by Bill Sweet
When Blair Kamin ’79, the Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, recently returned to Amherst College to teach an interterm class, the subject was, naturally enough, architecture. The lessons, however, were in journalism.
“You can do all the research in the world, you can have the most fascinating information, but if you don’t compel the reader to read, you’re dead meat,” Kamin told a group of students who joined him in unpacking the design and history of the campus’s former fraternity houses.
Kamin had more at stake than just teaching a decent class. He is currently at work on a guide to the architecture at Amherst, to be published by Princeton Architectural Press. The class both afforded him some time to do on-site observation and provided the assistance of students, whose research and writing may be included in the guide, he said.
The buildings on College Row and its environs “are not only an entrance, but they frame this space where town meets gown,” he said.
The class’s main focus—the 13 fraternity houses, erected by alumni between 80 and 100 years ago—is of interest to Kamin, though he never opted for Greek life when he studied here (for the record, he said he lived in James, Moore, Coolidge and the now-demolished Milliken). Fraternities were disbanded on campus in 1984, and their underground, off-campus incarnations were banned last year. However, their legacy remains in the form of the buildings, whose history may be unknown to their current residents, Kamin said. His interterm students studied details such as the conglomeration of styles—Tudor revival, neoclassical, Renaissance revival—visible throughout Mayo-Smith House.
The fraternity houses “make a major contribution to Amherst’s sense of place,” said Kamin. “If they had not been grandly scaled, beautifully built, mansionlike homes, the gateway into Amherst College would be far less impressive than it is today.”
For the course, students each crafted an essay about a specific house, combining research from the College’s Archives and Special Collections with their own observations.
“They need to be professional skeptics. They need to learn the power of firsthand observation,” Kamin said. And then, like all good reporters, they needed to craft engaging prose, quickly.
“Your professors have to read your papers. The people reading this guidebook don’t,” he told the students. “An editor of mine once had us put a little sticker on our computers that said, ‘The Easiest Thing for the Reader is to Quit Reading.’”