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Amherst College

Amherst College

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Amherst College

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Feb 18, 2020


Amherst College: The Campus Guide is an architectural tour of one of North America's most prestigious liberal arts colleges. Founded in Western Massachusetts some two hundred years ago, the one thousand-acre campus is a living museum of architectural history, bearing the imprint of distinguished firms in architecture and landscape architecture: Frederick Law Olmsted; McKim, Mead &amp White; Benjamin Thompson; Edward Larrabee Barnes; Shepley Bulfinch; and Michael Van Valkenburgh. Organized as a series of six walks, the guide interweaves the history of the college with the story of the campus's development. Newly commissioned photographs and a hand drawn pocket map enhance this engaging journey through Amherst's architecture, landscape, interior design, and sculpture.
Feb 18, 2020

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Blair Kamin, a 1979 graduate of Amherst, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune. His previous books include Why Architecture Matters: Lessons from Chicago.

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Amherst College - Blair Kamin

Published by

Princeton Architectural Press

202 Warren Street

Hudson, New York 12534


© 2020 Princeton Architectural Press

All rights reserved

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission from the publisher, except in the context of reviews.

Every reasonable attempt has been made to identify owners of copyright.

Errors or omissions will be corrected in subsequent editions.

Program Director, The Campus Guide: Jan Cigliano Hartman

Editor: Linda Lee

Designer: Paula Baver

Mapmaker: Christopher Beck

Special thanks to: Janet Behning, Abby Bussel, Susan Hershberg, Kristen Hewitt, Stephanie Holstein, Lia Hunt, Valerie Kamen, Jennifer Lippert, Sara McKay, Parker Menzimer, Wes Seeley, Rob Shaeffer, Sara Stemen, Jessica Tackett, Marisa Tesoro, Paul Wagner, and Joseph Weston of Princeton Architectural Press

—Kevin C. Lippert, publisher

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data




IDENTIFIERS: LCCN 2019014041 | ISBN 9781616898229 (PBK. : ALK. PAPER) ISBN 9781616899202 (EPUB, MOBI)


CLASSIFICATION: LCC LD153 .K36 2020 | DDC 378.744/23--DC23



How to Use This Guide

Foreword Biddy Martin



The Main Quadrangle

PART ONE: College Row

PART TWO: The Quadrangle


Valentine and Pratt Quadrangles


Half Quadrangles and the Other Hill


The Town Common

PART ONE: The Common to Seligman House

PART TWO: College Hall to the Inn on Boltwood


The Athletic Fields


The Greenway

Farther Afield


Selected Bibliography



The expansive interior of Amherst's Science Center offers a gathering place for study and views of the campus through its glass walls.

How to Use This Guide

This book can serve as a guide for walking tours or as a text that can be read on or away from Amherst College’s one-thousand-acre campus. It’s meant for everybody, not just architecture buffs. It’s for students and prospective students, faculty, administrators, staff, alumni, residents of the Town of Amherst, tourists—anyone, in short, who wants to see the Amherst campus with fresh eyes.

The book is divided into six main chapters, or walks, most of which are grouped around an open space, like the college’s main quadrangle or the Amherst Town Common. The walks cover the campus’s most significant works of architecture, landscape architecture, interior architecture, and sculpture—a total of nearly one hundred designed objects. A seventh chapter examines three buildings off campus: the Five College Library Depository (also known as the Bunker), which is buried in the nearby Holyoke Range; Amherst House at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan; and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, which is administered by a board of governors under the auspices of the college. A glossary defines architectural terms like quoins.

Each walk consists of essays that provide a detailed description and assessment of the object being scrutinized. You may hold a different opinion than mine. That’s fine. Amherst being Amherst (an often-contentious place where, as they say, only the h is silent), disagreement and debate are both expected and encouraged. The point is to give you, the reader, the tools to interpret what you’re seeing and experiencing. Throughout, my aim is to explain the idea behind a design and evaluate how well the idea was executed; to place the project in the context of its time; and to explore the values and visions of its creators—in short, to analyze, contextualize, and humanize the college’s buildings and landscapes.

As for the nitty-gritty of touring, access to Amherst’s buildings differs. A rule of thumb is that academic buildings are open to the public, but the halls and houses where students live are not. Students, alumni, faculty, and full-time staff have access to athletic buildings; the general public does not. Sports events at venues such as Pratt Field, however, are open to those outside the college community. Tours of the Bunker typically are given on alumni and family weekends. If you’re driving, the Town of Amherst, which has a population of about 38,000, offers ample parking in its downtown, a charming, still-distinctive commercial center that has not been overrun by chain restaurants and shops. For alumni, parking is also available in the lot of the Amherst Alumni House. Further information about campus tours, including tours for prospective students, is available at www.amherst.edu/admission/visit/tours_infosessions.

