Facade Masks Crumbling Infrastructure At Amherst

A reporter’s notebook

The Old Chapel at UMass Amherst sure is pretty. But it's falling apart. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

The Old Chapel at UMass Amherst sure is pretty. But it's falling apart. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

AMHERST, Mass. — When you walk around this sprawling complex, it’s clear this campus is in need, infrastructure-wise. Sure there are new buildings, for science and chemistry and new dorms, and more are in the pipeline.

But when I walk in and out of some of the classrooms I used in the 1970s, it’s obvious little has changed, even though they need updating. I’m pretty sure I sat on some of those well-used desk chairs.

A recent outside engineering study found that 50 percent of the buildings on campus were in fair to poor condition in terms of usefulness. There is, by some estimates, $1 billion in deferred maintenance on these buildings.

But I have to say the biggest irony is the appearance and usefulness of the building we’re standing next to now — one of the most historically prized buildings on campus and certainly the most picturesque, given that it’s sitting next to the campus pond. It’s called Old Chapel.

This Victorian-style building looks great, but it’s just a facade. Its granite face was crumbling for years. So not too long ago the university fixed the iron supports for the walls and the tower and even reopened a local quarry to replace the stone face.

So like parts of this university, it appears perfect. But the interior was never fixed, so the building remains closed to all uses. You have to walk into the campus store to find its real present mission.

Because it is so pretty, the Old Chapel is depicted on the priciest of memorabilia. The clocks, the mirrors, the like. Let’s say it’s not on the shot glasses. The university has said it would like to fix up and reopen it if it could find what it needs for a lot of other projects on this campus — the money.

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  • Arlene

    I think your series this week is very interesting. I believe it was you yesterday that said that the candidates at the Gubernatorial debate sounded “very Beacon Hill”. Many in Western Mass. do feel that our state government cares less about them. I think one way WBUR (and other Boston media) can help MA higher education and our economy is to give more attention to UMass. Even in small ways like mentioning UMass sports scores or happenings, you could keep the University more a part of Beacon Hill attention and the Commonwealth’s life.

  • Arthur Zack

    A few years ago I visited the campus with my daughter who was applying for college. I graduated in 1972, and had not been back to the campus for about twenty years. I could not believe how run down the place looked. We visited quite a few private colleges as well, and the differences were incredible. We visited UMASS three times that year, as I wanted to encourage my daughter to consider going there. She wasn’t swayed a bit, as it just did not compare favorably with other institutions. She went to Ithaca instead.

  • http://barnwoodurbanism.blogspot.com/ Molly Robinson

    Thank you so much for highlighting this overwhelming and growing problem at UMass Amherst. Deferred maintenance was a problem when I was at UMass in the ’90s. There is one thing you forgot in your story about Old Chapel, however, and that is that it was home to the UMass Minuteman Marching Band. When the University closed Chapel in early 1997 to repoint the clock tower, the band was shut out. Now, thanks to the tireless fundraising by our late director, George N. Parks, the band will have a new home but Chapel remains shuttered. There are many band alumni and others who will fight to save the building. Chapel holds some of my best memories of UMass and I hate to see its windows dark and lifeless. It was once the place where you could always find someone you know at any time of day or night. Old Chapel is one of the most sacred places on campus and it deserves to be given new life.

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