Facade Masks Crumbling Infrastructure At Amherst

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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.

This program aired on September 23, 2010.

Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.



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