In 2008, UMass Chancellor Robert Holub sent out his first official Christmas card as chancellor. Rather than choosing an image of his family in a winter scene adorned in holiday sweaters, he chose instead an image of the Old Chapel.
The Old Chapel, one of the most picturesque and historic buildings on campus, is often used as a symbol of the university, emblazoned on everything from holiday cards and ornaments to campus brochures and merchandise in the university store. However, it is also a symbol of one of the problems plaguing the UMass campus: crumbling infrastructure and deferred maintenance.
Although its facade is newly renovated, the Old Chapel is just that, a facade. Behind the newly renovated stone face and clock tower lays a decaying interior in desperate need of repairs.
“The Old Chapel is an important part of the heritage of the campus and an iconic building. Its current state of disrepair is most unfortunate,” Holub said.
A May 2007 “Building Conditions Report” states the problem clearly: “The Chapel is highly significant: it is the visual icon for the campus, the most important link to the past, and a daily reminder of the inadequacies of a system that cannot afford the $10 million renovation necessary to keep open its equivalent of Independence Hall.”
That $10 million figure has only increased in recent years. Holub said the amount needed to renovate the chapel is now in the range of $20 to $25 million. This amount is in stark contrast to the $31,000 it took to build the Old Chapel when it opened in 1886.
The two story Old Chapel stands in the center of campus in juxtaposition with the college’s towering 26 story library; although it is dwarfed in size by the library it stands out just as much. The stone facing of the building is in stark aesthetic contrast to the brick and concrete of later architectural periods on campus. It is a remnant of the campus’ past. It is the only single building on campus that qualifies for placement on the National Register of Historic Sites.
Professor Emeritus Joseph Larson is the corresponding secretary for the group Preserve UMass, whose members are dedicated to saving historically and architecturally significant buildings on campus. He finds fault with the administration who he says are willing to use the chapel for promotional purposes but not invest in it for practical purposes.
“The Old Chapel is known to everybody, it’s the iconic building on campus,” he said. “The administration loves to use exterior pictures of it. It’s a little hypocritical.”
“Various people have tried to get the administration to initiate a fundraising drive to restore the interior of the chapel, and they have not agreed to do that,” Larson said.
Holub explained why the university is not currently raising funds to renovate the Old Chapel.
“In order to begin a campaign for the Old Chapel we would need a significant lead gift that could inspire others to give also. We currently do not have that lead gift; nor do we have active prospects we are soliciting for the Old Chapel,” Holub said.
When the then-named Massachusetts Agricultural College was in need of a new library and public gathering space in 1883, Professor Henry Hill Goodell put out an appeal to alumni and friends of the college to donate funds for the building.
At the time, the college was in desperate need of a new library space. According to the 1886 college yearbook, the “Index,” the previous library was “wholly inadequate to the wants of the students and agriculturalists who will in time make it a center for investigation and research.”
The “Index,” described the new Chapel Library as “of a simple Romanesque style of architecture two stories in height with a tower 96 feet high on the southeast corner. Constructed of Pelham granite, from the quarry owned by the college, trimmed in brown sandstone. There is a gable on each side. The first story will be used for a library and reading room, and the upper as a chapel. The whole will be finished in ash and pine.”
By 1902 the library needs of the college quickly outgrew the space of the chapel. At the time then President Goodell described the library’s limitations: “Our library building is full to overflowing – books are piled up on the floor or on top of the bookcases.”
The chapel continued to serve as the college’s library until 1935 with the construction of the new Goodell library. After that time the Chapel Library came to known as the Old Chapel.
In the following years the Old Chapel was still used for various offices, classrooms and as a theater, meeting hall and library study space. In its more recent history it served the home of the UMass Minuteman Marching Band.
The Old Chapel was closed in 1996 when it was found there were structural problems in the tower putting it at risk of collapse. In 1998 renovation of the clock tower began. The university spent $1.65 million on the tower restoration project. The same stock of granite from the college-owned quarry in Pelham used in the original construction of the chapel was used during the restoration. The clock tower was reconstructed and the clock faces were restored.
However, the clock, which chimed every hour since the turn of the 20th century, is now silent, and the building still shuttered. Although the exterior was renovated, the interior is in need of many repairs that must be completed regardless of the building’s future use.
The “Old Chapel Reuse Study” from 2000, a detailed physical and code evaluation of the facility, lists the problems: “structural repairs, stair replacement, creation of an egress [exit] door from the basement level, and correction of nonconforming means of egress situation…reconstruction of bathrooms to modern standards, repair or replacement of the Chapel’s slate roof, and general repairs to the interior of the building, such as on walls.”
Larson, who is also an alumnus of the UMass class of 1956, recalled what the building was like when he was a student.
“I remember what it was like in the 1950’s and it was a special place. I had a class in there and we attended special events on the second floor,” he said. “It was well regarded.”
He also recalled his more recent experience with the Old Chapel upon his visit there a few years ago.
“My first impression was why didn’t they sweep and clean it to make it look as if they cared about the building,” he said.
Construction projects are currently taking place all over the University of Massachusetts campus. Millions of dollars are being invested into buildings that will move the university into the future. But the Old Chapel is one building that serves as a link to the university’s past, and that many people feel should require just as much of an investment.
However, the university’s current use of the Old Chapel’s seems more suited for merchandising than for renovation, and the most money spent on the Old Chapel will be the cost of purchasing an item bearing its likeness in the university store.
For the present moment, the fate of the Old Chapel seems as sealed as the building itself. The May 2007 building report states that the Old Chapel will be kept sealed and no funds spent on the interior.
“We will obviously preserve the Old Chapel, and at some point we would like to renovate it even in the absence of external support. But we have too many important projects at present to dedicate such a large sum of money to the Old Chapel,” Holub said.
Perhaps the administration can be inspired by Professor Goodell’s appeal in seeking donations for the original construction of the chapel library, as stated in the first annual report of the Special Alumni Committee on the Library in 1884, when he said “There should be no difficulty in securing this amount needed from the alumni and true friends of the M.A.C. (UMass).”