Lost Amherst: Redesigned Residences Lack Luster
By Alexander Coburn ’11, Contributing Writer
A few days ago, I was perusing the website of Amherst Magazine when I came across the “Nooks and Crannies” page, in which contributing writers submit photos and articles profiling “little known or hidden spaces across the Amherst campus” (examples of recently-documented places include the Bunker and the bell-tower of Johnson Chapel). What caught my attention, though, was not the main set of articles, but rather the “Comment” section on the bottom of the front page which encouraged readers to post suggestions for interesting “nooks and crannies” that should be documented in future editions. The fifth comment down, posted by Johnnie L. Odom ’00, was entitled “Hitchcock GOTE Room,” and read, “A few pictures of this elaborate former fraternity meeting room in the basement of Hitchcock would be nice. That’s a gorgeous room — pillars, stage, built-in wooden chairs. The works!”

When I looked at the date of this comment — June 2008 — the irony and tragedy behind Mr. Odom’s words immediately struck me. Right around the time when Johnnie wrote this post, the very room that he hoped would be captured in an upcoming Amherst Magazine article was in the process of being destroyed by construction workers, as part of the “demolition” phase of the renovation of old Hitchcock, which had begun about a month earlier.

The decisions to remove the former Hitchcock GOTE (standard name for old fraternity meeting room) room and its equivalent in neighboring Seelye went largely under the radar, at least from the perspective of the student body. But these were far from isolated incidents; in fact, an entire series of “nooks and crannies” articles could be written about fascinating spaces that have been either removed or fundamentally altered in the past four years as a result of the renovations to Amherst’s former fraternity houses. The general loss of the historic fabric that has resulted from these extensive (and expensive!) renovation projects, including the disappearance of common spaces with memorable charm and personality — like those pictured here — has fundamentally altered the character of what used to be rather distinctive and individualized old houses. And it’s no coincidence that, of all the reader-proposed “nooks and crannies,” none has suggested exploration of a space in the renovated Triangle — there’s just not much there to document.

One reason I decided to focus the opening edition of “Lost Amherst” on the Hitchcock and Seelye GOTE rooms is that these creatively-designed rooms represent a type of uniquely-constructed residential space that is becoming a rarity at Amherst today. Outside of the wood-beamed atrium of Charles Pratt, one would be hard-pressed to find such fascinating architectural features in a residential building as a two-story domed ceiling, built-in wooden stadium seating with nearly a century of history, indoor Greek-revival columns and even an oval-shaped common room. Which is not to say that the Amherst facilities department should go out of its way to design such spaces — rather, my point is that many original design features of these old fraternity houses stand out among peer dormitories in individuality and creativity, and therefore represent valuable components of Amherst’s existing architectural fabric that any college administration would be crazy not to preserve.

Amherst’s facilities website devotes several pages to descriptions of these renovation projects, and in most of the write-ups there is a claim of some sort about the noble historic preservation effort underlying each project; the Seelye write-up, for instance, states that the “historic character of the original building was maintained.” And yet, documentation of these lost spaces, study of the demolition plans (in which over 80 percent of original materials are removed, in some cases,) and even a quick walk through the new Triangle (by someone familiar with the old Triangle) gives off just the opposite impression — that very little of these buildings’ historic fabric, or former overall feel, was actually preserved.

In the case of the GOTE rooms, my conversations with the facilities department have hinted at several possible reasons for their removal. One is based on the idea that, since fraternities no longer inhabit these houses, the original purpose of these rooms — to host house meetings — has become irrelevant. Such an argument entirely ignores the architectural and educational value of these spaces. As someone completely disconnected from fraternity life, I nevertheless would have treasured these two rooms had they become libraries, common rooms or even classrooms (in fact, one of the former GOTE rooms of an old fraternity house at Williams, which bears striking resemblance to the lost room in Seelye, now serves as the primary venue on their campus for a cappella shows).

Another argument I’ve heard again and again is that building codes have necessitated the removal of these historic spaces — an argument that also holds little weight, considering the visible preservation efforts in the renovations to the old fraternity houses at Williams, another Massachusetts college that answers to identical building codes as Amherst.

In terms of historic preservation, the disconnect between administrative intention and on-the-ground result is a serious problem that needs to be addressed in future facilities projects, because history and individuality are integral to Amherst’s identity. “Part of the strength of Amherst lies in memory and the layers of history embedded in the campus,” said Blair Kamin ’79, the leading architectural critic for the Chicago Tribune, during a phone interview this summer.

Much of Amherst’s historic fabric, and thus “memory,” is upheld in its physical structures, and few buildings on campus possess more of that physical memory than the old fraternity houses that, over the past half-decade, have fallen under the siege of the Residential Master Plan.

Issue 18, Submitted 2011-03-09 10:48:10