A campus tour with Cora Lee Gibbs, arts educator and wife of former Amherst College president Julian Gibbs, and Joel Upton, former professor of art and the history of art.
[Background noise throughout]
[Part 1: South, North, Old North, President’s House & Johnson Chapel]
[0:07] Upton: Cora Lee and I have just walked across South Pleasant Street and up this hill and stand in front of Johnson Chapel, um, looking toward the Berkshire Hills - the foothills to the Berkshires to the west. Uh, Cora Lee, it’s great to be here. Uh, it’s as though the old times were back and you are here to give us a little bit of a tour of the Amherst College campus.
[0:30] Gibbs: Well, I had 4, we had 4 wonderful years here at Amherst. They were too short, it should have gone on longer. But as soon as I came here- and I had been here 20, 30 years earlier- but when I came here, in 1979 it was, I was again enthralled with the campus and its buildings and the unity of the campus. And, of course, I started- because I can’t ever be anyplace without talking about things.
[1:00] I started doing tours for the faculty, for the students, and for the trustees, and for the alumni. This was great fun, and I kept learning more and more about the campus. This, of course, is somewhat the heart of the campus. I used to start some of my tours with the buildings across the street, the faculty buildings that were built by people like Warren Howland, who eventually would build some of the more important buildings over here, but they were the houses that were built specifically to house the faculty of the new college.
[1:33] Now, as I turn around here, and look up at the Chapel, which of course is the heart of the College, and the two buildings on either side, South College over here was the first building built in 1821. It was built to hire the new faculty that had come down from Williams College with Zephaniah Moore. And when my husband, Julian, received his honorary degree from Williams as all Amherst College presidents eventually get, there was a comment in the, uh, dedication of the honorary degree saying, and of course Zephania Moore left with a large number of Williams College books and the Williams College silverware.
[2:25] This I gather is a repartee that goes back rather frequently. Uh, the Chapel itself was built in 1827 by the first real architect, Isaac Damon from Northampton, and it’s built, of course, in a pure, very strict, uh, Greek Revival style. Speaking about Williams, again, if you go to Williams, which was founded 20, 30 years earlier in the late 19th-- late 18th century, that is a Federal campus and the President’s House there is a good Federal building. While the President’s House here, which is behind the trees over there, is in a good Greek Revival style.
[3:09] Uh, one thing I really like about this particular building here is the tower. The clock on the tower was embellished at the time of my husband’s inauguration. And some students had climbed up there and had created a Mickey Mouse type clock with Julian Gibbs as the figure in the middle, and Julian Gibbs’s arms being the hands of the clock. And, uh, it was there during the inauguration week of November 1979. The other thing that I used to like to point out here is the honeysuckle design, the palmettes that are around the clock, because when I was working with students here it was fun to point that out, then send them over to Mead Museum where there are some beautiful Greek vases. And the architectural details that you see on the tower are lifted right from the Greek vases, which of course were lifted, in turn, from Greek architecture. So you have this nice continuity of, of themes.
[4:21] Um, when the College came here from Williams- but I should say the new College was formed after it- Zephania Moore left Millian-- Williams. The whole College was really held in that one building. The chapel, the classes, the library, everything was in that one building. They don’t know, I don’t think they know- at least they didn’t when I was here- who the architect was. They know that Hiram Johnson, was the builder of the next building, which was Old North-- that was no North, that was Middle- that was Middle. And then eventually, uh, the Chapel was built in 1827.
[5:07] Now while we’re standing here, when you can see the whole stretch of architecture, I brought along this print that I used to use, and they used to make Xerox copies and hang-- hand it around to people. It’s-- was the brochure that was sent to students in 1828. This is a 1905 copy of the 1828 brochure, and it shows the Chapel, it shows South, it shows a building that was thought to be eventual. This is North, and this is Williston, which it-- it was at that point, what was it Joel, it was called North?
[5:46] Upton: Old North.
