After the Flood: Renewal at Johnson Chapel
by William Sweet
Faculty moved back to Amherst’s iconic Johnson Chapel last week, ending an exile that began on Feb. 13, when part of a plaster ceiling fell and broke a sprinkler pipe, causing the building to flood. The professors came back to a Johnson Chapel that truly is old and new again, thanks to a renovation project that’s now wrapping up.
“We’re doing some very minor touch-ups, but all the systems are on. The building is protected and functional,” said Peter Root, assistant director of facilities for operations.
Professor of English John Cameron, restocking his books
The past week has been like student move-in weekend, only quieter. Faculty unpacked boxes of books and documents which had been in a Deerfield, Mass., storage facility since the flood. As crews put the finishing touches to building renovations, faculty shelved books and arranged furniture.
“I haven’t had my teaching files or books available to me since February,” said Dale Peterson, the Eliza J. Clark Folger Professor of English and Russian. “I’m delighted to say that I can begin to work again.”
In the spirit of renewal, Professor of English John Cameron took a sponge and Lysol to his desk chair. “This hasn't been cleaned since 1963,” he said. Cameron has taught at Amherst since 1958.
It’s a bittersweet affair, coming back to offices that they had to leave in haste five months ago. The flood claimed some resources they’d been using for years. While the building ‘s structural integrity was never impaired, Root said, the personal property of the faculty took a hit. Polygon, an international restoration firm, was hired to work on drying water-damaged books and documents, but it remains to be seen how usable everything is. Still, nothing on the order of rare first editions was lost, and faculty are making arrangements with the library to have replacement materials in time for classes, he said.
“I lost a few things, some archival photographs, but I was fortunate,” said Andrew Johnston, visiting assistant professor of English in film and media studies.
The water ruined some of Peterson’s woodcuts; however, he was pleased to discover, without a ripple or stain, a prized woodcut of the young Nathaniel Hawthorne. “I was concerned about that,” he said.
The college snatched opportunity from misfortune: the flood allowed Facilities to give a facelift to the building. Erected in 1827, Johnson Chapel is the third oldest building on campus and has, in recent years, accumulated its share of cosmetic faults.
The offices and classrooms remain the same, but there are now some welcome changes: a central air conditioning system will be up and running in August, an old storage closet has been converted into a small kitchen, and the building received a fresh paint job.
“The aesthetics have been improved enormously,” said Cameron. “The various patchwork improvements of the past years have been stripped away.”
Also stripped away: the rug from the main hallway; the gleaming hardwood floor is now exposed. Root said the college is in contact with a contractor about repairing the damaged blower motor to the chapel’s organ.
Crews have taken out the building’s old steam pipe system—known for its loud clanking—and installed a new hydronic heating system. “It’s much more energy-efficient and much quieter,” Root said. “Now they’re going to have to get used to it being quiet.”
Amidst all the changes, readers can rest assured that the description of “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” that opens James Joyce’s Ulysses, inscribed on the back wall of the first floor bathroom, was not among the casualties. The Ulysses bathroom, inscribed with lines from James Joyce’s novel, was not tampered-with too much. It has a new toilet, but the text (written in marker by four Joyce fans in 1978) remains untouched.