UMass Amherst, Old Chapel: The Return of a Beloved Landmark to Campus Life

by Regan Shields and Hilary Williams


Exterior UMass Amherst Old Chapel

Finegold Alexander Architects

Amherst, MA – Located at the heart of the campus, the Old Chapel at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is its most recognizable historic landmark. Slated to become a new destination, the project boasts a balance of thoughtful new design, restoration, and innovative solutions to the complex integration of modern mechanical and energy systems.

First constructed in 1884 as the campus library and place of assembly, and later used as office and classroom space, it was closed for exterior repairs in 1999 and has remained closed due to code compliance issues. Despite being unused, the building maintained a strong presence on campus while the administration worked to determine how to transform the historic structure to meet the needs of a 21st-century university.

UMass Chapel Panoramic

UMass Amherst Chapel panoramic

After numerous studies, Finegold Alexander Architects was brought on board as lead designers for the reinvention of the Old Chapel. The building, recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, is currently under construction. The design preserves the historic granite exterior and restores important architectural components such as a new slate roof and stained glass windows. A new entry, featuring a delicate glass vestibule fronted by an exterior terrace, looks over a campus green and connects to a major pedestrian spine, serving as an anchor in the campus neighborhood.

Inside, the building has been consciously gutted to transform its function while preserving important architectural features like the large exposed structural roof trusses. The new design creates technology-rich multipurpose spaces for use by faculty, students, the administration, alumni, and other campus groups for meetings, lectures, performances, and banquets.

The project respects the history of the building and integrates energy-efficient MEP systems and state-of-the-art technology. Achieving this was no easy task. Working closely with ARUP and ART, who are serving as the mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection engineers, the team devised an approach to thread the complicated building systems through the existing structure with minimal impact to the historic fabric both on the interior and exterior of the building. The main challenges and solutions from an HVAC and plumbing perspective were actively addressed through the following:

  • Creating an underground mechanical vault adjacent to the building to house the major mechanical equipment. By locating the air-handling units and intake/exhaust systems in the vault, precious square footage in the basement was used for programmable space, such as a catering kitchen and storage.
  • Connecting the building to the adjacent Du Bois Library’s chilled and hot water systems to avoid the need for exterior, unsightly condensers on the lawn of the chapel. This also conforms to the university’s energy strategy, which aims to utilize existing heating and cooling equipment in adjacent buildings to share spare capacity and provide greater efficiency and redundancy to the whole campus infrastructure.
  • Implementing a displacement ventilation system, which takes advantage of the voluminous space within the chapel, reducing the amount of air required to heat and cool the building. It also limits the amount of overhead ductwork, particularly in areas where the historic architectural features do not want to be compromised by the mechanical system. The displacement ventilation system provides comfort, flexibility, and acoustic control, which are three key elements needed in a multifunctional building with activities ranging from performances to sit-down dinners.

Restoration and reuse projects require a carefully coordinated team effort in order to successfully reprogram a historic space for a new use, so that the character-defining elements which make it unique are not compromised. The project will bring a new life to the Old Chapel, UMass Amherst’s campus icon, and students will soon engage in a new thriving student life center. Not only will they have contemporary work spaces that encourage assembly, interaction, and collaboration, they will also experience an incredible sense of place and architectural history at the heart of the campus.


Regan Shields

Regan Shields Ives, AIA, LEED AP, is senior associate at Finegold Alexander Architects in Boston.




HIlary Williams

Hilary Williams

Hilary Williams, CEng MIMechE LEED AP BD+C, is senior mechanical engineer at Arup in Cambridge, Mass.