From Blair Kamin, a Tour of Amherst College

General / People / Places / Products / February 5, 2020

Chicago Tribune columnist Blair Kamin credits an art history course at Amherst College for turning his head toward architecture criticism.

The 1979 graduate took a course in Gothic Architecture from a charismatic lecturer named Joel Upton. His passionate talks on French Gothic cathedrals changed Kamin’s outlook on art – and history.

“He talked about great works of architecture and cultural artifacts,” Kamin says. “And in a sense, that’s what I’m doing here, too – I’m looking at the broader importance of these buildings.”

He’s talking about a new guide to Amherst architecture. “Amherst College: The Campus Guide” is designed to be read at home or taken out for a stroll around campus. There are six distinct walks, a series of bird’s-eye maps and a foldout too. The photography by Ralph Lieberman is crisp, telling and descriptive.

There’s a wealth of history to embellish how Amherst’s buildings got their start – especially in the early days. That’s when citizens of the town by the same name gathered on a hilltop to give the school’s first building an existential push – with labor and materials, turnips and other crops.

“They gave their own blood and sweat and labor, and that gets to the heart of place,” he says. “It would be easy to dismiss a building like South Hall – a brick box with no decoration, but if you understand the story behind it, there’s a really rich meaning.”

North would follow South, with space between meant for a chapel – one that carries its own interesting creation story. Legend has it that Emily Dickinson’s grandfather displayed courage enough to visit the deathbed of a nearby farmer, urging him to leave his fortune to the school. The chapel, he said, would be named after the dying man.

That’s how Johnson Chapel came to be built, though not without controversy. “His brother sued because he was left only $12,” Kamin says.

The case went to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the college. But at the Greek Revival chapel’s dedication, the school’s president made no mention of the lawsuit. Instead, he framed the chapel construction as a holy endeavor. “Upon these heights of Zion,” Heman Humphrey said, “may the banner of the cross ever wave.”

Now the three buildings form a 19th-century row. “They look as though they’re one, and sit on a special hilltop,” Kamin says. “All of a sudden you’ve got an acropolis overlooking the river.”

That’s just the start of this school that grew organically from the bottom up.

It may have started small, but eventually it would soar – both architecturally and academically.

On Friday: Olmsted’s vision, McKim Mead & White’s reign, and the rise of Modernism.

For more, go here.

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Michael Welton




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