Old Chapel Is Part Of New Building Boom At UMass Amherst

May 17, 2017

The Old Chapel on the UMass Amherst campus reopened this year for the first time since the 1990s following a $21 million restoration. The original building dates back to 1885.
Credit WAMC

    The University of Massachusetts flagship campus in Amherst is in the midst of a $1.6 billion six-year building boom. Not all the construction results in brand new state-of-the-art buildings.  Millions of dollars have gone into saving and repurposing historic structures.

       The Old Chapel, a building with a history as long as the UMass Amherst campus itself, reopened earlier this year following completion of  two-year $21 million renovation.

    Built of granite and sandstone in the center of the campus in 1885, the Old Chapel served many purposes through the decades – lecture hall, natural history museum, library, and rehearsal area for the university’s acclaimed marching band. 

    The story of how the Old Chapel came to be renovated after it had been closed since the  1990s begins  when Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy came for his job interview five years ago and took a walk through the campus.

    " I started turning into the door of the Old Chapel when I was rudely stopped and told I could not go inside because it was boarded-up and closed," Subbaswamy recalled. "I kept that to myself because I did not want to insult the people who might give me the job."

    After he was hired, Subbaswamy said he made restoring the Old Chapel a priority.

   " Getting support for getting it renovated was really easy after I started talking about it," he said.

   Along with improving the structural integrity of the building, the renovation added a modern glass-enclosed handicap-accessible entrance and an elevator and a new kitchen in the basement.

   The top floor of the Old Chapel is a large open space with high wooden ceilings supported by thick wood beams. The area can be used for lectures and performances. It can also host weddings and other events, according to the university.

  The first floor, which includes a large flat-screen TV, is described as a flexible layout that will serve as a general campus resource.

  "  What our community agreed this should be is something shared by the entire extended UMass community of current students, former students, and everybody should have access to it. So, it is a gathering place. If there is nothing going on students can hang out here, visitors can walk through," said Subbaswamy.

   Of the more 300 buildings on campus none has more sentimental attachment for older alumni than the Old Chapel, according to Betty Brace, who was a student in the 1950s and after graduating worked in the library for 37 years.

   " You don't say ' gee remember our times in the library.' People remember Old Chapel. To have it usable again is wonderful," said Brace at a ceremony earlier this year to mark the reopening. 

    " I'm delighted, I'm absolutely delighted," she added.

   About 10 percent of the $21 million renovation was paid for with private donations.

   Another old building on the UMass Amherst campus, the South College Academic Facility, reopened earlier this year following a two-year $65 million renovation and restoration.