Old Chapel

Constructed: 1884-1886

Architects: Stephen C. Earle, Worcester, Mass.

<html><div style=“float:right; padding-left:20px; padding-bottom:15px;”><a href=“http://scua.library.umass.edu/speccollimages/referenceimages/RG150-0004941.png”><img src=“http://scua.library.umass.edu/speccollimages/referenceimages/RG150-0004941.png” alt=“Old Chapel” style=“width:220px; border:1px solid #333; padding:5px;” /></a> <br /><a href=“http://scua.library.umass.edu/speccollimages/referenceimages/RG150-0004939.png”><img src=“http://scua.library.umass.edu/speccollimages/referenceimages/RG150-0004939.png” alt=“Old Chapel” style=“width:220px; border:1px solid #333; padding:5px;” /></a> <br /><a href=“http://scua.library.umass.edu/speccollimages/referenceimages/RG150-0004996.png”><img src=“http://scua.library.umass.edu/speccollimages/referenceimages/RG150-0004996.png” alt=“Old Chapel” style=“width:220px; border:1px solid #333; padding:5px;” /></a> <br /><a href=“http://scua.library.umass.edu/speccollimages/referenceimages/RG150-0005002.png”><img src=“http://scua.library.umass.edu/speccollimages/referenceimages/RG150-0005002.png” alt=“Old Chapel interior” style=“width:220px; border:1px solid #333; padding:5px;” /></a> <br /><a href=“http://scua.library.umass.edu/speccollimages/referenceimages/RG150-0005004.png”><img src=“http://scua.library.umass.edu/speccollimages/referenceimages/RG150-0005004.png” alt=“Old Chapel interior” style=“width:220px; border:1px solid #333; padding:5px;” /></a> </div></html>

Designed by Stephen Earle, a noted architect from central Massachusetts, Old Chapel is an elegant example of Romanesque Revival architecture, and together with the pond, is the physical and emotional heart of the UMass Amherst campus. Constructed of gray Pelham granite with Longmeadow brown sandstone trim, the building displays a stylistic affinity with the Richardsonian Romanesque, reflected in its deeply recessed entrance and rounded window arches, as well as in the use of textured stone and heavy massing.

Originally, the first floor of Old Chapel functioned as the college library, while the second was the college chapel. The library remained in this building until 1935, when it was renovated by the WPA to serve the History and English departments. In subsequent years, the building has served as home for the Department of Music and Performing Arts, and for the UMass Marching Band. The tower, clock, and bells were thoroughly renovated in 1998-1999.

Architectural Description

The Chapel is a 2½-story stone Romanesque Revival structure with an approximately square footprint and a four-story bell tower at its southeast corner. According to Adams and Adams, the Chapel was not planned for exclusive use as a religious building; instead, the Massachusetts Agricultural College administration intended the building to serve as a multi-purpose structure that would include “a cabinet of natural history collections, a chapel for lectures and religious services, and a library and reading room.”

The Chapel is constructed of gray Pelham granite, with red-brown Longmeadow sandstone trim and a gray slate roof. Random sections of the roof have distinctly contrasting shades of gray slate, which appears to be the result of many localized slate replacements over the years since the building was begun in 1884. The four-sided steeple of the bell tower is clad in granite and has sandstone trim, similar in appearance to quoins, along the long edges of its tapered four sides. Most of the building’s trim is executed in sandstone, although the prominent dog-tooth blocks in the gable peaks are made of granite, with a few sandstone dog-tooth blocks set at points where the dog-tooth trim and sandstone string courses intersect. In general, the Chapel has continuous sandstone string courses above and below each story’s windows. At the first story level, these sandstone string courses also serve as the window lintels and sills, while at the basement story the string courses include the basement window lintels. Other sandstone trim includes round arches over doors and windows; circular frames for round windows of varying sizes; and incidental trim in the bell tower, gables and gable returns.

The bell tower consists of four stories or stages: (1) an entry porch, described below, (2) a square tower with four bands of brownstone trim, a narrow 1/12 window with a semicircular transom and a panel with brownstone dentils, (3) an open-air, round-arch belfry framed by Romanesque columns and (4) a four-sided steeple that is set diagonally onto the top stage of the square tower. The base of the steeple contains a gable peak on each face of the square tower, and a clock face with Roman numerals is set into each of the four gable peaks. The tower and steeple are rich in brownstone trim, including window arches, lintels and sills, as well as projecting downspouts at the level of the clocks. The steeple has a metal weathervane at its top, with what appears to be glass ornamentation or lightning-control devices.