The optimal time to tour is an autumn weekend when fall foliage embowers the college’s red-brick and gray-stone buildings in fleeting bursts of orange, yellow, and red. But any time is a good time to see Amherst’s campus—even in winter, provided you dress warmly and remain on the lookout for the occasional patch of ice.


My first visit to Amherst’s campus took place in 2011, when the college was seeking a new president. I was honored by the invitation to consider the position, having long admired Amherst’s commitment to academic excellence and educational opportunity for talented students, regardless of means. My discussions with community members had been inspiring, and I found the possibility of making a contribution compelling. When I arrived on campus, Anthony Marx, then the college’s president, suggested we walk to the main quadrangle. Soon, I was taking in the stunning surroundings from one of the Adirondack chairs that dot the quad’s lush lawn. The architecture’s elegant simplicity only enhanced the protective feel of the tall trees and the magnificent view of the Holyoke Range. Tony and I began talking about Amherst, and by the end of our conversation, my mind was fully made up. I became Amherst’s nineteenth president a short while later.

Across generations, this campus has moved many others. In 1934, one of my predecessors, Amherst president Stanley King, gave a speech at a ceremony to commemorate the reopening of Johnson Chapel, following a renovation. At the event, King read one student’s reflections about seeing Amherst’s campus for the first time. The writer, John Burgess, a former member of the Union Army, began his studies at Amherst in 1864. The day after Burgess arrived on campus, a classmate brought him to the top of Johnson Chapel’s tower to see the kingdoms of the earth. In his unpublished memoir, A Few Reminiscences of a Somewhat Varied Life , Burgess described this experience as follows:

Down to that moment of my life, I had never seen anything quite so beautiful. The Chapel and the College buildings generally were situated upon a hill rising out of the east side of the Connecticut Valley. The abruptness of the Holyoke Range on the south side and the conical Sugar Loaf in the north made the landscape quite Italian and classic. And over all was spread such an air of peace, contentment and good will as made the earth to me a different place to live in from what I had elsewhere found it.

Though Burgess recorded these impressions more than one hundred fifty years ago, his description of what he saw, and how he felt, seems astonishingly contemporary. Those who traverse Amherst’s main quadrangle today are surrounded by the same natural beauty and much of the handsome New England architecture that Burgess observed from his perch atop Johnson Chapel. The distinctive air has not dissipated, and Amherst retains its special sense of place.

As the essays in this volume underscore, the evolution of New England campus architecture over the past two hundred years finds palpable expression in Amherst’s buildings. In 1820, the cornerstone for the college’s first building, South College, was laid. Built largely by townspeople who were passionate about education, the structure has served as a classroom, residence hall, and laboratory. Close to two centuries later, our newest landmark, the state-of-the-art Science Center, opened. The most ambitious construction project in Amherst’s history, the building features flexible teaching and research spaces that are supporting interdisciplinary collaborations and innovative ways of teaching science.

The process of designing the Science Center presented an opportunity to enhance the connections between the campus landscape and the built environment. Our new Greenway, conceived as part of the development of the Science Center and nearby residence halls, has helped unify the college’s buildings and extend the vitality of the campus to the east. The Greenway’s outdoor recreational spaces are inspiring the community to experience the campus in fresh ways, and regrading and plantings have created different vantage points from which to see historic buildings. What could be more fitting than changes to a campus that offer unexpected new views and connections across past, present, and future?

Readers of this volume may be surprised to learn that Amherst’s campus extends beyond Massachusetts to encompass the eclectic architecture of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, and Amherst House, a part of Japan’s Doshisha University. Closer by, but also off campus, the Five College Library Depository presents another fascinating story that is told in these pages. Constructed underground in the Holyoke Range during the 1950s as a secret Air Force command post, the facility now serves as a storage space for lesser-used library books and journals.

In closing, I want to acknowledge Blair Kamin, a member of Amherst’s class of 1979, who brought his prodigious expertise and talents to this book. We could not be more grateful to Blair or more delighted with the outcome of this project.

