Environment | LongReads

Iconic Old Chapel Needs Millions in Renovations to Reopen Its Doors

When Marla Miller came to western Massachusetts from Wisconsin in the summer of 1987, she hiked up Mount Sugarloaf. At the summit 650 feet off the ground, she looked out into the vast Pioneer Valley, the Connecticut River meandering through hills and farmland. In the distance, she could see a cluster of tall buildings peaking up from the otherwise rural landscape. Miller asked someone what the name of that city was.

Although the place Miller was looking at has its own postal code, it is not a city or town. It is the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and one of its most recognizable landmarks is the W.E.B. Du Bois Library. Rising nearly 300 feet into the Western Massachusetts sky, it’s the world’s tallest academic library. But standing in its shadow is a smaller and much older building.

Thousands of people pass by it everyday. It beckons a photographer on a recent sunny afternoon. He kneels down on the grass behind his tripod, trying to capture the light as it dances on the building’s granite and brownstone veneer. On special occasions, its bells can be heard chiming across campus. Otherwise, it is silent. The doors are locked. An engraving near the base of the building reveals the first stone was laid in 1884. The Old Chapel has been used as a library, museum, event space, offices, and, most recently, as the home of the marching band. The chapel has been called the emotional heart of the campus. For the campus’ 150th birthday, the bakeshop created a 150-pound cake in the shape of this historic building. A graphic rendition of its clock tower is featured in the center of the university’s sesquicentennial logo.

While the Old Chapel is one of UMass Amherst’s most beloved places, it has been empty since 1996. Just beyond its pleasant exterior, the building is in bad shape. Now, an ambitious fundraising campaign could help reopen a building that serves as a reminder of the university’s humble beginnings as a small agricultural college.

On a recent morning, the public was invited to a rare tour of the chapel. Our tour guide, Richard Nathhorst, unlocks the door and leads a small group up a flight of stairs. We walk into a large, empty space with a stage on the north end and a balcony on the south. Tall, rounded windows flood the room with the white light of a cloudy morning. Small patches of the greenish drywall are missing, exposing sections of a wooden frame behind it. The corners of the room are draped with cobwebs that have accumulated from disuse. The ceiling is high and long beams intersect each other under the roof.

Nathhorst stands in front of the stage. He wears a light blue dress shirt and a maroon tie with the UMass Amherst seal printed on it. Nathhorst is a capital project manager with the university’s Facilities Planning Division, but he is better known on campus as the unofficial Old Chapel expert.

Nathhorst says the windows were once filled with stained glass, but to call this building a chapel is a “misnomer” because it was never used as a church. “The stained glass was not ecclesiastical at all,” he explains. “The fact of the matter is that Old Chapel has never been a church of any kind. It’s never been consecrated for any religious services.” However, a student handbook from the 1890s suggests that Christianity played a central role in the lives of students in those days. It says they were required to attend religious services here on Sundays unless they had a valid excuse. Nathhorst says it was more like a high school homeroom where everybody went to hear daily announcements.

We ascend the narrow staircase inside the bell tower. It is so steep that each successive step is level with my knee and I need to raise my foot up a good six inches to get to the next one. The final step brings us into a room just large enough to house an organ-like instrument. A navy blue book rests on the music stand. “The Art of Playing the Modern Carillon” is inscribed in silver lettering on the cover. The carillon is connected to 42 bells of different pitches and is played like a piano. Nathhorst plans to get the chapel bells ringing more often. He says they recently installed a device that can be programmed to play the bells automatically. But the auto-play can’t replace the “finesse” of a live musician, so he will be organizing the UMass Amherst Guild Clarioneers in the fall to train the next generation of carillon players.

Nathhorst looks at a small young woman wearing a black overcoat. “Would you like to ring the bell?” he asks her. “Sure,” she says in a soft voice. She walks over to the thick rope dangling from the ceiling and gives it a pull. It is silent. She tugs it a little harder. Nothing still. Now she jumps up and grabs high on the rope, pulling it down with all her weight. It rings! As the bell in the tower above swings back, the momentum sweeps the woman, still holding onto the rope, off her feet. The group erupts in laughter as the swinging bell pulls her up and down. “That’s a thousand pound bell you were ringing. And that’s Old Aggie. That is the original bell,” Nathhorst said.

The bell tower is one of the chapel’s most prominent features. But in the mid-1990s, it was on the verge of collapse. When Worcester architect Steven Earle designed the building in the late nineteenth century, he was more concerned with aesthetics than structural integrity. “They didn’t train architects in structural engineering in those days. And his towers are famous for crumbling,” Nathhorst says. It took two years to rebuild the bell tower properly and in that time the building lost its certificate of occupancy. To reopen it, they will need to update the antiqued electrical, plumbing, and heating systems. But Nathhorst says the real hazard comes from the design of the first floor. It was originally one large room that served as the college’s library. Then in the 1930s, the floor was divided into a series of smaller rooms to accommodate its various uses after the Goodell Library was built and the books were moved out. The corridors created from that construction fail to meet the fire code.

The Old Chapel has a long history of alumni support. Professor Henry Goodell, who was president of the college in the late 1880s, organized an alumni committee charged with the task of bringing the project to life. The tower’s clock was a gift from the graduating class of 1892. Nathhorst says there weren’t many members of that class, but each of them chipped in $20 to purchase it. While that was a pretty substantial gift in those days, there are now thousands of UMass alumni. If they all made a gift of $20 each like they did in 1892, that sum would pay the bill for fixing up the chapel. Nathhorst says he uses the analogy of the clock when he talks to people about donating to the chapel renovation project.

Raising money for the chapel has become one of the priorities of the university’s recent fundraising activities. The Class of 2013 established an Old Chapel Fund to raise $33,000 as their class gift, which was just about what it cost to build it in the 1880s. UMass Amherst announced a $300 million fundraising campaign on Sunday that will include the $20 to $30 million needed to fix and reopen the building. At the Founder’s Day barbeque on Monday, thousands of people pulled out their credit cards to take part in a 36-hour, online fundraising campaign. Donors can decide where they want their gift to go, including a special Chapel Fund.

Nathhorst has been working on preserving the Old Chapel since he graduated with the Class of 1979. He says the university’s new chancellor, Kumble Subbaswamy, “understands the importance of this building and that this should be the living room of the campus.” At Chancellor Subbaswamy’s inauguration on Saturday, the president of the UMass Amherst Alumni Association described a meeting before the ceremony. A member of the board of directors recently got a new job with Dunkin Donuts and Subbaswamy asked if they could put 50 cents of each donut sale toward renovating the Old Chapel.

The future of the Old Chapel has been uncertain at times. Now, the university is confident its doors will open once again. The centrality of the building to the campus is engrained in its design. The original architect made sure that people always felt they were looking at the front of the building, no matter which direction they approached it from. Although it stands modestly next to the towering library and Marla Miller couldn’t see it from the summit of Mount Sugarloaf, the Old Chapel’s quiet importance resonates with anyone who has taken the time to look up at this mysterious building.

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