[5:47] Gibbs: Old North. And as you can see from this, it was in a good, pure, Greek Revival style. And that is what is standing there now. Now we’re going to go over to Williston in a few minutes. But what is interesting about that, and it should be looked at, as you looked at the whole panorama of the buildings is that that building there burned down in the 1850s. Burned to the ground- not quite to the ground, but quite far down. It was rebuilt in 1857. I think that’s the date, 1857, in a good Renaissance Revival style, with towers, and we’ll talk about it later on when we go over there.
[6:32] Now, in the 1930s, and 40s-- 40s actually. Uh, late 40s, early 50s, when James Kellum Smith of McKim, Mead, and White was doing a number of buildings, the gym down there, the theater. Uh, he felt that there was not a place on this campus for a Renaissance Revival building, that is should be a Greek Revival building. So he Greek Revivalized the Renaissance building and when we go there, I’ll show you some of the really interesting things that he did to make it look Greek Revival.
[7:06] So, one could go on here for quite a while. The most interesting house was the one at the end, the Hitchcock House where President Hitchcock eventually lived, that-- some of the features that made it Greek Revival and it was built by Warren Howand, along with the President's House and the Morris- Morris?- Morris House there. Uh, it, the- this would be the east front of the house- has boards butting into each other to make them look like a solid masonry front. That’s a whole nother, uh, trip and I’m not going to talk about that today. I will talk about-- a little bit about the Octagon, but I’ll do that when we get around to the front of Williston. One thing I did want to mention, the Octagon went up under President Hitchcock, and President Hitchcock, apparently, so they say, was bored with all this Greek Revival stuff. And he wanted something quite different. And he came up out of ancient architectural books about Roman architecture, he came up with the idea of an octagon, which at that point was the College Library. And we’ll talk about that when we get over there.
[Part 2: Octagon building]
[8:30] Upton: Cora Lee, it’s clear to me now why your tours of the campus were so popular for so many years and I think--
[8:36] Gibbs: I enjoy doing them.
[8:37] Upton: Well, I think we should keep going. Uh, you mentioned the Hitchcock House, and I, as a matter of fact, um, as a member of the faculty, live in the Hitchcock House, and use the Octagon attached to the Oct-- to the Hitchcock House as my library. And--
[8:51] Gibbs: You did, you don’t now.
[8:52] Upton: I do now, [crosstalk] I do now, I still do, and--
[8:55] Gibbs: You do?! Oh! I didn’t realize you were--
[8:56] Upton: I continue to live there with great pleasure. But for that reason, I am especially interested in what you might say about the Octagon here. So I wonder if I could step aside and let the tour continue with a few comments about the Octagon here.
[9:11] Gibbs: Oh, okay. Speaking about the Octagon, as you look at the side walls, it is very much the same sort of butting up of boards as the- the east front of Joel’s house is, to make it look like masonry. Uh, it’s full of Renaissance type details, the Octagon he lifted up from the architect, lifted up from architectural books, but it was also rather fascinating because Orson Squires Fowler, Class of 19-- 1834, published a book about “an octagon is a home for all.” He felt that this was the ideal living place for people and for families.
[9:56] And so the octagons were very much in the mind of President Hitchcock when he put the particular house up. The other thing that is interesting about the Octagon is on the other side, there is a room that was built very specifically for the Nineveh, or Nimrud, I should say the Nimrud panels that were brought over by an Amherst graduate, Lobdell of the Class of-- I used to know this- Class of ‘40- uh, ‘49. He was the Class of ‘49, was interesting that at this point they were doing the major excavations in, in, uh, Nimrud near Nineveh, all carefully identi-- identified in biblical texts.
[10:41] Uh, Williams College had some, Dartmouth had some. And a letter from Lobdell to the trustees of Amherst College said, “I have access to some of these panels. I can send some to Amherst that are better than those that went to Williams.” This is all documented. I found it in the-- in letters when I went through the archives at the art museum.