The main entry is in the base of the bell tower on the Chapel’s east elevation, within the recess of a very shallow porch that has a front gable. The doorway is framed by short Romanesque columns with primitive capitals, which support a double-layered round arch. Both the columns and the arch are sandstone. The entry features a double-leaf, frame-filled door of tongue-and-groove matchboards, which has a long rectangular upper panel and two different-size lower panels in each leaf. Overhead, the door has a semi-circular leaded-glass transom that contains square panes, with a double row of lozenge-shape panes around its perimeter.

A sandstone panel in the gable peak above the bell tower door contains a high relief carving of a right arm holding a sword, which is an emblem of the Massachusetts State Coat of Arms and symbolizes the State Motto “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem” (“By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.” This arm and sword symbol is also part of the Massachusetts State Seal and the Massachusetts State Flag.

The granite cornerstone, located on the south side of the main entry, displays the building’s construction year, 1884, with the middle numerals 88 intertwined at the center of a carved quatrefoil frame, while the initial numeral 1 and the final numeral 4 are in the quatrefoil’s left and right lobes, respectively. The upper lobe of the quatrefoil contains the letter A, while the lower lobe contains the letter D, representing the Medieval Latin abbreviation for Anno Domini (In the year of the/our Lord).

At the north side of the bell tower door, the east elevation’s dominant feature is a 2½-story front gable section of the Chapel that has a buttress at either end. This section contains five evenly spaced 6/6 sash windows in its first story and three round arch windows in the gable peak. The gable peak’s central window is exceptionally long, with a 9/9/9 triple sash. The flanking windows are 6/9 sash. All three windows in the gable peak have semi-circular transoms with radiating glazing bars. The first story of the narrow wall space between the bell tower and the front gable section contains both a slender 1/1 window and a small square single-pane window. The wall space between the front gable section and the buttress at the north end of the east elevation contains a 6/6 window and a small ¾-circle single-pane window.

The north elevation’s dominant feature is a projecting 2½-story front gable section that has a buttress at either end and a very large round window at the center of its gable peak. The round window’s glazing bar pattern is complex, consisting of a central square panel that is embedded in larger diamond-shape frame, with curved triangular pieces fitted between the diamond and the rim of the round window opening. The glass appears to be colored. A very narrow arched window is set to either side of the large round window, at a height just below the round window’s sandstone frame. The gable section’s first story matches the east elevation, with five evenly spaced 6/6 windows. The wall space between the front gable section and the buttress at the east end of the north elevation contains a 6/6 window and a small ¾-circle single-pane window. The wall space between the front gable section and the buttress at the west end of the north elevation has a different window configuration, consisting of a small 1/1 window and a small circular window. The different window treatments of the east and west ends of this elevation reflect the fact that the west end has a lower roofline, which consists of a hip roof that wraps around to the west elevation, where this corner of the Chapel contains a minor entry porch.

The west elevation has a dominant front gable section that matches the east elevation’s front gable section in terms of size, window arrangement and materials. The west elevation also contains two entry porches, which have been given very different treatments by the architect, relative to the functional importance of each entry.

The west elevation’s minor entry porch, located at the north end of this elevation, has a door frame with a strong resemblance to archaic post-and-lintel construction. This archaic and rough-hewn appearance is consistent with the doorway’s status as the less important entryway on this side of the Chapel. Here the architect has added a minimal amount of Romanesque-period refinement to the design, by using three rough-hewn granite stones – instead of a single primitive post – on either side of the frame. A simple round window with sandstone trim is set above the doorway.

The west elevation’s major entry porch, located at the south end of this elevation, has a more full-blown Romanesque-Revival design. This more sophisticated design, similar to the design of the bell tower entry in terms of its size, brownstone trim and recessed entryway, was used by the architect to signify that this is the main entryway for this side of the building. However, because the east elevation’s bell tower entry is the prime doorway into the Chapel and this entry porch on the west elevation is only the second-best doorway to the building, this porch has only one row of brownstone arch trim over the doorway, and no brownstone columns. Two small round arch windows are located to the south of this porch.

The south elevation was not photographed in September 2008, due the presence of nearby mature trees whose foliage blocks opportunities for full-elevation photography until the onset of winter. Historic photographs on file at Special Collections and Archives, W.E.B Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst, also have trees in the foreground but show that this elevation contained a large round window in its gable peak, and evenly spaced windows in its first and second stories. The second story windows had round brownstone arches. In addition, the wall space between the front gable section and the buttress at this elevation’s west end contained a small round window below the roof eave and two different sets of paired small windows with round arches.

Landscape – Visual/Design Assessment

The Chapel is located to the north of Memorial Hall. On the north side of the building is lawn that slopes down to a paved plaza associated with the Du Bois Library. To the west, the building is bordered by a bituminous concrete walk and bike path. Two circular planters on the path serve as vehicular control and mark the approach to the Chapel. Vegetation between the building and walk consists of lawn with scattered deciduous trees, evergreen shrubs, and perennials. On the south and southwest sides of the building, vegetation consists of lawn with deciduous trees. Pole lights are located at all four corners of the building.