Biddy Martin

President, Amherst College


In my line of work, in which everyone strives to be a card-carrying skeptic, no one wants to be accused of writing a love note. A love note, for the uninitiated, is a fawning article, a piece of puffery to which no self-respecting reporter would attach his or her byline. This guidebook aims to be a different sort of love note: a passionate, full-throated appreciation of Amherst’s campus, yes, but also a demanding assessment, one that does not hesitate to call out instances in which the college and its architects have failed to aim high or have fallen short. To me, that’s true love—not blind admiration or rabid boosterism, but an esteem based upon a searching eye, a generous heart, and a mind open to all forms of experience.

Enlivened by colorful fall foliage, Amherst College’s campus is closely interwoven with the town from which it takes its name. The towers of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst can be seen in the distance, along with the ridgelines of surrounding hills. At lower left are four college buildings: the Octagon, the President’s House, and Morgan and College Halls.

In that spirit, these pages paint a picture of the Amherst campus that reaches beyond the visual to the multisensory. On the college’s spectacular hilltop plateau, visitors breathe in the same intoxicatingly fresh mountain air that inspired the poets Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. Pine trees scent that air, especially around the War Memorial, which looks out to the softly sculpted ridgelines of the Holyoke Range. The granite interior stairs that ascend to the elegant simplicity of Johnson Chapel, their treads worn into scalloped hollows by the footfalls of myriad generations, remind students that they’re walking in someone else’s footsteps—and that someone else will walk in theirs. While Amherst is a community in space—an intimate face-to-face college rather than an impersonal university—it is also a community in time. Its history now stretches back more than two hundred years, and its campus, seemingly fixed but always changing, exerts a strong gravitational pull: the power of place.

By place, I don’t mean a dot on a map, though this particular dot is about ninety miles west of Boston, in a verdant agricultural valley where the crops include asparagus, sweet corn, and tobacco. Nor, by place, do I mean a self-aggrandizing institution of higher learning that accumulates buildings by famed designers like celebrity autographs, though Amherst’s campus does reflect the mark of such noted architects and landscape architects as McKim, Mead & White, Frederick Law Olmsted, Benjamin Thompson, and Edward Larrabee Barnes. By place, I mean a college where the whole and the parts are in equipoise—where the landscape, the buildings, the administrators, the professors, the staff, and the students combine to make a whole that is more, much more, than the sum of its individual parts.

Those parts, I hasten to add, include the intangible ingredient of memory, the stories that help bring inert brick, stone, and glass to life. This book is full of such stories. There’s the one about Emily Dickinson’s grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, paying repeated visits to a dying one-legged farmer named Adam Johnson and beseeching him to donate his fortune to the fledgling cash-poor college so it could build a proper chapel. There’s the 1938 hurricane tearing out a beloved allée of maple trees, the College Grove, and clearing the way for the present main quadrangle. There are the white fraternity brothers who in 1948 take the principled stand of leaving their national organization after it suspends them for pledging a black student; their white-columned, mansion-like frat house is today the college’s African American theme house. And there are the women who, after coeducation began in 1975–76, deposited flower pots in the urinals of previously all-male dorms to make their presence felt.

Presidents change, as do pedagogies, professors, and the profile of the student body. But as long as distinguished buildings and landscapes are not destroyed, they serve as a constant, one that imbues a college with a distinctive character. Amherst’s distinction arises first and foremost from its site—a hilltop that is the highest spot in the town of Amherst. This hilltop, home of the Greek Revival Johnson Chapel and four flanking brick buildings that form College Row, is ringed by hills in every direction—the Holyoke and Mount Tom Ranges to the south and southwest, the Pelham Hills to the east, Mounts Sugar Loaf and Toby to the north, and the approaches to the Berkshires to the west. As George Harris (class of 1866), the college’s president from 1899 to 1912, observed in an essay titled The Amherst Landscape, the hills border

just at the right distance all round to be softened into rich colors of sunset and sunrise, haze and storm, without losing [their] distinctive character. Every season of the year—spring with its bright tender green, summer with its pomps of cloud and foliage, the gorgeous coloring of a New England autumn, and, not least, when the cliffs and bare trees peep out from under their mantle of winter, or it may be are wrapped in a fleecy robe woven by the large wet flakes of a later winter storm—every season of the year, nay, every hour of the day adds, for the observant eye, some phase of beauty unimagined before.

