William A. Mueller

Director of Physical Plant and Services
Interviewed on January 23, 1980

Audio file

Subject coverage

  • Background of Physical Plant and Services
  • Changes in staff size
  • Physical Plant and Services' portion of College Budget
  • Housing for faculty and administration
  • Maintenance of fraternities
  • Property owned by College
  • Relationship with the Lord Jeffery Inn
  • Dormitories and Vandalism
  • History of the tunnel system
  • Staff hiring and makeup
  • Union voted down
  • Hiring of students
  • Women students and campus security
  • Extending campus electrical system
  • Jump in oil costs
  • Comparison of oil and coal costs
  • Alternative heating possibilities
  • Rise in electricity costs
  • Relations with residents in college housing
  • Seasonal weather problems
  • Contracted maintenance
  • Meeting unanticipated problems
  • Provisions for the handicapped
  • Student response to and maintenance of new dormitories
  • Use of the Infirmary
  • Plans for old heating plant
  • Maintenance at Amherst and at other colleges
  • Department's greatest needs
  • Future mechanization


[This transcript was created at the time of the original recording and may contain errors and omissions]

William A. Mueller 
Director of Physical Plant and Services 
Grosvenor House 
January 23, 1980 
Horace W. Hewlett 
For: Amherst College 

This is Horace Hewlett talking with William A. Mueller, Director of Physical Plant and Services, in Grosvenor House, on the Amherst campus on Wednesday, January 23, 1980. 

HWH: Bill, let me just read what I have in front of me here, to start out our conversation and to have it on the record. 

For the record: From 1821 to 1921 overseeing Buildings and Grounds was the responsibility of the Treasurer of Amherst College. In 1921, Henry Bangs Thacher was hired to superintend arrangements for the College’s Centennial celebration. In 1923 he was hired again as clerk of construction of Hitchcock Field, made possible by contributions to the Centennial Fund. In 1924 he was named Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds with a staff of three. His desk was in the Treasurer’s office; his staff and supplies were scattered in sundry basements on campus. His first employee was Peter Robertson who was retained as foreman of groundsmen; he had been foreman for construction of Hitchcock Field. Henry Thacher’s successors were Robert Heidrich (1950-70) and William Mueller (since 1970), whose title was changed to Director of Physical Plant and Services. In 1929 the College Garage was constructed, the gift of George D. Pratt ‘93, and in 1932, the Service Building, designed by Henry Thacher, was built. Until 1932, headquarters for B&G was moved to various buildings, longest in Morgan Hall. On November 1, 1949, a study of the organization and methods of B&G was conducted by Booz, Allen & Hamilton, under the direction of Edward J. Burnell ‘33. The staff had grown from 3 in 1924 to 99 in 1949. The department had grown to represent 23% of the College’s gross budget and 13% of its net budget. On the basis of the report, Thacher was named College Engineer to locate water mains, electric lines, conduits, and drains-- for many of which there were no records-- and returned to his original office in Walker Hall. It should also be noted that the Committee on Buildings and Grounds was introduced by the Board of Trustees in 1903 and has functioned as such ever since. 

Bill, to start off, and I know it’s a complicated question, what was the size of your staff in 1970, and what is it today? 

MUELLER: Bud, let’s start with today first, because I know the total number is 110. However, today it includes some functions that were not part of the old Buildings and Grounds Department of ten years ago, namely, the Security function which today has ten people in it, and the telephone switchboard, that is, Sally Keyes-- she was here then but not part of the Physical plant or Buildings and Grounds. 

I think in each of our trade skills we have roughly the same number today that we had ten years ago. There has been some change, not in over-all numbers but in the makeup of our custodial organization. Ten years ago we still had the maids who, up to about 1968 or 1969, did perform a more extensive housekeeping function in the dormitories. I think about one year before I got here-- and that would be about 1969-- they did away with the maids, but at least six or seven of those women were still on the rolls of the College. They have since all been retired, or in one or two cases may still be around but are working elsewhere in the College, such as in Valentine. 

As buildings have been added to the inventory over the last ten years, we have tried with a fair amount of success to live within the same total number of people that we had. As far as trade skills are concerned, I can only identify one carpenter and two people in refrigeration that are new on the rolls that were not here ten years ago-- that is, additional number. The total number in the custodial service area, at least, has increased by only about two-- in spite of the fact that we have added the new gymnasium; the Moore Dormitory, which was a conversion from the old Moore Chemistry Building; the two as-yet-unnamed dormitories A and B; also the fact that Fayerweather in 1970 was pretty much a closed building and is now a wide-open building and is used to 100% of its area. We were able to make these additions and absorb the workload almost completely. I think that perhaps now there are two more custodians than we had ten years ago. I guess that’s about it, Bud. 

HWH: I think that’s amazing, though, that you’ve expanded the facilities of the College so, and yet kept the staff down, at least not increased it. 

MUELLER: I hope that we’ve done it without any loss of quality. I think we have. I think that we have been able to develop some pretty reasonable standards for what we do, and at least judging from the fact that we don’t get too many complaints, I would gather that they’re pretty reasonable. 

HWH: In another direction, Bill, could you give an approximate figure of the percentage of the College’s budget your operations represent? 

MUELLER: Yes, I can. In fact this figure appears in the Treasurer’s Report, and as I open the one for the year ending June 30, 1979, on the bottom, right-hand corner of the first page, Mr. Hertzfeld has given that figure for over the last four years. It runs from just above 12% up to just about a little over 13%-- it went a little over 13% in 1978 and is back down now to a little under 13%. It seems to run pretty consistently in that area, right around 13%. It may very well go above this year because of the dramatic increase in the cost of utilities. I don’t know, but I would assume that that percentage increase has been higher than the increase in other parts of the budget. So I would guess that this year we are now in will probably figure out a little bit more than 13% of the total College budget. 

HWH: Well that’s stayed pretty constant, then, over a great many years. 