[11:06] So the Nimrud panels which depict, uh, the gods fertilizing the date trees in ancient, uh, ancient Mesopotamia. Were started, were started here in a room that was specifically built for them. So the library, as it was, and then went through a variety of stages of different things, stands there and makes a wonderful contrast. And I think with Joel living in the Hitchcock House now, he can look up the hill and really see, uh, what President Hitchcock saw in the middle of the 19th century.
[Part 3: Williston]
[11:51] Upton: We’re now standing on the main quadrangle of the campus in front of the eastern elevation of Williston Hall that Cora Lee was just talking about. Isn’t that right?
[12:00] Gibbs: Yes. And as I showed it to you on that 1828 prospectus of the College, it appeared as a Greek Revival building completely with the pedimental top and the simple front. Uh, what happened when it burned down in 1857, it was rebuilt with funds from Mr. Williston to, uh, appear in a Greek-- in a Renaissance Revival style. And in this particular picture here, it shows the building pretty much the way it was when it was rebuilt in 1857. Now, when I was here in 19-- when was I here? I was here in 1946. And in ‘45, there still was on the other side, on the north side of the building, and you can see where it stood, there was a tower with a, with a steeple to it, and the tower stayed there until the early 1940s-- late 1940s, I should say, when the building was remade into a Greek Revival building to fit into the mood of the panorama of the college.
[13:19] The-- as you look at the photograph I have here, which is a photograph which is actually dated 1875, you can see that the roof is a hip roof coming down toward you here instead of the sort of pedimental roof. And under the roof, uh, Professor Mather had his collection of plaster casts. In the late 19th century it was apro-- apropos for all colleges and libraries to have good collections of plaster casts. This is the way our students learned about classical antiquity and Amherst was rich in plaster casts. You’ve got the whole Panathenaic procession around the top, you’ve got the Dying Gaul and all sorts of other fascinating figures.
[14:07] But when it was re-- here’s another picture of all the statuary that was up on the 3rd floor. It was referred to as, uh, Professor Mather’s Collection. Now many of these pieces still exist. They’re in storage. Some of them are out at the bunkers-- what do they call the--
[14:26] Upton: The bunker.
[14:27] Gibbs: The bunker. And there are some now very appropriately in, uh, the art building- in Fayerweather. I had to think for [laughs] what the name of the building was. What is fascinating about this is that when James Kellum Smith made it into a Greek Revival building, he kept certain things. If you look at the picture here, the lower, uh, floor has quoins in the corner. Now, a Greek Revival building would not necessarily have quoins in the corner- this is the Renaissance aspect. So the quoins are there. If you look very carefully at the windows, the top windows here and the windows around the corner, you can see in the brickwork that originally the, the, uh, windows were arched in a Renaissance style. And when it was Greek Revivaled, there was a lintel put in, and then the bricks filled in where the arch had been.
[15:25] On the side, you will notice that James Kellum Smith, to make it an authentic Greek Revival building, put a number of stars, metallic stars along the side, they are between the-- where are they? They’re up on the second story level. Now, those stars represent the same stars that you see on the chapel, which essentially were the ends of the tie rods that kept the building together. So I think that’s a fascinating point, that this detail was put in here to make the building authentic. Now, of course, it has gone into being a classroom building, for many years was the math building. And now it has become a very beautiful, uh, dorm facing the campus, the new orientation to the campus, which began to develop after the emphasis was taken away from the western facing part of the campus.
[16:34] Upton: There’s another important transformation right here as well, and that is the addition on the eastern side of Johnson Chapel. So, perhaps we could walk towards the south and look at the later addition to Johnson.
[16:47] Gibbs: Yes, changing the orientation from facing South Pleasant Street- or its North Pleasant Street there, I guess- uh, facing the street, which was the original orientation, and as the College grew and began to build buildings on what became the campus itself, it was felt appropriate to change the orientation of the Chapel as well.
[17:10] Upton: So why don’t we walk towards the south and look at that, and then I think we could go inside Johnson Chapel to look at the sanctuary there.
[17:17] Gibbs: Okay.