Amherst’s buildings tend toward elemental simplicity, with clean, sharp lines rather than picturesque frills and elaborate silhouettes; they are kin to the simple but powerful buildings of the Connecticut River Valley: the weathered brown tobacco sheds, long and gabled, and the white meetinghouses, set alongside the green carpets of town commons. Many structures, especially those by the Boston firm of Putnam & Cox, which shaped most of the college’s former fraternity houses in the early years of the twentieth century, stress the virtues of one building harmonizing with another. The buildings typically are arranged in quadrangles, but unlike their walled counterparts in Oxford, Cambridge, or New Haven, the Amherst quads have openings between buildings—they are ventilated, as it were—to take advantage of the panoramic views afforded by the hilltop site. This dual character, a mixture of comforting enclosure and expansive openness, extends to the Amherst Town Common, which is flanked by nearly as many college buildings as the main quad. With the exception of the gates that control access to Pratt Field, no gates guard the entrance to the college, in contrast to urban universities like Harvard or even the Pioneer Valley institutions of Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges. The absence of such borders is a sign of an ongoing comity between town and gown that dates back to the college’s beginnings.

If visitors know where to look, clues to the college’s origins are hidden in plain sight. The first, a raised granite marker next to a Town of Amherst parking lot on Amity Street, suggests that the college’s founding was more of a community enterprise than a breakaway from rival Williams College, as the story is often mischaracterized. The marker commemorates the site of the Amherst Academy, the distinguished (now-closed) secondary school that gave birth to the college. The academy’s leaders, deeply religious men who included the lexicographer Noah Webster, sought to build on its success by starting a college that would train ministers to supply their schools and churches with well-educated teachers and preachers. In 1818, they established the Charity Fund, which would pay the tuition and rooming expenses of indigent young men of piety and talents, for the Christian Ministry. Funds poured in from local farmers, craftsmen, and ministers. Townspeople volunteered their labor in 1820 to construct the institution’s first building, South College (now South Hall). When Zephaniah Swift Moore, Williams College’s second president, resigned from the then-struggling institution in the summer of 1821 and brought fifteen students with him to Amherst, he was not so much importing higher education to the Connecticut River Valley as he was becoming the first president of a college whose emergence arose as naturally as the deep green forests that swept over the valley’s hills.

The academy that gave birth to the college is commemorated with a stone marker and plantings next to a parking lot along Amity Street.

In 1828, Amherst advertised its plans for a completed College Row after the three buildings that form the heart of the row (Johnson Chapel and North and South Colleges) had been erected. It would take another 130 years for this vision to be fully realized.

The second clue to the college’s origins is the orientation of College Row: it doesn’t face east, toward Boston. It faces west, toward the river in whose waters, as the historian William S. Tyler (class of 1830) once wrote, Native Americans delighted to ply their light bark canoes . . . and on whose banks they built their most beautiful villages and raised their richest fields of corn. The Native Americans of the region—the Nonotuck nation in what is now the Five College area, the Pocumtuck to the north, and the Agawam to the south—called this body of water Kwinitekw, or Great River. It was the interstate highway of its day, and, naturally, the college turned in its direction. European settlers moved east from the river—first to the present Town of Hadley, which was incorporated in 1661, and later to what is now the Town of Amherst, which became the eastern division of Hadley in 1730 and was incorporated in 1759. Like Hadley, Amherst established a Town Common, a long tract of open space that at first was more utilitarian than aesthetic. Crops grew there, and the common served as a military drill ground. Schools like the Amherst Academy clustered along this open space. It was natural for the fledging college to do the same.

Life at that college, first called the Collegiate Charity Institution, was primitive by today’s standards. The first cadre of forty-seven students drew water from the college well and cut firewood from the aforementioned forests. The initial course catalog, issued in 1822, consisted of a single sheet of paper. The entire college library was contained in a lone case, just six feet wide. Despite the college’s lack of resources—the Massachusetts legislature refused to grant a charter until 1825, owing to opposition from Williams and Harvard Colleges—the founders harbored high aspirations. They called their college a city set upon a hill, and they called its hill a consecrated eminence, as though it had been blessed by God. In our own time, more secular than theirs, their religious fervor may seem unfathomable. But the built legacy that they and their successors left still engages us. Great places do that. They transcend the worldview of their creators.

With the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, we can see that the making of Amherst’s sense of place has unfolded in distinct phases, shaped by shifting times, tastes, economic fortunes, technologies, and pedagogies. The key word is shifting. Two hundred years on, the college looks settled. In reality, aesthetic tensions and clashing priorities are always bubbling beneath the deceptively smooth surface. The need to keep pace with rival institutions also drives change. As a result, today’s beloved building may become tomorrow’s cast-off. But with some significant exceptions, Amherst has found enlightened ways to preserve and reuse its aged buildings. The college "is fortunate to possess one of the most outstanding and varied collections of early higher educational architecture in the New England region,

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