The Old Chapel: An Empty Symbol

By Melissa Mahoney

Editor’s Note: Since the writing of this column, the Class of 2013 has announced the Old Chapel Fund as its class gift. The fund will support the renovation and re-opening of the Old Chapel.

Collegian File Photo

“The new Chapel is too large a subject to be treated of in as short a manner as would be necessary if undertaken here…. Suffice it to say that it is a source of great rejoicing to see such a fine structure really making its appearance where it is so greatly needed and where it will be so thoroughly appreciated. …The chapel building will furthermore be an honor to the place, and we hope that the end has come to the erection of cheap buildings on the College grounds, and that in future all may be substantial structures worthy of the State which builds them.”

— The Index, 1885, Massachusetts Agricultural College

On a nondescript Wednesday in late October, someone rang Old Aggie for the first time in a year, her voice belting out across the University of Massachusetts Amherst in a pleasant baritone. The ringer swung her joyously, if irregularly, and for so long that students started to wonder who had died that was so important as to have two minutes of a bell pealing in their honor in the middle of classes. At last she quieted and grew still. The 42-bell carillon hung silent next to her, verdigris creeping over the copper. I have never heard the carillon ring; no one bothered to play it that day either.

The bell tower’s usual silence pervades the rest of the building, sweeping down the iron ladder and narrow stairwell to the top-floor auditorium where it languishes in the rafters of the impressive vaulted ceiling. Time clings to the walls and pulls at the light blue plaster, sending flakes skittering down the main stairwell to the ground floor. The chapel’s grey granite exterior trimmed in red ocher sandstone is a solid and elegantly convincing facade for the forgotten rooms within.

I have passed this dying giant nearly every day for three-and-a-half years, and I have never known its purpose. At the campus store it features on postcards, mugs, holiday cards, and University stationary – the veritable emblem of UMass – but the building itself remains unused, an empty symbol. This year for Homecoming, the University offered tours through the building – hence the enthusiastic ringer – welcoming back not only its alumni, but also its lost heritage. I could not miss the opportunity to enter the building that has been silent for too long.

I step through the front door with a tour group of about 20, stirring up the 15 years of disuse that has settled on the floor and windowsills in slender white strands and fluffy grey motes. The tour guide brings us up the wide ash stairs to the auditorium, passing original stained glass windows in orange and gold. The room is massive, or at least larger than one might suppose from the Chapel’s seemingly small exterior. Cracking grey tiles complement the blue plaster peeling from the walls, scuffed and smeared with 100 years of humanity. Above, the Roman revival vaulted ceiling seems untouched by time. Once, when everyone enrolled owed community service to the University, 100 students stained the timbers a rich nutmeg brown. Now, while other surfaces crumble, those beams remain pristine; it is as if the wood remembers and cherishes the care it one received, the touch of 100 hands.

The auditorium is the closest thing to a chapel that this old building ever was. When it was built in 1884, it was a nondenominational gathering place for the campus community, hosting speakers and graduations for crowds of 300 to 600 people. Two rose windows allowed natural light to stream through from the north and south, an unnecessary habit of the architect, as the building is equipped with then-ground-breaking technology: electricity.

We climb another stairwell, narrow this time, and round a corner to yet more stairs, the steps steep and only 4 inches wide. Climbing sideways, I mount the landing where the dusty carillon keyboard sits and the rope pull for Old Aggie hangs slack. Though there are three-and-a-half octaves of bells above me, I choose to plunk out Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in six round, copper tones on the carillon keyboard. Another tourist grabs hold of the thick rope and begins to ring Old Aggie – the second time in a year that I have heard the bell sing. The tour guide stops us from ringing the bells for too long lest we disrupt classes, but I don’t care. Let them hear! Help them remember these forgotten peals!

I wait my turn to climb the black ladder to the bell tower’s next and smaller level, which houses the tower’s green-and-brass clock works. Ascending to the next level via a smaller ladder, I find myself head-first in the bells. There is no place to stand here, only room to cling to the rungs as the open air whistles past my ears and circles the copper. Above and around, the 43 bells of the Old Chapel hang in perfect silence, waiting to be summoned to sing.

