AMHERST — Overlooking the campus pond with its granite and sandstone facade, the Old Chapel has long stood at the physical center of UMass Amherst. But for decades, the building has been dark, serving as little more than a monument to a bygone era.
This fall, the chapel will reopen following a $21 million renovation. What had been a dated, cluttered interior with facilities too old for safe public occupancy has given way to an airy space intended to re-establish the chapel as a focal point of the campus that grew up around it.
Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy, who made the project a priority after he arrived on campus in 2012, said he was astounded by the fact that the chapel — perhaps the university’s most recognizable building and the subject of countless images of UMass — was unusable.
“I think it would be an embarrassment for the commonwealth, honestly, if somebody came to their flagship campus and saw their iconic building as an abandoned building,” Subbaswamy said as he walked through the chapel recently, admiring the freshly refinished hemlock beams.
“This is really a tremendous statement about how the commonwealth cares for its public spaces, and in particular, its educational spaces.” the chancellor said.
Many campuses have central buildings — like Harvard Memorial Church — that function as living connections to their history.
Officials at UMass see the chapel, which dates to 1884 and was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, playing a similar role by providing space for special events and campus gatherings.
They also hope it will provide the university with an opportunity to reflect on the history of UMass, where it remains one of just a handful of historic buildings scattered amid more modern structures. It even predates the campus pond by nearly a decade.
Construction of the chapel began 21 years after UMass was founded as a Massachusetts Agricultural College. The state paid $25,000 for the building, which was to host a natural history collection, a library and reading room, and a chapel for lectures and religious services.
Over the years, the chapel would house the English and history departments, but as the 2oth century progressed, the structure fell into disuse.
By the 1990s, it was mostly a practice space for the marching band, and during a project to repair its clock, officials discovered that the chapel’s tower had become dangerously unstable.
Workers disassembled the tower, and put it back together piece by piece, according to Richard Nathhorst, a research facilities manager who worked on that project.
The project was a success, but once it was complete, the university decided to shutter the chapel indefinitely. Though it was structurally sound, it had issues including antiquated wiring and fire safety design.
“For a long time,” Nathhorst said, “it was just sort of the hood ornament on the campus.”
When Subbaswamy was interviewing for the top position on campus, he said he assumed that it was a place where important things happened. Headed to a group discussion, he was shocked when he began walking toward the chapel, only to be steered to Memorial Hall next door.
“I was being polite,” he said. “I wanted the job, so I didn’t say anything.”
He did say something after he was hired, selling the UMass board of trustees on a plan to fix up the chapel — despite the fact that the project was not part of the nearly $1 billion list of already planned campus improvements.
A visit to the debris-strewn chapel helped seal the deal.
“We’re not going to tear it down,” Subbaswamy recalled saying at the time. And it wasn’t going to get better on its own.
Richard P. Campbell, who was a member of the board of trustees, said he offered his own donation of $1,000. The project cost is expected to include about $2.5 million in gifts.
“Here is a structure in the middle of our campus that everyone knows about but no one can use,” he said. “It ought to be an integral part of the campus.”
UMass hired Finegold Alexander Architects of Boston, which said it has worked on restoration projects including the Hatch Shell and Harvard’s Memorial Church, to design the restoration.
The firm found ways to open up the space by taking down walls on the first level, added plans to build a new ventilation system by burrowing underground, and refurbished the chapel’s great hall — a room dominated by the intersecting trusses that lift the building’s slate roof.
The project also had to make the building accessible to people with disabilities without altering the historic entranceways, according to Jim Alexander, senior principal with Finegold Alexander.
Designers arrived at plans to take out a wall and build a glass vestibule as the primary entrance. That addition is the primary evidence of the project from the outside. Alexander said such additions can be an opportunity to make a statement of renewal in a historic project.
“This new entryway gave us a quiet way to do that,” Alexander said.
The chapel will open later this semester, and will get a grand re-introduction next year.
But the work on the structure has already drawn the interest of many on campus, according to student government president Anthony Vitale. Representatives are in discussions with the administration over how they’ll be able to use it.
“This building, with proper student use and proper student input, will really become one of the central, defining features of campus,” Vitale said.