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A new Future for the Past

In 1883 the Alumni faculty and students of the new Massachusetts Agricultural College had a Dream, and under the Leadership of Professor H. H. Goodell they organized for action. The result was the grandest building yet constructed for the school. It was designed  as the Great and Gerneral Court of the Commonweath of Massachusetts intended, as library, museum and assembly hall, as well as the Chapel for the growing college. The "New" Chapel Labrary was designed by Stephen C. Earle the noted Worcester Architect in the Richardson Romanesque Style. From 1885 to 1915 it accommodated all these uses. The gift of a clock and bell were installed in 1892 and in 1910 the modern wonder of electricity was used to light the clock faces so they could be seen both day and night.

In 1915 Stockbridge Hall and its 900-seat auditorium were built, assembly and chapel moved there. The “old” Chapel had always housed the Library on its first floor; this was now its main function. From 1915 to 1936 the building was referred to as the College Library. When Goodell was completed in 1936 the library moved into its new, larger and better home. Antiquated and not very usable, the “old” Library became “Old Chapel.” In that same year a WPA grant from Roosevelt’s depression-fighting New Deal was used to renovate Old Chapel into offices, classrooms and a lecture hall for the English and History Departments. Several improvements were made including an oak paneled seminar room in place of the old boiler room. The clock and bell tower still served to make it a memorable structure and in 1937 a tower chime of 10 bells was installed as a memorial gift. Student “bell ringers” were paid to sound appropriate tunes at appropriate times in a tradition that lasted over 25 years. Old Chapel was still used at times as an auditorium; John F. Kennedy spoke there during his campaign for the US Senate. In   1962 an automatic electronic carillon was added. This ended the student ringers; in fact the tower chime was partially dismantled to accommodate the loud speakers for the new carillon. As buildings were added to the campus, the History and English Departments were provided with larger and better quarters; Old Chapel was assigned to the newly established Department of Music. It was the incubator for what is now one of New England’s best music programs. When the Fine Arts Center opened in 1974-75, the Music Department moved to its new home. Old Chapel was largely neglected and unscheduled, however the UMass Marching Band program, expanding under the leadership of George Parks, needed space. More by default than design, Old Chapel became their home, along with the Performing Arts Division. These uses continue presently.

During the period of major campus building and expansion, from roughly 1950 through 1974, and the stabilization of 1975-1985, Old Chapel sat largely ignored. Newer and grander structures, the Lincoln Campus Center, Du Bois Library, Lederle Graduate Research tower and Fine Arts Center were used as campus symbols -- emblems of growth and accomplishment. Old Chapel was seldom mentioned. In 1985-86 the volunteer Mass Transformation campaign was launched to clean up and maintain our buildings and campus. The Du Bois Library was the focal point, but as part of the project a volunteer group cleaned up Old Chapel’s clock tower, reactivating the bells and repairing the clock so that both were functional. This group became the “Quasimodo Club” (the Campus Chime, Carillon, and Clock Committee). They continue as advocates for the clock, tower and bells.

When the tower bells began to sound, and the clock kept regular accurate time, Old Chapel began to come into its own again. For the last ten years it has increasingly been used as an identifying image; today it is the principal campus icon, used on everything from recruitment brochures and course catalogues to parking decals. Unfortunately, the Old Chapel’s Tower is in deep trouble. Over the years there have been warnings and signs; in 1967 stones from the north tower face actually fell through the chapel roof. A major project was needed but the resources did not become available. A recent  inspection in preparation for the restoration of the clock faces disclosed that the situation had become critical.  As you see it today, the Old Chapel tower is wrapped in steel cables and Kevlar sheets. Without this reinforcement, it might disintegrate in a high wind or earth tremor.

The clock tower restoration project is underway. It will include the a new bell frame and the restoration of the clock faces. The new bell frame  (a required part of the structural repairs) will also make it possible to expand the chime from ten bells to twenty-three or more in the future, (A carillon officially requires at least two octaves - 23 bells.)  The Quasimotos are pursuing the restoration of the Seth Thomas, Number Sixteen tower clock movement’s original pendulum escapement and the replacement of the M.A.C. Weather Vane.

This is the past and the present of Old Chapel; the future of Old Chapel is currently a question. The tenants including marching band have been or are being relocated. The building itself will not be safe for reoccupancy until the tower is repaired in 1998. What does 2000 have in store for this grand old campus landmark?
The original demand that produced Old Chapel was initiated by Alumni assisted by concerned Faculty and Staff. For its entire life Old Chapel has been the campus image most clearly recalled by our alumni. The University can and must repair this building.  The assistance and support of our dedicated and concerned Alumni will make a very substantial contribution to this project.

The future of Old Chapel Tower lies in the hands of it’s Alumni; will this Dream Lead to  Action and Succeed?  We believe H. H. Goodell answered the question in the first annual report of the Special Alumni  Committee on the Library in 1884 “There should be no difficulty in securing this amount needed from the alumni and true friends of the M.A.C. (UMass).”