Architects: Louis Warren Ross
Design and construction
The Student Union is an approximately 106,000 square foot multi-purpose building on the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts. The building is located within the central campus and was the first dedicated facility to accommodate student extra-curricular activities and organizations, which became a significant component of the post-WWII academic experience. At time of construction, the Student Union was largest building constructed on campus.
The two-story building has a rectangular plan with projecting bays at the front (west) and rear (east) elevations. The building faces Machmer Hall and the main entrance occurs at grade along what was once Olmsted Drive. The basement level is exposed at the building’s east rear elevation and includes a terrace overlooking the pond landscape.
The modern building was constructed with a steel and concrete frame. The rectilinear volumes of the building have flat roofs, continuous limestone coping, and common-bond brick veneer. The façade is unified through the spacing and composition of large bays that are glazed with rectangular hopper windows and framed in limestone. The building’s southwest corner has semicircular bay windows defined by limestone piers. The south elevation also features octagonal windows at the upper floor.
Two-story glazed curtain walls are located at both the west and east elevations. The primary entrance is at the west elevation and is defined by a two-story portico with polished granite piers. Pairs of metal framed doors with glass panels provide access to the atrium lobby. Two open staircases are contained within the west wall and feature decorative metal grill work within the windows at their landings. The lobby interior is finished with both marble and wood wall panels. Adjacent to the lobby is a 2-story ballroom, with a glazed curtain wall to provide views of the pond landscape. In addition to offices for student organizations, the building also includes a basement level bowling alley, the Hatch cafeteria, a barber shop, and multiple student lounges.
In 1948, strains to the campus facilities were publicized, particularly the 3,220 student body dining in Draper Commons, designed to accommodate 300. Such conditions supported the $7 million Van Meter Building Program initiated in 1948 aimed to double student capacity on the 700-acre campus within three years. All dormitory construction was alumni financed.
Following WWII in 1946, a proposal had emerged to create a student union as a dedicated war memorial. The project was initially proposed as an addition to Memorial Hall. The initiative continued in fits and spurts until October 1953 when the campus planning council commissioned a study to determine a suitable location for a free-standing union. Four sites were proposed, including the previously considered addition to Memorial Hall, the intersection of North Pleasant and Clark Hill Roads, on North Pleasant across from pond, and a location within the central oval. The final site choice was based on a calculation of walking distances to the men’s and women’s housing districts planned and under construction. The building was the first dedicated facility to accommodate student extra-curricular activities and organizations, which became a significant component of the post- WWII academic experience. The project was also financed through the institution’s self-liquidating alumni corporation.
The location also influenced the construction of Machmer Hall, also constructed in 1957, directly across Olmsted Drive. Although designed by separate architects, both Machmer Hall and the Student Union employed similar architectural details and contributed towards defining the central campus academic complex. Following the completion of Hasbrouck Hall in 1950, the University adopted a modern approach to the design of all new academic buildings.
The Student Union was designed by architect Louis Warren Ross, who was a member of the institution’s class of 1917. Ross was an active alumnus and a member of the institution’s UMass alumni corporation which formed in the mid 1930s. From that time until the early 1960s, Ross was the most prolific architect of the campus. He was responsible for the design of more than twenty structures, including nearly all the dormitories constructed between 1935 and 1963. This body of work established the Georgian Revival style as a dominant tradition for the residential quadrangles of the campus.
The Student Union was the last of two non-residential structures Ross designed for the institution, and uniquely was conceived in a contemporary modern style. Although there were virtually no distinctions in the building’s construction technology from his other projects of the period (concrete and steel frame) the exterior form was a clear departure from the Georgian Revival style influencing the dormitory construction. Such a distinction was not uncommon to this period of post-WWII campus architecture, when academic facilities often embraced the symbolic connotations of modern design, while residential construction adopted the historic.
New construction in 1970, including the Lincoln Campus Center to the northeast and the Parking Garage to the northwest, have impacted views to and from the building. As part of the current construction of the new Academic Classroom Building, the green space to the east of the Student Union is being renovated.
- From the Massachusetts Historical Commission, UMass Amherst Building Survey reports (2009).
- For additional information, see the University Archives (RG 36/101)