Barrett Gymnasium 1878

“While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.” —Jane Jacobs


Afew weeks ago, a student of mine, Sarah Wagner ’19, texted me an image. It was of an old photograph she found in the College’s Archives and Special Collections. At the bottom, in elegantly drawn letters, the caption read: “Barrett Gymnasium.”

“This one’s for you, Profe!” my student said.

I had known that Barrett Hall had housed the Department of Hygiene and Physical Education, the first gym in the country to hire a permanent faculty member. The information is stated in a bronze plaque, installed in 1927, that greets visitors as they enter. But I hadn’t paid much attention to it. My relationship to the place had been entirely pragmatic; by chance, I have taught there for 25 years.

The old photograph was covered in plastic. The image displayed a spacious athletic room with a sparse, expansive wooden floor. A number of ropes hung from the bars traversing its ceiling. There was equipment: a mattress, training bars, a pommel horse, beams.

The number “18” was written on the top right corner of the plastic. I gathered it referred to a family of photographs to which this one belonged. At the bottom was a year, “1878.” I knew the gym had been active from 1859 to 1884; the image was surely a record of its peak.

After that, students wanted bowling alleys, but the administration rejected the idea, deeming them “too noisy.”

I became convinced that the photograph was taken on a crisp autumn morning, around 10, because I have frolicked in that same sunlight year after year, whenever I teach in the big classroom on the lower level. The brightness of spring is somewhat less placid.

As I studied the photograph in detail, I was fascinated. Who had preceded me in the building? What had been their relationship to it? I quickly became puzzled: Where are the athletes? The photographer had clearly intended the depiction to have an aesthetic quality: not people but objects in their rightful space. Yet I could sense their presence, the gestures and sounds made by a squad of young men as they displayed their bodies like trophies.

It appeared to me that the photograph resembled the style of John Lyman Lovell, owner of the Amherst Picture Gallery, a famous hub in the Pioneer Valley in the last third of the 19th century. In an article I saw about Lovell’s business, I learned that he’d offered “colored photographs, ambrotypes, porcelain pictures, and frame making for a low price,” as well as “stereoscopic views of Amherst and the surrounding towns [that] are marketed to Hampshire County natives.” Lovell had been in charge of making daguerreotypes of every Amherst class. I knew that he had also left a record of a number of College buildings. Maybe this atmospheric Barrett picture was among them.

In successive days, the student who had texted me the old photograph followed it with more images of the building. In one of them, several lofty pine trees partially hide the façade. In another, a bunch of students are doing calisthenics in the front yard. There is a postcard showing ivy all around its outer walls. And in yet another, this one dated in 1993, a few months before I arrived at Amherst, several scholars I don’t recognize pose near it. The overall effect of these images granted me a nuanced vision of the past.

Whereas other facilities were meant for a plurality of activities, Barrett was among the first to have a single purpose. The place on which it sits, once called “The Grove,” is somehow simultaneously at the center of campus and not on people’s way. Perhaps that’s why it has survived almost intact across two centuries.

As a structure, the building is small: 70 feet long by 50 feet wide. Located in the northeast corner of the Main Quad, between Frost and James, it is noticeably unexciting. Two-storied, gray, made of dull stone—you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking it was a 19th-century meetinghouse where Puritan sermons were composed.

In 1826, just a few years after the College’s founding, its student body, fewer than 100, petitioned the faculty for a holiday so that they might clear up a grove for outdoor exercise. Their request was met with such enthusiasm that a second day was added to complete the work. Soon a gymnastic society was created “whose purpose was to procure apparatus for outdoor exercise,” which, according to Paul C. Phillips, writing in the 1930s in the Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly, was followed by a proposal for a bathing house. After that, students wanted a series of bowling alleys, but the administration rejected the idea, deeming them “too noisy.” The rationale was based on morality: “though innocents in themselves, they might be perverted.”

William Augustus Stearns, who became president of the College in 1854, pushed for a gym. The ceremony of the laying of the cornerstone took place on Oct. 13 of that year, with an address delivered by Dr. George B. Windship of Roxbury, Mass., on the importance of “physical culture,” a philosophy that reaches heartily into the present. Designed by Charles E. Parkes of Boston and named for Dr. Benjamin Barrett of Northampton, the building cost a total of $10,000. Barrett wasn’t the only donor, but his contribution of $1,000 was by far the largest. The rest of the money was borrowed.

According to Edward Hitchcock, a geologist who preceded Stearns as president and who was also a strong believer “in the impact of physical education on young minds,” the gym “could have been completed for less had there not been such a desire for haste.” In a recollection, Hitchcock adds that Barrett “was built in the autumn of 1859, so far as it could be, and the mortar froze badly.” He didn’t particularly like its looks, describing them as “massive in appearance, without much architectural beauty.” The building is made with Pelham gneiss, a local stone (composed mostly of quartz) that is remarkable for its grain. It was used in many important buildings of the time. There was a physician’s office on the first level, along with dressing rooms. The space shown in the photograph marked “18” was on the second floor. It was the main hall for athletic classes and individual exercises.