MUELLER: It has. It seems to be somewhat higher than some other colleges are reporting. Other colleges are reporting anywhere from 8 or 9% up to 14 or 15%. One difficulty, as you look at these reported figures, however, is that you’re never sure of what is included and what is not included. I will say that it’s been my observation since I’ve been here, that the Trustees have been very cognizant of the needs of the physical plant and have been very generous in allotting funds for this purpose-- for which I’m very, very thankful. 

HWH: Still another subject. How many separate residences does the College own? 

MUELLER: Well, we house 128 members of the faculty and administration-- predominantly members of the faculty-- with, I think, about eight or thereabouts members of the administration. The breakdown is, I believe, an even 80 single-family residences, and the balance of 48 family units are in multiple-family dwellings. There are 18 in the so-called Merrill Apartments-- that’s five buildings containing 18 apartments. The others are some of our larger old residences that have been broken up into apartments. 

HWH: Are there any vacant living units now as a result of the recent tax and rent hikes? 

MUELLER: There are none vacant, now, Bud. There have been. I use the term several; that may be an exaggeration. There have been a few, at least, that have been vacated as a consequence of the present situation involving the IRS and the cost of utilities. 

HWH: By that you mean members of the faculty or administration have found or bought new housing or are renting elsewhere. 

MUELLER: That’s correct. I don’t know that any of them are renting elsewhere. I think in each and every case, it’s because they have decided that this is the time for them to invest in a home of their own. I think in each and every case Dave Howland, who, as you know, does the housing assignment, has been able to fill the vacated units. In doing so, however, he has put people in who normally would not be eligible for college housing. A good example of this is that many of the junior deans are now in our college houses; a good number of our visiting faculty are in College houses that otherwise would not be. They’re all filled, as far as I know, at the present time, but they’re filled with people who normally would not be in them. 

HWH: Was the addition of fraternity maintenance a burden to your department? 

MUELLER: I guess it all depends on what you mean by burden. They’re in many cases a real pain. We are actually doing the custodial maintenance in about half of the fraternities, and in the others-- I think it’s about five of them now-- the students are still doing it themselves, if you would use that phrase. Now, as far as the physical building maintenance is concerned, in many areas it is in limbo because certain things we do only when asked to do them. Others we do as we see the need to do them. And I don’t feel that the fraternities are being maintained, that is either their structure is being maintained or their housekeeping is being taken care of, in the manner that our dormitories are enjoying. And it certainly isn’t in the manner that I want to see it done. To me it’s very appalling to go into these buildings and find the physical state that they’re in; the lack of housekeeping is very, very evident. It’s been a burden because we can’t do the job the way I feel it should be done. It’s been a burden because it is sort of heart-breaking in many ways as we see these magnificent buildings that were built in the late ‘twenties and through the ‘thirties, that even then cost a tremendous amount of money, and then to see them literally not being taken care of the way I personally think that they should be taken care of. 

HWH: And in so many of the houses, there’s direct abuse by... 

MUELLER: That unfortunately is very, very true. I guess it’s not appropriate to use specific instances in something like this, but I think of our near neighbors on the other side of College Street, and what we’ve seen taking place there over the last three or four years is very discouraging. 

HWH: Yes I’d think it would be. 

Is there any additional land that the College might now wish to obtain? 

MUELLER: I’d say on the contrary, because there is an active program now underway to dispose of some land rather than acquire some more. As you know, we have certain pieces of land that exist out of what might be defined as the logical boundaries of the college property, if we think of the College’s logical boundaries as being College Street on the north, Mill Lane on the south and running east and west from South East Street over to South Pleasant Street. We generally acquired them through gift or they were a part and parcel of another piece of land that was within these boundaries. For example, there is the old Tuttle Farm, as it’s known. In order to acquire that portion that is within the boundaries, we had to acquire some 37 acres to the east of South East Street. That particular portion is now up for sale. Hopefully we will dispose of a portion or all of it for some other purpose. 

HWH: That’s the area where a house was razed some years ago. 

MUELLER: Yes, the old Wells house. As you will recall, the property was bought from Wellington Wells, who had in turn bought it, I believe, from Mr. Tuttle. Mr. Tuttle was a graduate of Amherst College and in his retirement came back to Amherst and was somewhat of a gentleman farmer, but apparently not a very successful one. He was much more successful in his first endeavor as a lawyer, I think. On the property were three houses, the oldest and largest of which was known to us as Wells House #1. It was at least 100 years old, perhaps more. It was in such a state of disrepair that it just was not feasible, economically feasible I should say, to attempt to renovate it, update it, and use it for some contemporary usage. We already had probably more faculty residences than we needed and there was no real need to do anything with this one. It was demolished about six years ago. 

HWH: Does your department have any relationship with the Amherst Inn Company? and the Lord Jeffery Inn? 

MUELLER: Yes, it’s a relationship that exists because of our function, although I don’t know that there is anything specifically spelled out in the tasks and functions of the Physical Plant Department. When work is needed at the Lord Jeffery Inn-- work that cannot be done by their local handyman-- they always come to us to perform the work or to get it done for them. As you know, Jim Crowley, who is the assistant director of Physical Plant, is on the Board of Directors of the Amherst Inn Company at the present time. 

HWH: I didn’t know that. 

MUELLER: He is more or less the direct contact that they always seek in getting work done. Five years ago, or thereabouts, when the major renovation took place, it was done in its entirety through Jim Crowley. He got the various contractors, he still is that main point. So they come to us; we bill the Amherst Inn Co. at cost and that transfer of funds is taken care of at the Comptroller’s level. George May, I believe, is still president of the Amherst Inn Co. 

HWH: I’ve seen the College refuse truck there. 

MUELLER: Yes, we do pick up the trash and garbage from the Amherst Inn Co. That goes back to that approximate two-year period when the College was actually operating the Inn as well as being the entity that controlled the Inn Company. There now is an entrepreneur who operates it, but this picking up of the garbage and trash is a hangover from that two-year period. Since we do have to pick up Valentine refuse seven days a week anyway, it has not been a particularly difficult task for us. Our men put it into the packer truck; but they don’t usually make any run to the sanitary landfill until Monday. 

HWH: I’ve often been curious as to whether or not dormitories pay for themselves. 

