Amherst Architecture: Unearthing History for Today

You and I have never met, but we’re part of the same family, one bound together not by blood, but by experience: the experience of a liberal arts education at one of the most beautiful campuses in the United States. 

That campus is the focus of a new book I’ve written, “Amherst College: The Campus Guide.” Published to celebrate the college’s upcoming bicentennial, the book aims to let you see such landmarks as Johnson Chapel and Memorial Hill with fresh eyes.

But the guide also can be understood as a family history — like one of those AncestryDNA kits that promise to tell you new things about the generations that came before you.

As with the results that emerge from those kits, the book seeks to enrich, or complicate, the college’s family history by revealing stories that were innocently forgotten or intentionally overlooked. The book also revisits forks in the road where our ancestors chose architectural courses that proved decisive, for good or ill.

Take Johnson Chapel, the powerful Greek Revivalist centerpiece of Amherst’s College Row. You probably have no idea who it’s named for: Adam Johnson, a wealthy and, crucially, childless farmer who lived in Pelham.

As Johnson neared his death in 1823, one of the college’s founders, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, who was the grandfather of  poet Emily Dickinson, made numerous visits to Johnson and promised him a measure of immortality — that the college chapel would be named for him if he would endow it with his fortune.

Johnson agreed, much to the chagrin of his brother Thomas, who stood to inherit only $12. Thomas Johnson sued the college, but Amherst won in court. In keeping with the will Dickinson drew up, Johnson’s name now adorns the entrance to the chapel, but there’s no mention of his story and no portrait of him, like the oil paintings of former Amherst presidents that decorate the chapel’s inside walls.

Perhaps there should be.

Another revealing story concerns Newport House, a former fraternity house on College Street that’s cloaked in the familiar Amherst dress of colonial-style brick and sharply etched neoclassical details. You might never think that such a building has a strong link to African American history in the Pioneer Valley. It does.

Newport’s name honors two descendants of Amos Newport, an eighteenth-century slave from the neighboring town of Hatfield. As Professor Emeritus of Physics Robert H. Romer documented in his book, “Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts,” slavery was widespread in the area around the town of Amherst in the 1700s.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, two of Newport’s descendants worked at the college — F. Dwight Newport, an athletic trainer renowned for his ability to bandage “injured limbs;” and the trainer’s son, Edward Foster Newport, a custodian who for decades took care of both Newport (originally the Phi Delta Theta fraternity) and the students who lived in it.

Sealing the connection to local African American history, Newport stands on the site of the former Zion Chapel, a modest structure built in 1869 on land the college provided “so that the colored people of the town will have a place to worship.”

Stories like these aren’t mere historical tidbits. They have the capacity to shape our view of the past and, in turn, influence our actions in the future. Amherst’s past, they inform us, isn’t simply a story of “dead white men.” The narrative is complex; any intellectually honest account of the college’s architecture has to acknowledge both its successes and its failures.

Fortunately, there are more of the former than the latter. The finest, Fayerweather Hall, is a Renaissance Revival gem by architecture firm McKim, Mead & White.

To her credit, President Martin didn’t ask me to pull punches when it came to assessing Amherst’s architectural underachievers. They include Chapin Hall, whose Howard Johnson’s-style version of the Georgian Revival style was so banal that it initially inspired protests from faculty and students.

With the college embarking on the construction of a student center to replace the Keefe Campus Center — a third-rate work of postmodernism that failed to provide a vital gathering place — Amherst needs to aim much higher.

The hiring of Herzog & de Meuron — the Swiss-based firm whose principals are winners of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the field’s highest honor — suggests that President Martin fully understands that. But it by no means guarantees a successful outcome.

How will the student center give physical expression to Amherst’s newfound social and economic diversity while respecting the campus’ architectural traditions? What activities, and what configuration of them, will make the building and the campus as a whole more lively?

We should all pay close attention to this crucial design, and not just after the fact, but as it emerges. For if the “family history” I’ve written teaches anything, it’s that buildings have an enormous impact — an impact, for better and for worse, lasts for generations.