Barrett Hall 1953
This 1953 photo of Barrett is a reminder of an all-male era at Amherst that today feels remote.

On the south wall of that second-floor space (now an attic of sorts) was a religious inscription, which I was able to see parts of in the photo. I came across the full quote of it—from an 1859 lecture delivered at Cambridge by British paleontologist Richard Owen—in Hitchcock’s reminiscence:

This frame—BODY—is a temporary trust for the uses of which we are responsible to the Maker. Oh! You who possess it in supple vigor of lusty youth, think well what it is He has committed to your keeping. Waste not its energies; dull them not by sloth; spoil them not by pleasures! The supreme work of creation has been accomplished that you might possess a body—the sole erect—of all animal bodies the most free, and for what? For the service of the soul. Strive to realize the conditions of the possession of this wondrous structure.

Think what it may become, the Temple of the Holy Spirit! Defile it not. Seek rather to adorn it with all meet and becoming gifts, with that fair furniture, moral and intellectual, which it is your inestimable privilege to acquire through the teachings and examples and ministrations of this Seat of Sound Learning and Religious Education.

It made me think of the long chain of generations and the ways past, present and future interact.

Pratt Gymnasium, a bigger, more ambitious gym, was built in 1883. It had room for all sorts of new sports. The total construction budget was $68,000. Pratt displaced Barrett, turning it into a carcass. There were various proposals of new uses for the defunct gym, including adapting it for geology studies. “It is hoped that something will be done with it soon,” states one document, dated May 7, 1897. The hope would take a decade to materialize.

The place was finally repurposed in 1907 for “the instruction of modern languages.” The occasion prompted its renaming from Barrett Gymnasium to Barrett Hall. The interior was changed dramatically. Workers closed off the ceiling on display in the old photograph, creating a secluded attic of sorts. They added a small library, classrooms and offices, including my current one, which is almost directly below where the first of two chimneys stood, before modern heating replaced wood and coal. The departments of French, German and Spanish are now housed here. At one point, Italian was too, when we had an Italian department.

With Aaron Hayden, capital project manager and campus utilities engineer, and carpenter and mason Timothy Eddy, I recently climbed a ladder into the attic. I wanted to see the remnants of the original gym. The upper lines of the religious inscription are still visible; the rest is buried in insulation material. I had been told that a fresco showing silhouettes of Greco-Roman male athletes might once have graced the west wall. Nothing of it is there.

The exploration made me remember my early impressions of the building. They were harsh: to me, the structure was austere, a relic of an unappetizing past. And I wasn’t the only one who thought so. My colleagues disparaged it too, finding its hallways uninviting; its classrooms cacophonous, asymmetrical and unfit for teaching; and its overall geometry severe.

Time has morphed my displeasure into devotion, though. I know the place in minute detail: every crevice, every picture on its walls, every sound that human traffic makes in the late afternoon hours. I can even tell the corners where spiders nest.

Barrett Hall 1980s
This postcard-sized image shows ivy splashed over Barrett's outer walls. It was probably taken in June.

Suddenly, while looking at the old photograph again, I realized my student’s thumb made an appearance on the left side. Its presence inadvertently created a series of undulations in the plastic that add depth and complexity. This enthralled me. It made me think of the long chain of generations we all belong to and the ways past, present and future interact.

On a rainy afternoon, I can see James Merrill ’47 and Richard Wilbur ’42 in conversation, discussing the secret of the best Paris cafés. Not far away, Robert Fagles ’55 is translating The Aeneid and Stephen Mitchell ’64 the Bhagavad Gita. I see a local author, Norton Juster, describing how he wrote The Phantom Tollbooth, and I see guest lecturer and Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú meditating on the perils of activism in Guatemala.

David Foster Wallace ’85 has just come across a typo in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. Joseph Stiglitz ’64 is explaining how an open market contracts, while William Kristol talks to my class about the tenets of liberalism and Professor Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick reflects on the epistemology of the closet. Meanwhile, actors from the Double Edge Theatre troupe are joyfully dressing up for an outdoor spectacle on the quad based on the Arabian Nights.

No longer a gymnasium, Barrett Hall is now a stage. I too am in the building, cavorting on the pages of Shakespeare, Don Quixote, Emily Dickinson and Lewis Carroll with a new crop of students, each of them unique, their countless insights doing gymnastics through the air.


Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst and the publisher of Restless Books. He is the author of, most recently, The Oven: An Anti-Lecture (University of Massachusetts Press) and the graphic-novel adaptation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote of La Mancha (Penn State University Press), in separate English and Spanglish editions.


Photos from Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

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