MUELLER: Well, I think you’ll have to talk to George May and Kurt Hertzfeld about this. Let me put it this way: in theory, yes, they do, and the budget of the College is put together on that basis-- that the cost of maintaining and operating the dormitories is presented such that it is supposed to equate to that portion of the students’ fees which in total add up to, or are provided for, space rental. 

HWH: It probably could not be possible, however, to amortize those new dormitories A and B. 

MUELLER: Well, to my knowledge the College does not set up its budget or its fiscal accounting on that basis. In the case of the dormitories A and B, a need came for the dormitories and the Trustees approved the transfer of funds from one area to another to initially pay for them. I believe it was transferred from endowment funds and the idea is, through the coming Capital Fund drive or other means, to repay that money that was borrowed from the endowment fund. 

HWH: Have you noted whether there is any more or less vandalism around the campus, particularly in the dormitories, since women have been admitted? 

MUELLER: I would tend to believe that there is less. Of course this is the father of a woman talking, the father of a now almost 30-year-old woman. I sense, and my wife agrees with me on this, that we sense a-- oh how will I express it-- a civilizing, a more civilized atmosphere, a softening in the atmosphere at Amherst College since women have come. They are certainly themselves far less destructive than the male students. I’m not saying that they’re neater, they’re just less destructive. [Chuckle]

HWH: I’m glad to hear that. 

This goes back long before your presence at the College, but do you know how buildings were heated before the central heating plant was constructed?

MUELLER: Yes. The first central heating plant didn’t come into existence until 1926. Prior to that time, and I guess, for some time afterward in the case of certain buildings, each building had its own heating plant, generally a small boiler. The boilers down in the Cage, for instance, still are there. They’re still sitting there; they’re not useful or could not be renovated and used any more, but it was just difficult and not needed to get them out of that space. Each and every building had its own independent heating source. In some of the older dormitories, they only had fireplaces, but all of the academic buildings that have been in use since the advent of central heating within buildings, had their own heating source. The steam plant was built in 1925 and ‘26 and, as far as I know, at that time was connected to all of the then-existing buildings, with the possible exception of the Cage, which was down there at the bottom of the hill and there was nothing else down there with it for ten years. I would assume that the Cage heating plant was separate and distinct up until probably 1935, when the adjoining buildings were put in. 

HWH: The tunnel system replaced part of the conduit system in 1937 and the second unit was added in 1946-47. Why was this done in two projects-- and what’s in the tunnel system? 

MUELLER: Well actually it was done in more than two. The one that you forgot was probably the most extensive one, which was early in the middle ‘sixties when the tunnel system was certainly enlarged and probably extended to accommodate the five so-called social dormitories and the new Science Building. You say, why was it put in? Well, a tunnel system is far better than any direct burial system for carrying utilities from one place to another. The very unfortunate part of it is that it is more expensive. The chief advantage of a tunnel system is that you can walk through the tunnel and inspect and repair, if necessary, everything that is in the tunnel. I don’t know how much of the present tunnel system relates to these two earlier periods, but let’s say that the first increment was put in in ‘37; then in ‘46 and ‘47, when we were getting ready for the post-war construction that took place. This was basically James and Stearns Dormitories, the Mead Art Building, Chapin Hall, and some renovation work such as in North and South. I can’t put my finger on others-- but... 

HWH: In the late ‘forties... 

MUELLER: ...up to about 1952 there was quite a bit of construction and I’m sure that work on the tunnel system in the late ‘forties was done in anticipation and part of the planning for the new construction. The tunnel system at the present time takes in the social dormitories, the Little Red Schoolhouse, the Merrill housing, which also dates from the early ‘fifties, the Infirmary, the Science Building, Pratt Museum, James and Stearns Dormitories, and Mead Art Building. From that point on, to other buildings we have a direct burial, or as you call it, a conduit system in the ground. It was probably put in-- direct burial-- because by that time the cost of putting in tunnels had grown so enormously. Also, the materials available for encasing or insulating, and water-proofing a direct burial system had become far more advanced. It would be very nice if we had tunnels all over. 

HWH: What are the dimensions of these tunnels? 

MUELLER: Well the tunnels that run to the social dorms are large enough to walk through-- they’re some six to seven feet high and four or five feet wide. They’re just a regular concrete tunnel with steam lines and condensate return lines running in them. Also, certain of our communications and telephone cables are in them. Not too much in that respect. Our electric transmission lines are all outside of the tunnel system. These are generally direct-buried underground but outside of the tunnel system. A good bit of our telephone communication is in conduit, but outside of the tunnel system. I guess that’s about it. The tunnels are primarily for heating and the return of condensate to the steam plant. 

HWH: I hadn’t realized that. This is just an aside-- in 1933 Johnson Chapel was extended to the east, and in its path was the old College Well. Whatever happened to that? Is water still in it? 

MUELLER: If my information is correct, the well was located under what is now the northeast corner of the building, roughly where the building was extended for the stairwell going up on the north side as opposed to the south side at the east end of the building. As far as I know, the well hole was filled in, and I would assume that down there you could still get water if you opened it up. There is a cistern that exists some twenty feet to the north of that part of the building. We thought for a while it was the old College Well, but we have since determined that it’s a cistern that just takes the run-off from downspouts on North Dormitory and on Williston-- and probably the north portion of Johnson Chapel. 

HWH: I was curious because that was there, the College Well was there, when I came as a freshman. 

MUELLER: Well, they generally would not leave a hole of that dimension open and just capped. They would fill it in. I am sure that that’s what they did. 

HWH: It’s not important but I was curious. 

Do you hire many new workers each year, or do they tend to remain on your staff? 

MUELLER: We hire quite a few, but generally speaking it’s in the one category of custodial services. Custodial services probably attract and acquire people that generally have the minimum of educational background, the minimum of skill. I think it’s historically true that it’s in this semi-skilled or unskilled group where you have your highest turnover. Our turnover is due generally to two causes: retirements and resignations for one form or another. We have had only one or two cases where we have dismissed an employee and that has generally been within the custodial area. Our skilled people, our trades people, are generally long-term employees. We have many with twenty to thirty years of service with the College at the present time. The turnover is very, very low there, and generally takes place only upon retirement. 