Descending the short ladder, the long ladder, the steep shallow steps, the narrow stairs, the wide stairwell, I find myself again on the ground level. Tourists slip out the open front door as we pass, their curiosity about the beautiful but abandoned building satiated. Elegantly carved double doors paneled in opaque glass and topped with colored panes lead us into the next room, a large classroom with four massive beams supporting the ceiling. Across one blackboard, names and messages have been scrawled in yellow and white chalk, most of them in memory of the late Marching Band Director George Parks. Prior to losing its certificate of occupancy in 1996, the building had been used by the band for rehearsals, practice rooms and hanging out when the rest of the burgeoning Music Department moved into the completed Fine Arts Center in 1974.

One chalk scrawl catches my attention as I pass: “I took French in this classroom in 1947.” As I walk into the next classroom, I try to imagine the blackboards without the painted-on music staves. I imagine rows of students in sweaters, skirts, and trousers studying Flaubert and Moliere, practicing their conjugations. The classrooms and adjoining staff offices had been built in 1935 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative, and at the time housed the English and history departments, which moved to Bartlett Hall when it was completed in 1960. The walls partition off what had once been the school’s library.

When the Old Chapel was built, the now dusty doorframes and whitewashed walls had been open from the eastern outer wall to the western outer wall. Library stacks formed up in rows, holding some 10,000 tomes, which grew to nearly 26,000 by 1905. A natural history display (more likely a ‘cabinet of curiosities’) stood somewhere among the stacks. Library offices occupied the north, and a reading room for students occupied the south.

Standing in that reading room more than a century later, I could imagine the smell of printed pages and polished wood, could hear the scratch of nibs on paper and the shuffle of hard-soled shoes. Where bookcases had lined the walls, chalkboards were now installed. Where portraits of prominent UMass officials had once hung above the stacks, the band’s sorority and fraternity seals had been painted with amateur strokes.

Though the building had been loved by the band and used by many departments, I felt that somehow they didn’t truly appreciate what they had, nor do the students who pass by the Chapel’s stone facade every day. To many the Old Chapel is beautiful but silent, useful as a landmark but nothing more. Though the exterior was renovated in 1998, the bell tower rebuilt, and the bells re-hung, the University would not put up funds to finish the job, and so the interior continues to decay. The Old Chapel is now nothing more than a Pelham granite and Longmeadow sandstone case for 43 silent bells – a historic piece of UMass slowly falling into oblivion.

If only that carillon could sing in human tones: 43 voices singing of nearly 130 years of existence, of the hands brushing stain on the wooden beams below, of young women and men carefully pronouncing “Je sonne les cloches,” of tomes and tubas and chalk words erased by a careless passing elbow; of a campus transformed from open rolling fields to tight corridors and asphalt; of a student population that neither knows nor cares of their decline.

Would they worry when their voices echo through spaces where buildings once were, or when they bounce back off buildings that weren’t there before? Would they mourn the loss of the 1900s waiting station from their youth, one of the earliest trolley stops in the area, demolished in the summer or 2012? Would they miss the answering low of cows from the long-gone livestock barns, now Herter Hall? Would they remember the way their voices had bounced off the old Drill Hall, the University’s first gymnasium, razed for Bartlett Hall in 1957?

Do they worry that they too are headed the way of so many of the University’s legacy buildings – disrepair until demolition? Does their echo reach the new multi-million dollar facilities, the state-of-the-art laboratories, the shining Commonwealth Honors College buildings, the innovative group learning classrooms, the increased dormitory space? Or do those wizened peals evaporate in the air, spiraling out from the mouths of the bells until they have expanded into nothing?

I walk out the door of the Chapel and descend the steps, listening to the lonely creak of the hinges as the tour guide pulls it shut behind. I lean back and stare up at the spire, wondering when I’ll hear those bells again, when the building will be allowed to live again. For now, the Old Chapel is the empty symbol of a University that would rather demolish its past than save it, in the quest for a more prestigious future. It is a shell of what it once was, a locked vault of fallen plaster, unsung copper, and a University’s ignorance.

Melissa Mahoney is the editor of the Opinion/Editorial section. She can be reached at [email protected]