The Chapel

The 1867 Chemistry Laboratory building also provided space for chapel and drill hall functions, but by 1869 when the building was expanded and renamed College Hall, the enlarged structure additionally contained the Agricultural Experiment Station. Over time, the University’s experiment station program grew to such a degree that the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture requested that the chapel space be given over for the experiment station’s exclusive use.

In response to the pending displacement of chapel services from College Hall, Professor Goodell and University President Greenough sought and obtained $25,000 from the Massachusetts Legislature in 1884 to construct a new building that would house a natural history collection, a chapel for lectures and religious services, and a library and reading room. Architect Stephen C. Earle of Worcester was selected to design the new Chapel building. Earle ultimately designed or renovated approximately 70 buildings in Massachusetts, including the Grand Army of the Republic Hall in Worcester (1876), Christ Church Cathedral in Springfield (1876), the Norton Public Library (1887) and the Worcester Art Museum (1897).

Within five years of the Chapel’s completion, the building held approximately 10,000 books in its library. The building also contained the University President’s office and a 600-person auditorium where graduation ceremonies were held. The building was technologically innovative in that it was equipped with electrical lighting.

The Chapel exterior was restored in 1997-1999, including a complete re-building of the tower.

The stone veneer of the tower had separated from the brick and rubble infill and brick interior wall and was in danger of collapse. In addition corrosion had swelled the iron railroad rails used to reinforce the tower steeple at the points directly above and below the clock faces creating structural instability at these points.

The rubble and brick core of the upper section of the tower was demolished and replaced by a steel reinforced cast concrete core and the reconstructed stone veneer was tied back to the reinforced concrete core by stainless steel cleats placed at one foot intervals. Each layer of stone had notches cut into the stone for the cleats and each cleat was tied into the reinforcing bar and cast in place into the concrete core which was cast after a segment of stone wall about three feet high was assembled. The original Meneely bell frame was found to have been cut into the structure of the tower and greatly weaken and damaged the integrity of the structure.

Care was used to mark, preserve and re-use the stones in their original locations. Unusable damaged stones were replaced by stone from the original source, the old Massachusetts Agricultural College quarry in Pelham, MA. The quarry, still owned by the University, is located on the east side of Buffam Road, Pelham and is identified by the Pelham Assessors as Map 10, Lot 9. Replacement brown stone of very similar grain color and strength to the original Longmeadow brown stone was obtained from a quarry in Utah.

The original 10 troy Meneely bells (http://danart.home.mindspring.com/bellsite/html/) were recast by Royal Ejjsbouts bell foundry (http://www.eijsbouts.com/) in the Netherlands and 32 new bells (43 total) were added, housed in a new bell frame engineered into the structure of the new tower. The 3½-octave carillon includes a new keyboard installed at the time of restoration.

The bell “Old Aggie,” that chimed for the first time in 1892, was restocked as a swinging bell and hung in the new bell frame making it the 43rd bell in the tower. “Old Aggie” is not a part of the carillon but is the tower clock bell.

The restoration project won the highest preservation award granted by the Massachusetts Historical Commission in 1999.

Landscape Analysis

The buildings to the west of the Campus Pond were historically organized along two circulation routes, neither of which is extant. The eastern façade of buildings closest to the pond, including the Chapel and Memorial Hall, were organized along Olmsted Road/Ellis Drive overlooking an open space indicated as Front Slope on a 1901 campus plan and the Campus Pond. Olmsted Road/Ellis Drive was an historic tree-lined street that curved along the west side of the campus pond, connecting to North Pleasant Street at both its northern and southern ends.

The western façade of the buildings faced an extension of Lincoln Avenue (no longer extant). Historically, the northern terminus of the Lincoln Avenue axis was occupied by North College (no longer extant), which stood on the approximate site of Machmer Hall (1957). The southern axis of Lincoln Avenue was obstructed by the construction of Whitmore Hall in 1967. Historically, Lincoln Avenue was tree-lined and featured some open lots interspersed with athletic fields.

The historic Chapel (1885) landscape featured scattered evergreen and deciduous trees with vines on the building’s façade. Vegetation surrounding the building respects the historic character of the landscape; however, the setting was dramatically changed in 1971 with the construction of Du Bois Library to the north, which is out of scale with the surrounding buildings. The historic approach to the Chapel from the southern end of the pond remains intact and the walk along the rear of the building is close to the historic location of Lincoln Avenue.


  • From Three Architectural Tours: Selected Buildings on the Campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst (Amherst, 2000)
  • Massachusetts Historical Commission, UMass Amherst Building Survey reports (2009).
  • For additional information, consult the University Archives (RG 36/101).
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