Amherst College Bicentennial 1821 2021

On the occasion of Amherst’s Bicentennial, we present a series of excerpts from Amherst College: The Campus Guide. This is the first of four. The book is one of the keepsake Bicentennial books commissioned by the College.

Johnson Chapel: Doric muscularity, the face of Amherst

This Greek Revival edifice, the centerpiece of College Row, is Amherst’s most important building. No other structure on campus is so prominent or so expressive of its time. Behind the building’s robust exterior are classrooms and the offices of Amherst’s English department, along with a chapel whose noble character belies the ignoble circumstances that attended the building’s birth.

The young college needed a chapel because its students had been unwelcome guests at an old parish meetinghouse on what is now the site of the Octagon. So the leaders of the impoverished institution turned for financial support to an unlikely patron: Adam Johnson, an aging, wealthy, and (crucially) childless farmer from nearby Pelham who had no connection to the College. As Johnson, about 70 years old, neared death, the Amherst lawyer Samuel Fowler Dickinson, grandfather of the poet Emily Dickinson, promised him a measure of immortality: a new college chapel, endowed by Johnson, would forever bear his name.

With Johnson’s assent, Dickinson in February 1823 drew up a will that designated the College as the chief heir to Johnson’s fortune. After Johnson died that August, his brother Thomas, who stood to inherit a mere $12, contested the will in court, claiming that Amherst had taken advantage of “a man in his dotage and mentally unfit to know how to dispose of his property rightly,” the Springfield Republican reported in 1927 on the occasion of the chapel’s centennial. But in 1826, Massachusetts’ supreme court ruled in the College’s favor, and Amherst received $4,000, enabling construction, already underway, to continue.

Johnson Chapel column capital: Stylized ear of corn grace the capital, a reference to the Connecticut River Valley's agricultural bounty.

Johnson Chapel column capital: Stylized ears of corn grace the capital, a reference to the Connecticut River Valley's agricultural bounty.

Fortuitously, the chapel was constructed in the 1820s as Americans sought anew to demonstrate their freedom from England. Just a decade earlier, they had fought the War of 1812, the so-called second war of independence. The prevailing style of the day, Greek Revival, evoked the marble temples of ancient Greece and the political struggles of the protodemocracy in Athens. That struggle, which resonated powerfully in the United States, would have a significant impact on Amherst. 

A skilled practitioner of Greek Revival, Captain Isaac Damon of Northampton was probably the chapel’s architect, although the extent of his contribution is unknown. Damon, who studied with the distinguished Connecticut architect Ithiel Town, was the leading architect of his day in Western Massachusetts.

On Nov. 23, 1825, as College records show, Amherst paid $1.62 “for horse & chaise to Northampton & expense to see Mr. Damon to get a plan for the chapel.” Payments of a similar amount were made through 1826, with another $25 going to Damon in 1827. As President Stanley King, class of 1903, wrote in The Consecrated Eminence, his 1951 architectural history of the College: “It is perhaps fair to say that the College never in its history received better value for any expenditure of $25.”

The chapel’s exterior takes Greek Revival simplicity to the limit. Its western façade, a stark temple front supported by four massive tapering Doric columns fashioned from vertical strips of wood, bears a striking similarity to Damon-designed churches in the Connecticut River Valley. The two-tiered tower, set back from the front, has a belfry in the lower stage and an upper stage with clock faces that were added later. 

There is some decoration—quoins accentuate the corners of the tower’s lower tier and fleur-de-lis-like frilliness surrounds the clock—but the overall effect is one of powerful severity: sound proportions, simple shapes, resonant clarity. The absence of a conventional steeple renders the building more secular than sacred—and, thus, more welcoming to non-Christians.

With the exception of the chapel proper, the present interior shows little trace of the other functions it originally contained: a library, a room for scientific equipment, a mineral cabinet, several recitation rooms and a basement laboratory. The chapel itself is a regal room whose rich array of decoration offers a surprising departure from the building’s simplicity.

As the agreement drawn up for Adam Johnson prescribes, the words “Johnson Chapel” are displayed above the central entry. Past this and two flanking portals is a two-story room whose white, wood-trimmed pews line the main floor and a U-shaped balcony. A red carpet, glistening chandelier, and portraits of past Amherst presidents, trustees and alumni convey an impression of polished elegance.

Careful observers will notice agriculture motifs. The upper portions of the Ionic columns that support the balcony are represented as large leaves—perhaps a reference to the tobacco farms of the Connecticut River Valley. In the Corinthian columns at the front of the room, carved versions of acanthus leaves are surmounted by another reference to the valley’s agricultural bounty—stylized ears of corn.

Johnson Chapel's interior: a striking synthesis of meetinghouse simplicity and neoclassical elegance

The exquisite refinement of this detail reflects the hand of McKim, Mead & White, which remade the chapel’s east side in 1933 and 1934 under the direction of James Kellum Smith, class of 1915. The east-facing exterior, once a blank-walled brick eyesore, received a handsome new cladding of Pelham gneiss, four monumental pilasters and a proper pediment. It thus became a fitting presence along the main quad—a second front, not a back.

Inside, behind the speaker’s platform, the McKim firm added a grand arch and two side openings, through which visitors glimpse an Aeolian Skinner organ. The organ loft is a room within a room, the groin vaults of its ceiling endowing the chapel with Renaissance Revival elegance.

For years, the College required attendance at chapel services, and students rang the chapel’s 1,200-pound bell, a gift of McKim, Mead & White’s William R. Mead, class of 1867. But the services ceased in 1968, and electronic bells eventually were introduced. A room originally dedicated to the ritual of daily worship now serves as a forum for College leaders and visiting speakers. Once, it could host the entire student body; now, less than a third of the College can fit within its walls. Still, if one room says “Amherst,” this is it.