[Part 4: Eastern face of Johnson Chapel]
[17:23] Upton: Cora Lee, we are now standing at what has got to be considered the very heart of Amherst College campus. The consecrated eminence, as Stanley King called it. We’re standing in front of the eastern elevation of Johnson Chapel, which as you said, I understand, reoriented the chapel toward the east, am I correct?
[17:43] Gibbs: Yes, because the original front, 1827 front, looked toward the President's House, the faculty houses and toward the street, which was at that point, the head of the ca-- the heart of the campus. In the 19-- by the 1930s, the campus had grown considerably around, uh, the inner quad. And, uh, under the organization of James Kellum Smith from McKim, Mead and White, the east end of the campus-- of the Chapel was rebuilt. It's rather strange having two fronts to a chapel but it was appropriate to have at least one end of the campus facing-- one end of the Chapel actually facing the campus itself. Uh, the architect replaced the big Tuscan, uh, columns of the front, the big round columns with flat pilasters back here, and I think it was extraordinarily successful. The whole Chapel was extended by at least a bay and when we go inside, you'll notice that the choir is part of the part that was extended.
[19:00] If you have looked at the stars on the side of Williston, you'll notice that there authentic stars on this-- two sides of the Chapel as well, which were actually used to hold the building together. I think you could practically see the stars from here on Williston. But they were the end of the tie rods that were the bracing for the building. The Chapel of course, back in 1827, was not only the chapel, but it was the library with a classroom area, and the meeting hall, a very important part of the campus as well.
[Part 5: Inside Johnson Chapel]
[19:37] Gibbs: Okay, we've been looking at the outside of the chapel. First, the west front, and then the east, the new east front, the new projection. And I mentioned the fact that the chancel of the chapel had been enlarged in the 30s to accommodate a larger student body. So what we're looking at here is the choir area which is essentially a Revival-revival-revival style, in that it was put in by James Kellum Smith in 1937. I’m particularly fond of the capitals. I used to sit here trying to figure out just what they were. They are what I would call very generally a composite capital with the sort of Doric foliage at the bottom, and then something that I think looks like corn cobs at the top- it probably is something very Egyptian but it to me it looks like a bunch of corn cobs at the top which would be appropriate.
[20:39] Then you move up into the architraves. And certainly something that we could use when I was taking students around looking for classical motifs, you've got the Greek key, you've got the bead and reel, you've got the leaf motif, all lined up very carefully articulated in the architraves. And then as you move around the, the uh, chapel, you have just a lot of wonderful classical details, the nice slender ionic columns with the ionic capitals above that the dentilation along the edge of the, uh, what we call this, the balcony, edge of the balcony and the little dentilation at the bottom. So it was sort of a great place to talk about the classical inheritance of the College.
[21:33] Now as I sit here, and sat here frequently in the four years that I was here, got to be very comfortable with Mr. Niijima Jō, over on the right, the first Japanese student to receive a degree from a-- an American college. Uh, Julian and I, along with the president of Mount Holyoke College and her husband went to Japan, where Julian received an honorary degree and for 10 days we were bowed to and honored in a very elegant way. Then, of course on the other side is our friend Calvin Coolidge, who-- I’ve just been reading about him recently and how very popular he was as a president. Being a Smith graduate, Mrs. Coolidge, eventually settled in, uh, Northampton after Calvin died, and we used to go to the Coolidge Theater to see movies. So there the Coolidge name certainly stood around.
[22:34] Then moving around, looking at the other, uh, presidents of the college and presidents that Julian would have known that-- and some of whom I knew. To the left, we have Stanley King, who was the president when Julian and the Class of ‘42 came to Amherst College in the summer of ‘42. That particular class started early in the summer, they worked on the farm, they put in a whole semester, and many of them then went on to Williams College and V-12 after that. But Stanley King was there at the time. And when Julian came back after the war, and when I was living down in those glamorous tar paper shacks at the foot of the College, Charlie Cole was president and he is right there in the back of the chapel.