HWH: I think there are some people on the staff right now whose parents were employed by the College. 

MUELLER: Oh this is very true. Our Foreman of Mechanical Systems, Bob Slocombe. His father was the foreman in the same shop before him; Bing Aldrich, who’s our Foreman of Electrical Systems. His dad worked for the College, and at one time one of his sons also worked for the College. In fact we had three generations all at the same time. Dave Sheerman in our carpenter shop-- his son works for us as a custodian. Just over this past week we hired the father of one of our custodians. We have a lot of people who are related, not necessarily immediate families, but cousins and uncles. The Thornton family is an example of that-- Bob Thornton is our Foreman Painter; his cousin or uncle, I don’t know which, is Nelson Thornton down at the Gymnasium. His mother worked for us as a maid, and later, in Valentine. We have another father and son on the custodial staff; that is Ronald Mailloux and his father Fred Mailloux. At one time we also had Richard Mailloux and Mrs. Mailloux the mother-- in fact we had four from the same family working at the same time. I don’t know whether we have any third generations. We’ve had second generation, but I don’t know that we’ve had third generations. 

HWH: It’s always struck me that many of these people take great pride in working for the College. 

MUELLER: That is very, very true. And we see it starting to come back, I’m happy to say. There seemed to be a period in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies when that went by the boards, just like so much of the finer things in life, but I sense it again, a return of employee satisfaction and a great deal of pride in working for the College. Those of us, and I know that you are among them, that know, or have known, our old-time employees note this very great sense of pride that they have in having been employed by Amherst College. 

One that I can think of right off hand, that you know very well, is Joe Zawaski. Joe worked for us for some forty years; he is now retired, enjoying his retirement, but I know he still counts his time with Amherst College as the most important years of his life. 

HWH: It’s great to see so many of them come back to that Christmas luncheon. 

MUELLER: Oh! Particularly this year, I think there were more than there had been, and although I’ve only been here ten years or not quite ten years, it’s a lot of fun to meet these old timers and have them greet you and be able to greet them. 

HWH: Yes, it is. Are there any union problems? 

MUELLER: Maybe I shouldn’t say it this way, but I will: happily, no. We had an attempt at organization some five years ago or thereabouts, at which time the employees of the College voted it down. I have not heard, have not sensed, any feeling in the last few years of attempts to bring a union in. In fact, as you know, the case of Valentine has gone the other way. They had a union in and then they voted it out, and this has been the experience of some of the other schools around the area. I think it’s safe to say that this is true because Amherst College puts together a better package to offer its staff employees than they could acquire almost anywhere else-- certainly it is the equal of or superior to anything that any union could get them. 

HWH: That was going to be my next question-- how it rates with unionized institutions. Is there much use of students as workers? 

MUELLER: Well, it’s becoming more and more true. We employ Amherst College students who are eligible for financial aid; that is the general ground rule we follow. They are used primarily on grounds or custodial or, you might say, semi-skilled projects. We don’t use students in place of regular employees under any circumstances. Right now, during the interterm, we have about thirty students working, but as is the usual thing with students, you don’t have all of them every day. Particularly as a vacation period starts to draw to a close, they start to peter out because they want to have a little bit of vacation, too. I think they enjoy working for us because our wage scale is a bit higher than most other student jobs on campus, and I think most students enjoy doing something that is a little physical. We have an increasing number of young women working for us. It’s amusing, in a way, to see them shoveling snow and raking leaves, running a lawn mower, and trimming bushes and trees. Again, maybe it’s the father of a young woman speaking, but we have found out that many of our women students are harder workers than our men students. 

HWH: I’ve noticed how they really get down and into their work, particularly in yards.

MUELLER: That’s correct. We have had only one or two instances where we have had a student who had a trade skill proficiency such that we could use him in the shops. We fortunately have had a few. I guess it’s just the nature of the students that come to Amherst, that they’re here to acquire a liberal education, not a trade or a technical education, so the chances of finding someone with a trade skill are rather slim. 

HWH: When women came to the College, what was done to improve campus security? 

MUELLER: Well, I’d say that this was one area where there was more re-education for us, and a real change in tasks and functions. We suddenly were confronted with a series of situations that were entirely new to us. Unfortunately, wherever you have young women, you attract a certain element who will take advantage of young women. We have expanded the numbers within our security organization and we have added women to our security force. We now have two full-time women-- Patrol Persons, I think we have to call them now-- and they both are extremely well-qualified. One is very new; she just started about the beginning of the Christmas vacation. She matches in qualifications the young woman who has been with us about three years now. Both of them have associate degrees in Police Science and bachelor’s degrees in Criminal Justice. They come very well qualified; they’re both very charming young women, very competent, and can well take care of themselves in just about any situation-- and they do. They work the night shifts, the two night shifts. So we now have female presence in our security force throughout the night hours-- from the middle of the afternoon until six the next morning. We have done this purposely, so that when any situation of a sensitive nature comes along involving our female students, we will have a female on the security force who can personally deal with that. I think that we have a very, very, outstanding campus security organization. I think that the relationship that exists between the campus security and the rest of the College is very unique and one that I think just about any other college or university might be very, very jealous of. 

HWH: That’s good to hear. The thing that was most obvious-- the physical thing most obvious-- was the increase in lighting that you installed. 

MUELLER: This has been going on and I expect will continue to go on for some time. We have a few areas which have been called to our attention recently that we have not yet completed-- changes in lighting. Unfortunately, to change lighting and to increase lighting is expensive. 


HWH: Bill, you were just commenting on the expense of trying to extend the electrical system through the campus. 

