With its panoramic views of the Holyoke Range and the Pelham Hills, and its non-triumphal yet powerful tribute to the Amherst men who died in the two world wars, this is a stirring place, the most beautiful—and to many, the most meaningful—on Amherst’s campus. It is so perfectly designed that it looks inevitable, as though it had always been there.
In reality, it is a relatively recent addition, having been completed in 1946, the year of the College’s 125th anniversary.
The primary design credit for the War Memorial belongs to Arthur Shurcliff, Amherst’s longtime landscape architect, whose best-known works include the gardens of Colonial Williamsburg and Boston’s Charles River Esplanade.
Working with President Stanley King and James Kellum Smith, Shurcliff fashioned a modern-day version of an ancient Greek memorial—a place that stood slightly apart and overlooked a landscape of extraordinary natural beauty. The Greek precedent was felicitous, given the prominence of Greek Revival architecture at Amherst. Indeed, the War Memorial can be understood as a Greek-inspired void that complements the Greek Revival solidity of Johnson Chapel.
The circuitous route to the creation of this masterpiece began with missteps. After World War I, as King related in The Consecrated Eminence, the president and trustees could not agree upon an appropriate memorial to the 34 Amherst men killed in that war. The temporary solution was to paint the names of the dead in gold on the lobby walls of Converse Memorial Library. Yet parents of some of the dead, as King related, “had at one time felt bitterly about the college’s failure to do more.”
One day, as King recalled, he was walking along the campus's southern edge and inspiration struck: “Directly in front of me were some five acres of wild land, ungraded, unused and awaiting development. There, I saw, was our War Memorial right at my feet: Memorial Field, beautifully framed and commanding the finest prospect the finest prospect the College had."
On May 22, 1943, the trustees voted to erect a memorial at the conclusion of the war. Yet this step hardly guaranteed success. The same site could have contained something as prosaic as a boulder with a bronze plaque, as triumphal as a general on horseback or as stilted and academic as the sculpture of a fallen warrior that forms the centerpiece of the World War I memorial in Harvard’s Memorial Church.
Amherst dedicated the War Memorial and Memorial Field on the morning of June 16, 1946, with speeches, an academic procession and a flyover of Army Air Force planes from nearby Westover Field. Signifying the memorial’s national import, General Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the memorial that July.
The design is in perfect pitch with the Doric austerity of the Amherst campus, yet it remains a sacred precinct, a zone unto itself. It is not abstract in the manner of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Instead, it is elemental, consisting of simple geometric forms expressed in enduring materials and arranged in strong symmetry. Here, classicism is largely stripped of ornament, but not its power to convey emotion and meaning.