[23:26] Later on, when Julian got his honorary degree here in 1972 from Amherst College, it was given to him by Cal Plimpton in the wonderful red robe over there. And I guess it was after Cal-- though, after Cal it was William Ward, who was here and William Ward is over there, next to Cal Plimpton. And then we come to the portrait of my husband Julian Gibbs, the one that is over there in the corner. At one point, I was given the chance to select the artist to paint Julian's portrait, and I had seen portraits at Raymond Kinstler had done of the two past Princeton presidents, whom Julian knew, and I liked the way Kinstler had handled the paint as well as the subject matter. And so the Trustees approved the fact that Kinstler would be the one who would do the portrait.
[24:25] Of course, he never knew Julian. But I went down and had a long session with him. I went down with his academic robe, with his neckties, with photographs, and a number of other useful items. George Shinn who was-- had been president of the board, went to talk to him and a number of other trustees went to talk with Kinstler. So he felt that he did do a reasonable portrait. He chose a photograph that I had taken down, which was a very-- rather informal photograph that had been taken by the College photographer in the yard in the garden behind the President's House. And that's why he's sitting quite informally there- with his Amherst tie. And, uh, in a wicker chair, a front of the rhododendron bushes on the campus. I think it's a good likeness. It's quite lifelike. It's very different from the other portraits here. Uh, Bill Ward's portrait is also without a gown, I see that Peter Pouncey went back to the gown.
[25:34] For some reason the, the trustees and the artists felt that it was more appropriate to have Julian in a more casual outfit. So it's nice when I come back and come to concerts here or come to hear lectures to be able to sit here and see the portrait there.
[25:53] Yes, when we died-- when Julian died so suddenly in 1983, we held two memorial services here in the chapel. One for family and friends, and one for the college community. When I talked with the various people who were planning the service, I insisted that the major part of service had to be music. And I talked with Bruce McGinnis about this at some length, and he thoroughly agreed because music was so much part and parcel of Julian's life.
[26:30] What happened was that we had all the college choirs, there was one choir across in the choir stalls. We had one choir up there, another choir up here. And at one point, I know one of the officials of the College said we're going to have so many students in the choirs in the gallery that there'll be-- in the chapel-- that there will be no room for the audience. And my comment was, well, the students are the proper audience. But they did a beautiful job. And we had really no eulogies in the first, a beautiful prayer by George Cadigan, who was Julian's very good friend, and was at that point, religious advisor to the college.
[27:20] On the weekend, there was another service done, uh, with the alumni here and a few more speeches at that one there. But the first one was very beautiful, the other, the second service, the Concord String Quartet offered to come down and play Julian's favorite Beethoven Quintets, uh, or Quartets, I guess, uh, Quartets at the service. So it was a rather elongated service. But really, in this particular setting, which Julian had known since his freshman year in 1942, and which I had known through the years, it was a perfect place to have an, a very beautiful memorial service.
[28:04] Upton: I remember the ending of the service with the students included a moment with Bach. And the composer's anno-- annotation was “once more with feeling.”
[28:17] Gibbs: Yeah, that’s right.
[28:18] Upton: And it was played once more with feeling.
[28:21] Gibbs: Was a little tough to sit here and watch. Some of the students with tears, singing. [Crosstalk] In the front--
[28:26] Upton: It was one of the most dignified moments in my 32 years here. I remember every--
[28:31] Gibbs: And one of the toughest parts for me was looking out my window and seeing the flag at half mast. So, but--
[28:38] Upton: Well Cora Lee, I-- we might now, if it’s alright with you to conclude our conversation, walk over to Memorial Hill and perhaps reminisce a bit about earlier times.
[28:50] Gibbs: I’d be happy to.
[28:51] Upton: Let’s do that.
[Part 6: Memorial Hill, Seeyle Mudd Building, Pratt Hall]
[28:58] Upton: To bring our conversation to a close, Cora Lee and I have come to Memorial Hill, probably one of the most beautiful places on the campus. And I’m just thinking, Cora Lee, in this place of remembrance, if you could remember for us some of the occasions when you were here as a student with Julian Gibbs.
