role on the campus, said Quackenbush, adding that the first floor of the chapel will be used for student-related activities, right down to study space. The room can be conjured in a number of ways, he explained, and the giant video screen can be used for myriad academic functions.

The great room upstairs, meanwhile, with its slightly raised stage, stained-glass windows, and elaborate trusses, can be used for a number of different functions, he went on, listing everything from alumni gatherings to awards banquets to guest lectures and speeches.

It can also, as noted, be used for weddings, and he expects there to be many involving individuals who have a special connection to the university — and there are plenty who fall in that category.

Bell-weather Project

As he talked about the Old Chapel project, Alexander relayed a story that speaks volumes about the building, its importance to the campus, and the work to restore it.

Back in 2014, as the work was beginning, he was bringing his granddaughter, then a student at the university, back to the campus. He told BusinessWest that the two eventually ventured to Old Chapel, and she was able to climb into the tower and ring the bell.

Upon descending and moving toward the exit, they came across several students, who, upon seeing the door to the landmark finally open (something they had never seen before), tried to get inside for a look.

“They were very disappointed when I told them they couldn’t,” Alexander recalled. “I had to say, ‘sorry, not yet.’”

Soon, of course, he and others won’t have to utter those words any longer. That will be an historic moment for the school, one of many witnessed by the university’s most recognizable landmark, and the one everyone knew so little about.

Indeed, the school’s past will now be part of its future, and the vision Subbaswamy had years ago will finally become reality.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]