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UMass Amherst's Iconic Old Chapel Nominated to National Register of Historic Places

AMHERST, MA — The University of Massachusetts Amherst’s iconic Old Chapel, which is about to undergo major renovations after years of disuse, has been nominated for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Reviewing the nomination proposal written by the private advocacy group Preserve UMass and supported by UMass Amherst, the Massachusetts Historical Commission reported that it believes the building meets the criteria for the federal recognition for both its historic and its architectural significance.

Betsy Friedberg, MHC National Register director, said her staff will edit the nomination proposal to meet National Register standards and return it to Preserve UMass for review. When completed, the proposal will be brought to MHC’s State Review Board for a vote. Once approved at the state level, it will be sent to the National Park Service for final approval and listing.

The Old Chapel, designed by Worcester architect Stephen Earle in the Romanesque Revival style, was completed in 1885. Its granite and brownstone exterior and its position overlooking the Campus Pond have made it the unofficial symbol of the Commonwealth’s flagship campus.

Over its history it served as classroom building, library, auditorium, museum and chapel and was home to the UMass Minuteman Marching Band until it was deemed unsafe in 1996. It has been largely unused since, although it houses the university’s 42-bell carillon. Plans are under way to renovate and reopen the facility.

In the late 1990s, the unstable clock tower was rebuilt, with the original stones anchored to a new concrete frame.

UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy initiated the Old Chapel renovations in 2013 during the university’s sesquicentennial year, appointing a committee of faculty, staff and students to report on the best ways of using the building. The chancellor determined that future uses must serve to renew bonds with alumni and create ties with future students.

Under the renovation plan, the chapel’s top floor will provide a large open space for performances and lectures and will be available for weddings and similar events. The multi-purpose first floor will provide a flexible layout for displays, events and will serve as a general campus resource. The basement will hold utilities, a kitchen facility and restrooms.

Juanita Holler, associate vice chancellor for facilities and campus services at UMass Amherst, says, “Whatever is done to the chapel will respect its historic character but also meet all current building codes while achieving environmental comfort and energy efficiency.”

She said the architectural firm of Finegold Alexander of Boston has been hired to design the renovations. Total cost is estimated at $18 million to $20 million.

“It is exciting to be going through the National Register nomination process,” Holler says. “It reflects well on our concern and care for our historic structures.”

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Register is part of a national program to coordinate and support efforts to identify, evaluate and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.