MUELLER: Yes, we were talking about increased lighting, which has been put in because we now have an around-the-clock presence of women students. We started this, literally, at the time when our first women arrived, or were arriving, and the security persons at that time who are around the campus during the dark hours started to keep notes of those areas that they felt were not adequately lighted or that offered the opportunity for a person to literally lie in wait for some unsuspecting woman to go by. These were brought to our attention in a report prepared by Bill Dion and his people. Working from that, we started to increase the lighting intensity. We did it in two different ways: first, by adding lamps either on buildings or on poles, and secondly, by changing the type of lighting that we had from incandescent to the so-called vapor discharge, generally mercury vapor lighting. This would give us more intensity, actually, with less electrical energy usage. Our street lighting system, for instance, is on circuits most of which were pretty well loaded. In order to add a pole and a lantern we literally had to decrease the load on the whole system. We did this by changing from incandescent to the mercury vapor lighting. To give you some idea of the cost-- it costs us about $1,000 to add one pole and lantern to an existing underground circuit. This is the cost of trenching, the cost of the cables, the cost of the foundation for the pole, the pole itself, the fixture, and the work of putting it all in. We have gone also to lights on the sides of buildings. This has been very effective in certain areas. A couple of outstanding locations which you might be well aware of, are in the alley-way formed between the north end of Pratt Dormitory and the south side of the Music Building and on the north side of Converse Administration Building. We’ve also used them on the sides of the Pratt Museum; and we’ll probably add them in a few other places. When we do that, we take our power from within the building and it does not require any addition to our underground street lighting system. Every time you make a survey, or every time a different person makes a survey, he or she or they will find some area that to them appears to need more lighting. So every time this is done, we find another area that perhaps didn’t show up before. I have just placed an order for two dozen more of the mercury vapor building side lights which we will be putting on as we are able. The winter sort of stops us for a while, but as soon as the milder weather comes, we’ll be back at it. The situation is different, of course, in the winter than it is in the summer, because of vegetation on the trees in the summertime. Areas that are fine during the winter are too dark during the summer. Another thing which we do, of course, is to try to keep our underbrush and our trees and bushes trimmed out. This helps a lot. 

HWH: Is there more to be done to improve security?

MUELLER: Well, I think it’s a never-ending task, and it’s never-ending because we can never be satisfied. We can never get it perfect, and we can never let ourselves be satisfied or become complacent about it. So yes, there is more to be done. There always will be. 

HWH: The next question does not amount to anything, but again, I was curious. It used to be that foremen garaged their pick-ups and vans at home. Is this still done? 

MUELLER: No, it is not. None of our vehicles are taken home anymore. It’s just part of a changeover that has taken place. There was always the suspicion that the college vehicles might have been used for personal purposes. True or not, there was always that suspicion of possibility. We now no longer just call a foreman in if we have a problem and we want to make sure that all of the tools, which are included in their vehicles, are here and available at all times for anyone that might be called in out of normal hours. I think there was a certain feeling when this was done (taking vehicles home), that this provided more security for the vehicles and the equipment that may be within the vehicles. Our newer vehicles can be securely locked, and the area where they are parked is patrolled at frequent intervals. Outside of a little gasoline and maybe a battery or two, we have had no losses from our vehicles left in and around the Service Building Garage. 

HWH: Into another area, and perhaps more difficult to answer than some of the other questions, is: how much has oil increased in price since 1970? 

MUELLER: Well, it isn’t difficult to answer; it’s agonizing to answer. When I saw this question I checked back. Of course back in 1970, you have to remember that we were not using oil, we were using coal. 

HWH: I forgot that. 

MUELLER: But at that time starting actually in 1970, when the conversation about conversion to oil became a serious thing, we did have occasion to find out what the cost of oil was at that time. Believe it or not, it was considerably less expensive than to obtain the same heating value from coal. I have one figure here that I found. In July of 1970, which was the year and month that I started, oil was $3.25 a barrel-- and that’s a 42-gallon barrel. When the new steam plant went to construction in the spring of 1972 it had gone up to $4.95 a barrel. Even at that price, it was less expensive than to continue to burn coal. That same barrel of oil today now costs $24.98. 

HWH: Twenty-five dollars! 

MUELLER: Twenty-five dollars and we don’t know where it is going to. The last price increase of $1.25 came in on the twelfth of January. It’s all tied to the problems in the Middle East and throughout the world. I would imagine that if, and I say a big if, it was decided that we should go back to coal, we would find out that in addition to an enormous-- an absolutely enormous-- first-cost, that our operational cost would be at least as high or higher. 

HWH: With coal? 

MUELLER: Yes. There are reasons for that: the pollution control equipment that would have to be put in to enable us to burn coal is just enormously expensive; and a coal plant, with its attendant problems of ash, requires more people to operate it and there are more support costs associated with it. No matter how you try, you can’t have your coal come in at the same rate that you use it, and so there is always a double handling involved in it. And, of course the cost of coal has gone up considerably. Everything else being equal, if you had an existing plant that could use coal, I think you would find that the cost of coal right now would be only about fifty percent of oil, but in order to get to it, and in order to support it, you would find that the cost would come up to or exceed that for continuing the way we are. 

HWH: Yes. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. 

MUELLER: Along this line, we are not remaining static on our thinking. We are actively looking at some alternatives-- fuel alternatives-- all of which could be adapted to our present plant, or could be with a relatively minor modification. One we are looking at is the feasibility of adding a third boiler in our plant-- for which there is space-- a boiler that could burn wood. Another alternative, which seems to have more viability and which we are pursuing in conjunction with a team of faculty persons from the University, is the possibility of adapting our facility to burn a powdered coal-oil emulsion. This is not a new technique; it was done on shipboard during World War I and during World War II. It has been done to a limited extent ashore for the last seventy-five years, but it has always been done in boilers that were originally designed to burn coal. We now are actively looking into the possibility of establishing a demonstration project here at Amherst College to examine the feasibility of burning such a mixture in a boiler originally designed to burn oil. In addition to the five faculty members from the University, New England Electric is interested in it as a possible supplier of the coal-oil emulsion. They are doing it (burning coal-oil emulsion) as a demonstration project on a much larger scale in one of their large generating plants, but again, in a boiler that was originally designed for coal. Of course we do hope to get the Department of Energy interested in this-- that is, as a possible funding means-- so that we can go ahead with it. The third thing that we have looked at but have put on the back burner, at least for the present time, is the possibility of generating methane gas from trash, and burning it in our present boilers. The drawback to that, or the principal drawback to that, seems to be that we cannot be assured of a continuous and large enough supply of good, clean trash. It’s odd of me to use that expression. So we’re actively looking at many things and we haven’t discarded any idea, even that of converting back to coal, because as we look down over the coming decade, or a few decades, the situation with respect to oil can only get worse instead of better. 