[29:17] Gibbs: Yes, of course, just walking across the campus and seeing that fabulous view across the notch on the way to Mount Holyoke. I was not a Mount Holyoke student, I was a Smith student and met my future husband at the beginning of my sophomore year when he came over to Lawrence House where I had-- was living, to find the person he had dated the year before. She wasn't there, I happened to be sitting in the front hall and we went out that evening and that was the beginning of a long romance and acquaintance much of which centered around the campus here.
[29:58] We were married in 1946. Julian came back from a stint in the Navy. And, uh, we within-- let’s see, we were married and two days later, we were set in a wonderful abode which you will see the tar paper barracks which were down at the foot of the hill, where the, uh, social dorms are. We lived there for a year and a half while Julian finished his bachelor’s degree, but during those times this monument was being built. And, uh, it was started when we were here, and, uh, I have returned here often because it is such a beautiful spot on the campus and such an important memorial to the Amherst graduates who died in World War I and World War II.
[30:49] I happen to be standing right here and notice one of Julian's classmates, Gerard North Twomey. I particularly like this spot because of the fact that the building that is right there, the Seelye Mudd building, which, uh, was built during Julian's tenor-- tenure here. John Callahan and Julian and I were on the West Coast, and, uh, in one of the usual trips that college presidents make, with, uh, meetings with alumni and obviously, fundraising, And, uh, he went into a building with John Callahan and I waited in the car and they came out. And John was full of excitement. He says, “Julian just invented the building. He came up with a whole plan for a building that they hadn't even thought of before,” a scientifically oriented building. And this is the result of that building.
[31:51] Julian worked very closely with Edward Larrabee Barnes who was the architect of this building in 19-- where are we now we're back in the 70s, in ‘79, ‘80, ‘81. And he watched it carefully, he would stop by almost every day to see it. Unfortunately, he only saw it come to ground level. Because uh, that’s when he died. And, uh, he was very proud of this building and he was very proud to have this building here. He was very emphatic on the fact that a building on the corner of the campus sort of anchors the campus, which dealt with mathematics with computer science was just as important over there as the library was anchoring the other side of the campus in two parts of an education which were so very important.
[32:42] Uh, he worked closely with Barnes to make sure that the building fitted in well with Pratt next door. If you notice the archway of the window of Pratt, which at- now is a window, but originally was the front door of Pratt. But that is echoed in the front of that building here. So, let's see, thinking back on our early years here, we live down in the tar paper shack with a leaky shower above us from one of Julian's fraternity brothers. We had a large coal stove in the middle of the, one of the two rooms, which was supposed to do our cooking, our heating, heating our water. So you essentially moved out when you were heating water for a shower.
[33:31] Uh, it was- I- for me was sort of a particularly interesting anchor to my relationship to Amherst College because I started out in that house and ended up in the President's House, which I thought made a nice contrast with all the Greek Revival details, etc., in the President’s House. There were no Greek Revival details on the, uh, uh, tar paper shacks down there. The--
[34:00] Upton: Cora Lee, would you tell us, again, Julian's favorite view?
[34:06] Gibbs: Oh, yes. I drove over from Rhode Island this morning. And as I came down Route 9 at the top of the Pelham Hill, looking across, it reminded me we always slowed down there and Julian would say, “that's our college,” and he could see the Chapel, Stearns, Chapel and the buildings, and it was there when I drove over this morning.
Cora Lee Gibbs came to Amherst in 1979 when her husband Julian H. Gibbs (AC 1956) became president of Amherst College. She was a lecturer and public program developer at the Mead Art Museum and created the "Art for Lunch" program. Before this, she served as head of educational programs at the Rhode Island School of Design. After leaving Amherst, she was appointed director of the Newport Arrt Museum where she now serves as director emeritus. She holds a BA and MA in art history.
Joel Upton is emeritus professor of art and the history of art and has been at Amherst since 1972. He taught courses on the history of medieval and Renaissance art and architecture and complements and interweaves these with courses in Japanese pre-modern architecture.
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