Mead Art Museum

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Stearns Steeple

Stearns Church and Steeple, 1873-1949</p>(Click image to view slideshow of images)</p>

Stearns Church and Steeple
1873-1949

 

 

Stearns Church during demolition in 1949

Stearns Steeple demolition
1949

   

Stearns Steeple and the Mead Art Museum, present day

Stearns Steeple and the Mead
present day

The striking Gothic Revival steeple that marks the entrance to the Mead Art Museum is a cherished architectural vestige of College Church, or Stearns Church, which stood on this site for seventy-six years, from 1873 to 1949. In 1864, William F. Stearns, eldest son of President William A. Stearns and a prosperous Boston merchant, presented $30,000 to the College for erecting a proper church. Although founded upon the  principles of Congregationalism, the church never assumed a denominational name.
 
Various factors postponed its construction following the Civil War. Building commenced in 1870 under the direction of architect William A. Potter, appointed by the College’s Board of Trustees. Potter executed his basilican (cross-shaped) design, which could accommodate 600 worshippers, primarily using a local stone known as Pelham gneiss with contrasting elements in redstone, red granite, and limestone. Stearns Church was dedicated formally in 1873.

The steeple originally stood between the north and east arms of the church and functioned as its entrance. Even in the church’s halcyon days, the steeple was its most identifiable and remarkable feature, rising over 150 feet, thus serving as a marker for miles around. The steeple resonated with personal, spiritual, and historical symbolism. Bostonian George Howe, whose son, Sidney Walker Howe (Class of 1859), fell in the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862, donated the spire’s nine bells “to chime on all suitable occasions in commemoration of brave patriots, connected with Amherst College, who lost their lives in the war against the great rebellion of 1861."
 
William A. Stearns
William A. Stearns
College President 1854-1876

By 1908, the church required costly repairs and expansion, prompting a debate over its utility. It deteriorated further over the next three decades, as the College gradually assumed a more secular identity. With the moving of Sunday vespers in 1933 to the newly renovated Johnson Chapel, Stearns Church was effectively rendered obsolete. After much institutional deliberation, the site was selected for a new art building, to be financed from the generous bequest of architect William R. Mead (Class of 1867) and his wife, Olga. When Stearns Church was razed in 1949, the steeple was retained as a monument to the former church.

To transform the steeple from an architectural component into a freestanding structure, it was enclosed on its south and west sides using materials from the demolition, including stained glass windows that previously flanked the altar. This repurposing of materials presumably accounts for the inscribed dates that now appear somewhat randomly on the filled-in sides. Originally, the inscriptions must have served a clearer function, presumably as memorial markers. Today, the steeple remains a campus landmark, from which, on occasion, its chimes still ring.

Stearns Church interior looking west
Stearns Church interior looking west
1873-1949
   
Stearns Church in June 1914
Stearns Church
June 1914
 
Sources:
  • Edward Wilton Carpenter and Charles Frederick Morehouse, History of the Town of Amherst, Massachusetts (Carpenter & Morehouse, 1896)
  • Claude Moore Fuess, Amherst:The Story of a New England College (Little, Boston, and Company, 1935)
  • Stanley King, “The Consecrated Eminence”:The Story of the Campus and Buildings of Amherst College (Amherst College, 1951); Stanley King of Amherst (Columbia University Press, 1955)
  • William Seymour Tyler, History of Amherst College during Its First Half Century, 1821-1871 (C.W. Bryan, 1873); History of Amherst College during the Administrations of Its First Five Presidents from 1821-1891 (F. H. Hitchcock, 1894)
  • Photos provided by Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

More on Stearns Steeple:

 

Open

Tuesday         9 a.m.–midnight
Wednesday         9 a.m.–midnight
Thursday         9 a.m.–midnight
Friday         9 a.m.–8 p.m.
Saturday         9 a.m.–5 p.m.
Sunday         9 a.m.–midnight

Getting here»

Donate Now