HWH: Is it worth giving any thought to solar, limited solar, energy or the wind? 

MUELLER: The state of the art in the use of solar energy is such that we are a long way from a really viable procedure in this particular latitude. As you go further south, and as you get out particularly into the southwest, where you don’t have cloud coverage as much and more hours of usable sunlight, it becomes much more viable than it is up here. We are not ready to step into solar; we may see a limited use of solar during our lifetime. It will probably be first for the heating of water rather than space-heating in our climate. That is a feasible thing on a limited scale right now, but it is not economically a prudent thing at the present time for the College to become involved in. 

HWH: Has the cost of electricity paralleled your experience with the price of oil? 

MUELLER: Yes, but it hasn’t been quite as dramatic. The principal thing that has been rising for the electric companies has been the cost of the fuel that they use to generate electricity, and it takes some time for that cost to filter through and be reflected in the actual electric cost to the College. It is starting to rise, and is starting to rise much faster than we had thought it would, unfortunately. On top of that there is the constant pressure on the part of the utilities for rate increases, because certainly all of their costs have gone up just like all of our costs have gone up. And although it’s unpleasant to think about, it’s reasonable to expect that the rate increases will be justified and will be granted. As you know, the fuel cost right now is a direct pass-through and as that goes up it will be passed through in the form of higher per kilowatt-hour cost to us. So it’s going up-- so far it’s been somewhat slower than the cost of our purchase of raw source energy, that is, oil, but again, it can’t go anywhere except up. The only thing that gives us a break is when they are able to operate their nuclear plants. In spite of any drawbacks that there might be to this method of generating electricity, it is in this day and age the most economical way to do it. 

HWH: You mean nuclear energy? 

MUELLER: Nuclear. That’s right.

HWH: New England is supposed to rely on nuclear energy more than other sections. 

MUELLER: That is correct. And we can easily spot it in our electric bill on the fuel costs. It is dramatically lower during any month that they can get significant nuclear generation on the line. And during our lifetime and probably for a while afterwards, I think it’s the only salvation until we find something better. 

HWH: To another area, Bill. Are the requests of faculty residents, or their complaints, sometimes difficult to deal with? 

MUELLER: Well, I think you have to remember that when you start to talk about complaints, a person complains because he has a problem, real or imaginary. And the problems that a person has in his home are very personal to him, and they are no less personal and important to him because he’s living in a college house than they are to you, living in your own house. They become very important to him. And in dealing with the problems, the complaints, the requests that we receive from the people who live in our college houses, we try to always respond to them keeping in mind that these are very personal and real problems to them. They might seem rather facetious and inconsequential to us, but they are very real to those people. Are they sometimes difficult? Yes, they’re sometimes difficult. They can be, because again they are very real and personal problems. We have the problems of security. If a person has been broken into, the problem of security of his house becomes very important-- or if a neighbor has been broken into. As you know, we have many people living, for instance, on Woodside Avenue and we have many people on Orchard Street. They are very close together and when one of them experiences something, it travels through the whole neighborhood. Of course one of the newest things that is bothering them so much is the cost of their heat, and they are constantly seeking ways and means of cutting down on the cost of their heat. We have undertaken, as you know, a cooperative program, that is, Tenant-College Cooperative, of insulating or adding to the insulation of our college houses. We have had many people who want to install wood stoves of one way, shape, or form. The state of Massachusetts has put out a rather stringent code to deal with the installation of wood-burning devices. The most important and difficult aspect is that the flue in the chimney must be a lined flue. Many of our houses are old and their flues are not lined flues. They are just brick or stone flues, and you cannot put a wood-burning stove in such a flue-- although they try, they want to, and are very sincere about it. We have to comply with the building code on that. Some of the things that they complain about, some of the things that they request are, well, they’re really amusing. But again, as we look at it, to the people who make those requests, make those complaints, they are very personal and real. Sometimes difficult, but not always so.

HWH: O.K. Which is the greatest problem around the campus-- snow removal, cutting grass, raking leaves, sanding for ice, or is something else more of a problem? 

MUELLER: Well you’ve picked problems that vary by the season and they all seem to affect the same group of people-- our grounds crew. Snow and ice, of course, have to be considered the greatest problem because they have the greatest potential for injury and inconvenience, if nothing else. The prompt and adequate removal of snow, and the prompt and adequate and proper treatment of ice, has got to be a much greater problem than cutting grass or raking leaves, because if you don’t cut the grass it’s still going to be there tomorrow to cut, and if you don’t rake the leaves, they’re still going to be there tomorrow to rake. But when you look at the problems that confront a particular crew, I would have to say that snow and ice are the most difficult. They’re not necessarily the greatest problem facing the College. I think the greatest problem facing the College, again, is utilities-- just the cost and where is it all going to end up? 

HWH: Do you have an idea of what proportion of your maintenance, and I should add repair, is contracted? 

MUELLER: Yes. Just let me take a moment to flip through my latest budget. Building Maintenance is one category in our budget, so I can give you the figures that we have budgeted for this present year, 1979-1980. We have a total building maintenance budget of just under $600,000, and of that amount a little over $160,000 is earmarked to be done by outside contractors. Now in addition to that, we receive approximately $200,000 for general building maintenance each year that is within the overall College budget, but it is not within our departmental budget. In other words, it is not completely discretionary on my part on how to use it. We put together a list of special projects each year and submit it to the Treasurer during the month of January (we did it last week). These in other language might be referred to as deferred maintenance and major repair projects. Things that are larger single endeavors. It might be the exterior painting of a group of houses, or two or three on-campus buildings, or replacing the furnaces in a couple of houses, or, as we are now undertaking, a systematic interior re-decoration of dormitories, replacing or repairing the roofs on certain buildings. We do have a certain number of grounds projects in there, but, by and large, they are building maintenance, deferred maintenance and repair, and alteration projects. As I said, we submit such a list to the Treasurer in early January and usually, after he’s had an opportunity to look them over, he’ll sit down with Jim Crowley and me and we will pick the approximately $200,000 worth that seem to have the highest priority. They add to our building maintenance; in other words, instead of $600,000 we probably have about $800,000, and $360,000 of that work would be by outside contractors. It’s generally done over the summer between the end of school and the start of school. 

