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.

War Memorial (looking south to the Holyoke Range): the most moving spot on Amherst's campus--contemplative rather than triumphal

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.


War Memorial (looking north to Frost Library): a culmination of the main quadrangle--and a sober recognition of lives lost for the cause of freedom

The memorial is, above all, contemplative, a place of dignity and repose that stops you in your tracks even if you fail to grasp its myriad symbolic messages.

Rimmed by pine trees, flowering shrubs and a low fence of granite obelisks and metal chains, the circular memorial zone is paved in bluestone. At its center is a circular granite block, quarried in Chelmsford, Mass., that is 20 feet in diameter and 19 inches high—exactly the right height for passersby to stop, look down and read the names of the dead. Those 142 names, recognizing the 34 Amherst men killed in World War I and the 108 who died in World War II, are arrayed in 13 concentric circles, representing the 13 stripes of the American flag. The circles ring the college’s seal and motto, Terras Irradient, at the center.

At the block’s edge are 48 stars, symbolizing the number of stars on the flag before Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union. The points of the compass are carved into the block, suggesting that Amherst men fought in every quarter of the globe. The 14 benches are arranged in a chronological progression, beginning on the north with battle sites of World War I, then shifting to World War II.

Service and sacrifice, not triumph and victory, are the overriding themes. The Latin words Pro Patria (“For country”) are inscribed on the circle’s northern face. On the Chelmsford granite steps that lead down to the memorial from the main quad are these words: “Memorial Field is dedicated by the Alumni to the Amherst men who in two great wars gallantly responded to their country’s call.”

There are suggestions of life cut short—the granite posts are truncated obelisks; the benches are blunt and undecorated. Yet there also are signs of eternal life, like the flowers that bloom on the shrubs each spring. For its part, Memorial Field offers a living tribute to the team play of competitive sports—a spirit that Americans thought had helped to win World War II.

The memorial belongs to the open space of the main quad, yet in a skillful exercise of the architectural device of “compression and release,” it narrows that space and dramatizes the burst of openness that accompanies the panoramic view of the Holyoke Range. In doing so, the memorial turns the inward-turning campus outward—toward the world, toward service, toward a broad reinterpretation of the original college motto and its evangelizing impulse.

It is at once a sanctuary and a threshold to the world beyond, where the distant view invites both internal reflection and expansive thought. It remains the noblest expression of Amherst’s ideals.

Architecture: Making Time Visible

Video by Marcus DeMaio

What do the buildings at Amherst College tell us about the values and visions of their creators? Follow Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Blair Kamin ’79 as he takes us on a historical and philosophical tour of campus.