The Powerhouse at Amherst College
The Powerhouse at Amherst College. David Lamb Photography, courtesy of Bruner/Cott

When it comes to winning awards, the Powerhouse is all fired up. Since 2014, when this defunct steam-power plant was reimagined, reworked and reopened as a student event and arts space, it’s been admired for its dynamic, post-industrial look.

Now admiration has turned to official recognition. Three times over. 

The latest honor is a 2017 Paul and Niki Tsongas Award, given by Preservation Massachusetts. “Of all the projects that have been nominated in my 16 years here, the Powerhouse was one of the most innovative ever,” said James W. Igoe, the president of Preservation Massachusetts. “The building is very cool. It just looks like a happy place.”

An event taking place in the Powerhouse at Amherst College
Senior Giving Campaign, 2016; photo by Maria Stenzel

In 2016, the Association of College Unions International gave the building its Facility Design Award of Excellence. And most prestigious of all, the Boston Society of Architects bestowed its 2016 BSA Design Award in February, 2017 (Category: Education Facilities Design, Honor). The BSA jury hailed the Powerhouse’s minimalist-chic impact: “It’s so simple, reusing and enhancing the existing structure without putting makeup on it. The architect has done everything right.”

That’s a lot of shiny trophies for a place that once held 10 tons of dusty coal. Freight cars used to deliver the stuff on the rail line next to the building, and the coal got chuted inside, via conveyor belts, to huge suspended bins. That coal fueled the boilers, which cooked up the steam.

For a structure with such a workaday purpose, it’s got a lofty pedigree; it was built in 1925 by the legendary architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, famous for the Boston Public Library and New York’s old Penn Station. William Rutherford Mead, a member of the class of 1867, ran the home office, while Charles Follen McKim and Stanford White created the designs. 

The Powerhouse at Amherst College
Construction, 2014; photo by Rob Mattson

The trio’s little plant was less glamorous than their other Amherst projects (Fayerweather Hall, Chapin Hall and the Mead Art Museum), but it’s still “a really handsome building from a noteworthy firm,” said Thomas K. Davies, Amherst’s director of design and construction/facilities. The steam plant became obsolete by the 1960s, when a modernized facility took over powering up the campus. After that, the decommissioned plant subbed as a utility shed and garage.  

So how did the old powerhouse become the Powerhouse? A meeting of minds: President Biddy Martin set a goal of forging spaces that support student-led gatherings; James Brassord, chief of campus operations, suggested that the aging building could, with some imagination, be one of those spaces; and Hope Eighmy Pascucci ’90 generously provided support for the project. Brassord thought highly of another post-industrial makeover—the conversion of historic mill buildings in North Adams, Mass., into the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA). He suggested the College turn to Bruner/Cott, the Cambridge-based firm that led the Mass MoCA project.

An event taking place in the Powerhouse at Amherst College
Luau Party, 2014; photo by Rob Mattson

“We very quickly came to the mutual decision to keep the design minimal and maintain a post-industrial aesthetic,” Davies said. The team also decided to embrace the modern along with the historic. And so a clear glass cube acts as the front entrance, and a concrete wall acts as a sort of courtyard enclosure/side entrance. “We wanted to be clear about what is new and what is old, so that it was aesthetically compelling but respectful of the original architecture,” explained Davies.   

Over the past three years, the Powerhouse has fulfilled Martin’s vision by hosting a bounty of events, gatherings, live performances, rehearsals, pub nights, panel discussions, art exhibits, food truck nights, cookouts and more.

Interior of the Powerhouse
Interior of the Powerhouse; David Lamb Photography, courtesy of Burner/Cott

All of this happened within an interior intentionally kept raw. “We wanted The Powerhouse to act as an armature for students to create within, as opposed to designing something finished,” explained Davies. The Boston Society of Architects loved this decision, extolling Bruner/Cott for “impressively eschewing beautiful finishes in favor of retaining the grit and character of the original building.” The jurists added: “It’s easy to imagine that this will become a beloved campus facility. The longer it’s looked at, the more there is to see.”

That award, and the others, signal that outmoded collegiate buildings can find invigorating new life. And there’s some nice symmetry here: a place that once made steam has become, a century later, a great place to let off steam.        

Student Arts Party, April 8, 2017; photo by Takudzwa Tapfuma ’17
Student Arts Party, April 8, 2017; photo by Takudzwa Tapfuma ’17