HWH: That would happen in the case of a crisis or unanticipated disaster, like flood or high wind? 

MUELLER: Fortunately there haven’t been any disasters during my time here. There’s never been a situation wherein I have gone to the Treasurer with a special request at an odd time of year involving a considerable amount of money that he has not been able to respond to. As you know, he enjoys a fine rapport with the Board of Trustees, and on different occasions, I know that he has just called certain members of the Board of Trustees and said, look, we want to do so and so, or want your permission to withdraw money from this or that and use it for this purpose. And I would assume that that’s the way he would handle a major situation. Now the last major problem had to be the 1938 hurricane where there was considerable damage to buildings and grounds, and although I’ve never had occasion to look back at just how that was handled, I’m sure it was handled in just that manner-- that when the chips are down, the Treasurer finds the wherewithal and we just take it from there. 

HWH: And that ‘38 hurricane-- I’m sure Stanley King put his own impressive stamp on... 

MUELLER: Yes, I’m sure that if you look in Consecrated Eminence you’ll find out considerable about how that was handled. 

HWH: That’s where I found quite a bit of the information I’ve used to make of these questions. 

MUELLER: I see the theme that runs through it! 

HWH: How difficult and expensive has provision for the handicapped been? 

MUELLER: Well, let’s talk about expense first. We’ve spent between thirty and forty thousand dollars so far. And it has been to do the obvious things-- those things that if you look around you can see. It’s the ramps that exist on almost all of our buildings to enable people to get to the principal floors of the buildings. Almost all of this is gauged primarily towards the mobility handicapped-- the person in a wheelchair. We have other handicaps that are less difficult to provide for, such as loss of eyesight or vision impairment, or hearing impairment. But the person in the wheelchair is the most difficult to provide for. We have also modified or otherwise provided toilet facilities in many of our buildings that are usable by a person otherwise confined to a wheelchair. We are about to get into the more expensive area now and this is the means of vertical transportation between floors in buildings that don’t have elevators. The first building that will receive something is the Biology Building. That is getting the priority because we have a freshman parapelegic student who has indicated a preference to get into medical school, which will mean he will be pre-med and have to take classes in the Biology Building either this coming year or certainly the year after. We have to provide means of getting from the first floor both to the basement and to the second floor. We expect to do this utilizing a new and different technique-- it’s a stair-climbing chairlift that is a Swiss development. It’s now being fabricated in a plant in Vancouver, British Columbia. The first installation in the United States has been made out in Chicago with others underway. We have made a tentative commitment with the firm to allow them to install one of these lifts in our Biology Building, and right now I am waiting for their representative to come from Vancouver. He’s due here in January and we hope that he will get all of the clearances. This is a condition we have placed upon him-- he will have to get the clearances from the proper State building authorities to utilize that equipment in the State of Massachusetts. If he does that, and his price doesn’t vary significantly from the tentative prices already given to us, we expect to install one of these lifts over the coming summer in the Biology Building. This is the most difficult building to address. We have a total vertical travel of some 31 feet from the basement to the first floor and to the second floor, and it’s under some very unusual conditions. The lift itself is very unusual in that the person does not have to transfer from his wheelchair to another chair. He’ll just roll onto a little platform and he and the wheelchair can travel up. It’s very interesting. I won’t call it a contraption, but a very interesting piece of equipment, and the cost will be about 50% of a conventional, vertical elevator. 

HWH: That’s interesting. I hadn’t realized you were up to that. Do the new dormitories seem to be satisfactory for the students and for maintenance? 

MUELLER: Yes, they are, Of course, we’re just in our second year. Let me address first the satisfaction of the students. I’d say that they were eminently satisfied. There are one or two features which (I might add that I was a little bit concerned about when they were designed) which may be a drawback as we have more years of experience with the dormitories. The one feature particularly that I can think of is that we have created three ten-person units within the larger of the two buildings, referred to right now as “B” dormitory. And we are starting to get a little bit of feed-back that it’s hard to find ten people that are similarly inclined-- that great a number that are similarly inclined-- and want to live in that close association. That really is the only accommodation type of drawback that I’ve noted. The students seem to enjoy the facilities. It has so far been inexpensive to maintain, but of course it is brand new. There are many features there that we don’t have any place else. One is a little bit expensive for the students, but I think they’ll learn to live with it: we have thermo-pane windows. The student is responsible for his windows, and if they get involved in a little horseplay and break a window, it now costs them considerably more to replace that window than it did before. 

HWH: And has that happened? 

MUELLER: Oh, yes. I think we’ve billed out about three of them. The window itself costs $98.00. Then, by the time you paint it, and by the time you install it, the cost runs up to about $130 or $140. This is a little bit different from the $5 pane of glass that’s broken in other dormitory windows. But as I say, they’ll learn. 

HWH: What’s the Infirmary now used for? 

MUELLER: Well, one wing, the east wing which is a one-floor wing, is still used for medically related purposes. It’s the Student Health Office, which is basically an out-patient student health facility. The other two-thirds of the building has been put to use as dormitory space. Whether or not we will add to that I don’t know. Before we built A and B, numerous questions came up: how was the best way to provide additional student housing? One of the things we did take a superficial look at was the feasibility of adding a floor to the east and west wings of the old infirmary building. We went so far as to have a structural consultant examine it from a structural standpoint, and he did determine that we could structurally and foundation-wise add a floor to the east and west wings. I don’t know, as we look to the future, if the College gets larger, then it’s maybe something that we might do. I think other than that we would do nothing other than make minor changes in the use of some of the spaces within the building. 

HWH: Are there any plans for the old heating plant? 

