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82 UMass buildings added to Mass. historic asset inventory

Matthew Harrison/collegian

Matthew Harrison/collegian

Eighty-two new University of Massachusetts buildings have been added to Massachusetts’ “Inventory of Archaeological and Historic Assets of the Commonwealth” list – raising the total number of UMass buildings on this list to 105, according to Preserve UMass, a group that advocates for the preservation of historic architecture on campus.

The firm Einhorn Yafee Prescott, which documented all buildings on the UMass campus that were 50 years old or older, completed the historical survey in partnership with the University.

According to Jim Cahill, director of Facilities and Campus Planning at UMass, the survey cost less than $200,000, and was completed to give a current assessment of the University’s historic assets.

UMass is regularly involved in new construction, renovation, repair and demolition, and renovating of buildings on campus. This historical survey is meant to act as a professional assessment of the historical value of structures that are subject to this process.

Joseph S. Larson is the chairman of the Pelham historical commission and correspondence secretary for Preserve UMass. Larson was a wildlife biology professor at UMass, and retired in 2000.

“In 2007, the University published a booklet…of what they called ‘legacy buildings’ on campus,” Larson said. “They had a chart showing which ones were slated to be repaired and which ones were going to be torn down.”

Larson and Preserve UMass, however, thought that the assessment did not properly take into account the value of historic architecture on campus.

According to Larson, “[decisions] were being made by people who didn’t have any training in the background [of historical architecture].” What Larson and Preserve UMass began advocating for in 2007 was that a professional assessment of historical assets should be a part of the debate when deciding which buildings to keep and which to tear down.  

In a September 2008 article in The Bond Buyer, a daily newspaper which covers public finance, Chief Financial Officer of the UMass Building Authority Steve Dansby said, “We’re looking forward to a fairly aggressive next five years worth of improving the infrastructure of the University and taking care of some of the deferred maintenance issues.”

As the new construction was set to break ground, decisions concerning which buildings to keep and which ones to let deteriorate became important.

For any of the 105 buildings now on the state’s list, the University must file its construction plans with the Massachusetts Historical Commission before breaking ground.

Once the University files its plans with the state, the two parties negotiate what should be done to remedy the loss of the historical asset. Not all historic assets are created equal, however.

“Every old building doesn’t have the same historical significance,” Cahill said. “There are some things that make some buildings more historically significant than others and that is one thing that this survey is attempting to identify.”

“University Apartments is a good example,” Larson noted. “That set of buildings is on the inventory because it is 50 years old. Nobody is going to complain about it being torn down.”  

If the building is of a higher value, the negotiation might result in UMass, for example, fixing a roof. The University did this for Wilder Hall, going as far as Indonesia to get the right tile because that building is the “first building in the United States to be built as an academic landscape architecture program,” according to Larson.

Legally, there is little protection for any of the buildings at UMass other than the regulation that UMass must file its plans and negotiate with the state. Having buildings documented professionally allows institutions like UMass to advocate for their survival because their historical significance is officially on record.

Larson helped Einhorn Yafee Prescott do some of the research for the survey. A “Form B” is produced for each building that meets the only criteria required for a building to be on the list: age. Each form has past and present pictures of the building,  historical information, and a history of the University in brief.

The Form B for the “Art Barn,” a house-like structure on campus that was built in 1911 shows Larson’s input most prominently. The description of the structure’s history says, “Although now known as the Art Barn, the building continued to have a research-related function until at least the 1960s, when the basement contained a live beaver collection by… Joseph S. Larson.”

One of the options on the Form B is to nominate the structure to a national registry of historic sites maintained by the Department of the Interior. Buildings can be nominated as a group or individually. Only one building on the UMass campus has made the national list by itself: the Old Chapel.

Fifty-four buildings have been recommended for the national list as a historic district, meaning that their significance together reaches the national level. Having a building on the national list raises the negotiating power of the state, according to Larson.

Money is always a factor. Some projects can or cannot be done on campus because of constraints with the budget. There are some small code exemptions that can be granted if a building is on the state list.

“Munson Hall is an example,” Larson said. “Under the state public access law, the front of the building would have had to have wheel chair access ramp provisions.” The state gave UMass a waiver so that they did not have to build wheelchair accessibility onto Munson Hall because they would have, “destroyed the character of the building.”

According to the Building Condition report, the costs to keep up some of the buildings are high.

One high-cost project that the University had classified as “dispose and replace,” in the 2007 report was South College, an old brick building across from the W.E.B. DuBois library.

According to South College’s Form B, the building was constructed between 1885 and 1886, and housed classrooms, administrative offices for deans, provosts, and even Henry Hill Goodell’s president’s office.

The UMass administration’s 2007 report said that South College renovations mainly needed to update fire codes, coming in at approximately $15.5 million. According to the recent survey, “South College occupies a prominent site on the campus upon which a new structure would serve better the academic program.”

Larson and Preserve UMass says they are looking to find “common ground.” In cases where a building with high historic value, such as South College, may be demolished by the University, Larson believes that the historic assessment allows these kinds of decisions to be made professionally by people that understand historic assets.

“Now whether a building is significant or not has been decided upon by a professional assessment,” said Larson.

(Editor’s Note: This is the first part in a three-part series examining the recent fate of historic buildings on the University of Massachusetts campus. The next two articles will be published in print and on on subsequent days, beginning Wednesday, December 2 and continuing on Thursday, December 3.)

Michael Phillis can be reached at

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