A New Take on the Old Chapel: Meghan Allen and Lindsay Davis


The graduating class of 2013 Old Chapel Fund will serve as the senior class gift to support the renovation and re-opening of the Old Chapel as a space to display UMass history and special collections, as well as events and functions. The Senior Campaign will make student donators a part of the future of Old Chapel by matching donations of $100 or more with an engraved permanent plaque of the student’s name to display in the renovated Old Chapel.

Old Chapel is a historical landmark on the campus of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The chapel was constructed between 1884-1887 by Stephen C. Earle from Worcester, Massachusetts at a cost of $25,000. According to UMass alum Richard Nathhorst, who is a member of the UMass Amherst Alumni Association and UMass Capital Planning Manager, the building was never consecrated as a place of worship for any religion, but was used to host significant events. Old Chapel has seen many uses over the years, ranging from weddings held in the Chapel in the early 20th century, as well as Henry Hill Goodell’s wake, and in 1952, the building hosted American icon, President John F. Kennedy as he spoke during his U.S Senate campaign. The first floor and basement of the building were later used to house the campus library, while the second floor served as the campus auditorium. With such historical significance, explained by UMass student Matt McCarron in his award-winning documentary titled “Old Chapel,” UMass strives to keep the landmark alive by planning for the future renovation.

The last renovation of Old Chapel was on the bell tower in 1999, costing $1.65 million, but the building has been abandoned since 1996. Ask a group of UMass undergrad students about the building, and a common response will be ambiguous. Students often walk by Old Chapel without noticing its architectural beauty, and even fewer know about the historical significance of the building.  As the church’s clock tower ticks away, senior students recognize that it is time for a change.

Nathhorst, a UMass graduate of the class of 1979, said he would like to see the renovated Chapel used to host marriage ceremonies again. “I think Old Chapel would be a wonderful place for weddings. In fact if my wedding day were not long over, it is a place I would seriously consider for a wedding,” Nathhorst said.

The impressive history of UMass’s Old Chapel has contributed significantly to the current movement among alumni and 2013 graduating class to renovate the building. And while the preservation of Old Chapel is principal, the future of Old Chapel looks promising for a new generation of students.

The Senior Campaign has an estimated goal of $33,000 to donate to the renovation of Old Chapel, a small dent in the estimated $2 million budget going towards the project. To date, students have raised over $25,000 in gifts and pledges.

Jay Schafer, Director of Libraries at UMass, said that determining how to fund the renovation project has been the major obstacle in moving the project forward. Campus discussions about renovating Old Chapel go back as far as 2001, when a study was completed by the S/L/A/M Collaborative Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., a fully integrated firm that offers architectural planning. Recently, Chancellor Subbaswamy charged the Old Chapel Renovation Advisory Committee with reporting back to him on the optimal way of using the renovated Old Chapel, but there has not been an estimate of the renovation cost to this point. Nevertheless, Schafer said the first steps have been taken in establishing the appropriate use for a renovated Old Chapel and exploring how to fund the project.

Schafer said, “Chancellor Subbaswamy is very dedicated to renovating Old Chapel, especially in light of the campus celebrating its Sesquicentennial year.” There is currently no firm renovation plan in place, but Schafer said he is hopeful the campus will see the project moving forward with a completion date of three to five years out.

“It is heartening to see the Class of 2013 pave the way for the restoration of the campus icon. In dedicating its gift to the Old Chapel project, the class honors the past and ushers in the future of this great campus,” Chancellor Subbaswamy said.

However, bringing the building up-to-code is a major consideration and major cost of any future renovation project. “While some items are in place, like the fire suppression system, many others need to be resolved, like disability access,” Schafer reported.

While the funding for such a large project is still under consideration, “student contributions have always been a significant part of Old Chapel’s history. Students even participated in the original construction of the building.” Schafer said. Most of the investments in Old Chapel’s renovation will come from students, alumni, faculty, staff, external donors, and campus funding, Schafer reported.

Since a lot of investments are coming from the hands of alumni and students, the University has turned to these groups for suggestions of how the University should use the newly renovated Chapel.

Sarah Sligo, a recent UMass graduate and the executive director of annual giving, organizes records for donations going towards Old Chapel. With several weeks left until the 2013 senior graduation, Sligo said she feels confident the Class of 2013 will exceed their goal. Sligo said she would like to see the renovated Old Chapel used as a gathering space to display UMass history and to see alumni married inside the Old Chapel.

In recognition of the Chapel’s historical prominence and its iconic nature, the renovation proves to be an important project as the University celebrates its Sesquicentennial.


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