MUELLER: Well, not at the present time. Two years ago we thought that there were plans to convert it into Fine Arts studios-- primarily sculpture studios-- but one problem with the building is it’s very high. It has a lot of volume but not much floor area, and unless you can add at least two floors to it, it’s not economical to do anything. For most uses, the expense of adding two floors just throws the cost per square foot of acquiring space completely out of the window. At the present time, it’s just sitting there and I just don’t know if anything will ever be done with it. Its usability is rather limited, again, because it’s got a lot of volume but not much floor space. A portion of the basement is, in effect, part of our utility tunnel system and we would have to retain that portion. If we demolished the building, we would have to encase that portion, and make it at least a tunnel. 

HWH: It must have been an enormous job cleaning that out.

MUELLER: Well it was, and unfortunately we spent quite a bit of money in there that in hindsight, at least, we need not have spent. We thought we had a use for it, and that use required us to do certain selective demolition work inside of the building. This would otherwise have become part of the demolition of the building as a whole at a much lower cost. You know, if we knew at that time we weren’t going to use it. 

HWH: Amherst, seems to me, anyway, to be better maintained than most colleges. Do you think so? 

MUELLER: Well, perhaps I’m a little prejudiced. I guess it is, because I hear this from so many people-- that it seems to be better maintained than most colleges. Again, I don’t think that we can ever be satisfied with the level of maintenance. There are many things that I’m not satisfied with. I think that we should-- well let me put it this way-- I would like to be able to do more, but I think that we do very well when we reduce it to the cost of maintenance-- well, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of a little over $1 a square foot for maintenance and operation. You’ve got to be careful when you say it, because we have a great number of off-campus residences occupied by faculty that don’t figure into the cost in the same way that a dormitory, or even this building, or Valentine Hall, or anything else does. I would like to see more work done on the grounds. I would like to see better care being taken of our curb lines, our streets, our sidewalks, but this is one of the things that you can let slip to save a dollar here and there. 

HWH: Do you think Amherst’s experience is similar to that of other comparable colleges? 

MUELLER: Oh yes, and the experience is the same that I had in the Service for many years. When the squeeze is put on the dollar, there’s a great tendency to say well, o.k. we can skip painting this building for a year, or we can skip repaving this section of the street or parking lot for a year. Yes, you can, for a year, but sooner or later these things that you’ve skipped for a year start to catch up with you. Not because Mr. Hertzfeld is the person that I work for, but I think that he has a very sincere and honest understanding of the need for the College to maintain the physical plant of the College. He is constantly striving for and achieving a higher level of funding for us each and every year. Generally, I think we have kept up with the rise in the cost of doing things, and we have made tremendous strides in bringing many of our facilities up to a much higher level of standard maintenance. 

HWH: What do you perceive as the major future problems? 

MUELLER: It’s got to be fuel and energy-- there just can’t be anything else that will equal it. I think it’s not only my major problem, but I think it’s the major problem that the College and the nation face, and I think everything else is minor by comparison.

HWH: That would you consider your department’s greatest need? 

MUELLER: I’d say that the greatest need that we have is not so much in numbers-- we can always find some excuse for saying we need more people, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think that we need to have more skilled people than we have in a few places in our trades area. I’d like to say that we could achieve a higher level of ability in our custodial force, but we’ve got to remember that the type of people that we are attracting to this type of work are generally the less competent, those that are not shooting for the higher things in life. There is one area in which I feel a great void and this is in, let me call it the qualified technical area of what might be looked upon as middle management within the department. I have an absolutely outstanding assistant director in Jim Crowley. I have, I think, a very outstanding young man in Paul Blanchet who heads up the whole custodial function. Right now I am looking for a good person, a technically qualified person, to dig into and come to grips with the many problems that we now face because of the energy cost and the energy crunch. We have to spend all of our efforts in trying to use less and less of our very precious utilities because they are costing so much more. And I am recruiting right now for such a person. At the same time we have to continue our ability in, let’s say, the quasi- or semi-technical areas of just keeping with the statistics, the drawings, the plans, and all of these things that have to be kept up on a day to day basis, simply because Bud Hewlett, ten years from now, will come back and ask how does so-and-so compare with what it was ten years ago. I say that with a great deal of affection. But we do have a need, a constant need for this, to help us to manage. Our best teachers are the things that have gone on in the past. We are constantly striving to reduce costs and to increase efficiency, and one very necessary part of that is to be able to always know what we have done and how we have done from year to year. 

HWH: Well I don’t know whether the last question that I’ve written is a fair question or whether it would apply, but do you see increased use of automation in the future? 

MUELLER: Yes and no. How’s that for an answer? I think we’re going to see increased automation of our use of utilities-- automation of control of our use of steam, our use of electricity, and yes, our use of water. Water is not given credit a lot of the time for being a utility, but it certainly is. We’re going to see more automation of our other functions in the sense that we will see the use of more equipment to make the tasks easier and better than we can do them by hand. 

HWH: So it will be mechanized instead of... 

MUELLER: Mechanization instead of automation.

HWH: Bill, I think we have come to the end of this tape, and I know you have an appointment. 

MUELLER: That’s true. 

HWH: I’m sorry to keep you beyond that time, but I do appreciate your coming over to have this chat. I won’t have a transcript for you for quite a while because Mary and I are going away for a few days. 

MUELLER: I trust you are going some place to enjoy some warm weather. 

HWH: South. 

MUELLER: Good for you. 

HWH: Thanks ever so much. 

MUELLER: Well I’m glad I could come, Bud, and if, as you get a transcript there are some missing parts, or if there’s more that comes to your mind, why, I will be around until at least the tenth of March when I’m going south for a couple of weeks. 

Completed June 4, 1980]

Rights and Citation Information

The interviewer and interviewee place no restrictions -- other than standard literary credit -- on the use of this transcript.

Suggested citation format:
Oral history interview with William Mueller, 1980 January 23, in Amherst College Oral History Project Records, (Box 1, Folder 17), Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library <https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/amherst-college-oral-history-project/william-mueller>

For information about the Amherst College Oral History Project Records please see the collection's finding aid.

For further information, please contact Archives & Special Collections at archives@amherst.edu. 

Related Materials

  • Amherst College Buildings and Grounds Collection, 1820-2011. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections