In Memoriam: Bartlett Hall

Built in the late 1950s, Bartlett Hall at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is home to the school’s large and vibrant English Department, its award-winning Writing Program, renowned departments of Art History, Philosophy, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and numerous other programs, most of them associated with the University’s College of Humanities and Fine Arts (CHFA).  It also contains dozens of classrooms, most with a capacity of 15-45 students, comprising more than 1,300 seats total.

The building is located on the western edge of the original campus site, atop what was once called Chestnut Ridge, from which one can look out across the fertile farmland of the Connecticut River Valley, the Berkshire Hills in the far distance.

Massachusetts Agricultural College in the late nineteenth century, looking west from the eastern ridge of campus, home of Durfee Conservatory, toward Chestnut Ridge, home of the College's original main buildings.

Massachusetts Agricultural College in the late nineteenth century, looking west from the eastern ridge of campus, home of Durfee Conservatory, toward Chestnut Ridge, home of the College’s original main buildings.

The location is significant: Massachusetts Agricultural College (MAC) was founded in 1863 after passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which provided federal funds to endow at least one college in each state whose leading object would be, “without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics”:

to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts . . . in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.

From 1882 to 1957, this hilltop was the site of the school’s Drill Hall, where, in MAC’s early years, students discharged their mandatory military service.

The Hall was heavily used during the winter term: “for bayonet and sabre exercises, parades, reviews, guard-mount, and out-post duty,” according to the College’s 1887 Annual Report.  As other student activities began to rise in popularity at the end of the nineteenth century, the Drill Hall also became the home of the College’s first basketball and indoor track teams, as well as a site for student dances and receptions.  At the end of its life, it served as headquarters for ROTC and women’s physical education.

By the 1950s, however, better facilities were being built for those programs; it was the school’s rapidly expanding humanities departments, like English, that badly needed a new home.  After all, the first of many Bachelor of Arts degrees was awarded here in 1938, five years after MAC became MSC (Massachusetts State College) and nine years before MSC became the University of Massachusetts (UMass), the changing name reflecting the gradual expansion of the school’s educational mission.

By the middle of the twentieth century, UMass wasn’t just expanding the number of programs it offered degrees in – it was also expanding dramatically in size.  Like public universities around the country, it was growing exponentially in the postwar years, both in enrollment and in its physical plant.  Between 1956 and 1963, for example, 110 new facilities (instructional, residential, etc.) were built on this campus.

Special Collections and Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst

The new “Liberal Arts Building” rising in 1959 on the site of the old Drill Hall.  Special Collections and Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst

As part of that massive construction effort, in 1957, the old Drill Hall atop Chestnut Ridge was razed, and a new building began to take shape on the site.  Campus documents from the late 1950s refer to the structure simply as the new “Liberal Arts Building.”  Designed by Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson, and Abbot of Boston, and constructed in 1959-1960, the building contained over 115,000 gross square feet of interior space, about 68,000 net available square feet for programming and classrooms.  It had two main sections, arranged in an L shape: a southern wing, with a mostly glass façade, built mainly for classrooms, and a northern wing, clad in brick, for departments and offices.  The two parts were designed to be distinctive in appearance but closely linked.

Special Collections and Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst

The front of Bartlett Hall, from the north, c. 1960. Special Collections and Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Joseph W. Bartlett, ca. 1940. Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Joseph W. Bartlett, ca. 1940. Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

When the new facility opened in 1960, the “Liberal Arts Building” was now officially Bartlett Hall, named for Joseph Warren Bartlett, a Boston lawyer who served as a Trustee of MSC and UMass from 1934-1960.

From that day to this, for more than half a century, Bartlett Hall has been home to some of the best-known and most important humanities departments on campus, as well as the location of the University Writing Program.  Its classrooms, big and small, are some of the most used instructional sites at UMass.  And, as we’ll see below, its indoor and outdoor common spaces are among our most pleasant and welcome gathering spots.

Special Collections and Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst

The back of Bartlett Hall, from the north, c. 1960. Special Collections and Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Still, occupants and users have long had conflicted feelings about Bartlett Hall.  In their recent “architectural tour” of the campus, Professors Marla Miller and Max Page have good things to say about the artistic importance of the building: they call the northern wing, for example, an “elegant example” of 1950s institutional architecture, a “vigorously modernist” structure; they have even nicer things to say about the southern wing, which they describe as “the nearest example” on campus of classic European early modernism, “an echo” of the Bauhaus building in Dessau, Germany.

But not everyone finds the modernist style of Bartlett visually appealing half a century later.  Also worrisome has been the building’s long history of structural problems.  The brick facade long ago began failing, there’s no central air conditioning or proper ventilation, and the heating is unreliable at best.  Removal of asbestos, lead, and PCBs has been expensive and disruptive.  Those of us who work here have a litany of additional complaints: cramped offices, classroom facilities that are not much better than a 1950s high school, dilapidated bathrooms, maintenance and janitorial problems that seem to be endlessly deferred.

Still, Bartlett is our home: the physical backdrop for a dynamic, close-knit intellectual community dedicated to a range of humanities disciplines and programs.  For the English Department, Bartlett has provided, across nearly six decades, a single, centrally-located home for our large, diverse community of students, faculty, and staff, in a site convenient to Du Bois Library and other core campus facilities (South College, the Old Chapel, Goodell, Memorial Hall), with most of our teaching taking place in the building itself, in small and medium-sized classrooms right around us (as well as, occasionally, on the lawn outside).

If, when I arrived here in 2006, I found the building somewhat unlovely, it has grown on me over time.  But what I immediately appreciated were the virtues of Bartlett’s location, one of the prettiest sites on a campus with few classically beautiful sites.  Before the massive new Commonwealth Honors College Residential Campus was constructed just west of Bartlett, you could look through the lobby across what seemed the entire expanse of the Connecticut River Valley.  And even now, there are fall days when, after the English Department’s regular Tuesday afternoon colloquium on the third floor, you can walk out on the “causeway” between the building’s two wings and watch the sun set in the west.

An especially important part of Bartlett, for me and many others, has been the outdoor space on the building’s eastern side.  Shaded by several beautiful, old trees, traversed by a wide, gracefully-curving, pedestrian-only street, with intimate green lawns bisected by heavily-used student paths, this is one of the central gathering places on campus, the focal point being a low rock wall underneath a large tree directly opposite Bartlett’s eastern “front door,” where generations of faculty and students have sat and talked and – until recently – smoked.  There’s even a photograph of Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid sitting here with students in the late 1960s.

The rock wall was where, every year from 2007-2011, when I was director of the University Writing Program, I arranged a photograph of our teaching staff, partly as a way to remind administrators how big and vital the Writing Program community was.

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In 2007, when I sent a digital copy of one of these photographs to my family in North Carolina, my father’s first response was to note the beautiful tree in the background.  It turns out that that tree, a large Katsura from Japan (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), is considered one of the campus’s “Heritage Trees.”  Although University documents do not give an age for this tree, I believe it was planted by Horticulture Professor Lyle Blundell in the 1930s, when several other Katsura trees on campus were planted.

There are other significant trees on the eastern side of Bartlett Hall; the Class of 1900 gift tree, for example, a beautiful red oak, is also here.  Both trees are pictured below.

You can see alternative shots of them here, taken in late fall from the “front door” of Bartlett Hall:

But even inside the “rigorously modernist” Bartlett Hall, there are attractive and welcoming common spaces for students, faculty, and staff.

In the late 1990s, English Prof. John Nelson undertook a wholesale re-furnishing/re-decorating of the Bartlett lobby and alcoves, including the installation of a series of beautiful black-and-white photographs by local photographer Stan Sherer.  The photographs still hang on Bartlett’s walls today.

As for its classrooms, although there is a lecture-style auditorium in the basement of Bartlett, most of the instructional spaces in the building are much more intimate, well-suited to the discussion-based pedagogy of the humanities.


The current occupants of Bartlett Hall have known for years that the building was slated for demolition; the cost of renovating and repairing the failing structure, at least according to campus planners, was simply too high.  And we were assured repeatedly that a suitable “replacement” for the building was being planned.  What none of us knew, until recently, was that the “replacement” would turn out to be so fundamentally incommensurate to the original: in size, in location, in occupancy, in organization, in amenities.  Usually, in physical planning, one expects the future to be better than the past; in this case, the future looks to many of us worse.

The main problem is this.  The structure meant to “replace” Bartlett Hall – to house its current occupants and provide for its current uses – will be a new “South College Academic Facility” (SCAF), essentially a renovation of the 130-year-old South College building, located to the north of Goodell and west of Du Bois Library, with a new addition constructed beside it.  The idea is that the current occupants of South College – most notably, the CHFA Dean’s office – will vacate that building in 2014 for temporary quarters elsewhere.  Then, from 2014-16, the South College building will be renovated, and a new addition constructed beside it, apparently to the north and west, turning the L-shaped South College into a rectangle, perhaps with a courtyard in the middle.  In the summer of 2016, this new combined SCAF will be ready for occupancy, at which point Bartlett Hall will be demolished, the future of its site to be determined.

But the new SCAF, even with the addition, will be much smaller than Bartlett Hall is today.  Current plans put the size of the new structure at around 54,000 net available square feet (nasf), 14,000 fewer square feet than are in Bartlett now.  The actual loss, however, will be greater, since the 54,000 nasf in the new facility will include functions not currently in Bartlett – namely, the Dean’s office and CHFA Advising (currently in Machmer).  Assigning 10,000 nasf to those two functions leaves only 44,000 square feet in SCAF for the programming and classrooms currently in Bartlett Hall (which contains, as we saw above, 68,000 nasf), a total loss of 24,000 square feet, fully 35% of Bartlett’s current space.  That seems more like a “reduction” than a “replacement”!

Now, one of Bartlett’s current occupants, the Journalism Department, is already taken care of.  It will soon move to the new Academic Classroom Building, across the Campus Pond, where it will join other programs from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.  But that still leaves five major academic programs currently in Bartlett Hall that will need a new home when that building is demolished in 2016.  Those programs are the Departments of Art History, English, Philosophy, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, all in CHFA, and the University Writing Program, a campus-wide instructional program with close ties to English.

Plans circulated in late 2013, prepared seemingly with little input from Bartlett’s current occupants, have the Writing Program moving to Du Bois Library, the Departments of English and Philosophy going to SCAF, and the Departments of Art History and Women Gender and Sexuality Studies largely unaccounted for, apparently because, as one email from campus planners put it, they were “lower” on the list of priorities.  The plans have been something of a shock to most of us in Bartlett – and the combination of uncertainty and speed in the process (the architects have already been selected and have already begun making plans for SCAF) left us feeling angry.  For one thing, the process seemed almost designed to turn us against each other, fighting for space in the new building.  Who was in, and who was out – that discussion has dominated our fall 2013 semester.

Migration from Bartlett Hall. Draft document from Campus Planning, 10/17/13.

“Migration from Bartlett Hall.” Draft document from Campus Planning, 10/17/13.

The proposed disintegration of the current Bartlett community has been especially upsetting because, all around us, we see evidence of the University’s inspiring new commitment to integration, interdisciplinarity, and innovation in faculty research and student learning.  Beautiful new facilities are rising, like the Integrated Sciences Building and the Integrated Design Building, their very names testament to this new commitment.  The breathtaking new Commonwealth Honors College Residential Campus, meanwhile, is a physical embodiment of the institution’s desire to better integrate living and learning in twenty-first century higher education.  And the new senior-level Integrative Experience requirement in the undergraduate curriculum, an innovation many of us in CHFA worked hard to institute, makes “integration” not just a word but an actual outcome of our students’ learning.

And yet, for the Bartlett community, we feel like the watchword for the future of the humanities here is not integration but “dis-integration.”

Equally distressing to us is the configuration of classrooms in the new building.  For reasons never made fully clear to us, using data never actually shared with us, and addressing a putative campus-wide classroom need that has little to do with our instructional needs and desires, the new SCAF, according to the latest plans made available to us, will have classrooms almost exclusively in the 60-160 seat range, much larger than the discussion-based, writing-intensive classes that are the hallmark of undergraduate and graduate instruction in Bartlett today.

On top of all that, the very site of the new building – cramped, treeless, uninspiring – seems like a downgrade.  Will we have anything like the welcoming communal spaces (indoors and outdoors) that characterize Bartlett today?  Will the humanities departments, tucked into the back of South College, have anything like the visibility and prominence that they have today in Bartlett Hall, atop Chestnut Ridge?

In its 2012 Capital Plan Update, the UMass administration pledged that:

The new academic buildings to replace Hills and Bartlett . . . are part of our strategy to improve the teaching and learning experience on campus.  These new facilities will help in retaining and recruiting quality faculty and will support student recruitment to achieve our enrollment goals.

Does the University still mean that?

A Coalition Committee for Humanities Facilities has been formed and is pushing for transparency and inclusiveness in the planning of SCAF.  But many of us remain concerned.  At a time when so much evidence, from so many quarters, points to the importance – for students, for employers, for communities – of the skills and values imparted by the humanities, this University seems to be going down a path that fails to provide humanities students and faculty with the physical environment they need and deserve – the physical environment which the campus needs and deserves.

But maybe one positive thing will come out of all of this.  We will all finally appreciate what a good thing we had in Bartlett Hall – despite its many flaws.  In the end, we will probably miss the old place.


For the architectural history of UMass Amherst, see Marla R. Miller and Max Page, University of Massachusetts Amherst: An Architectural Tour.  New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2013.

For the “YouMass Wiki,” with articles on Bartlett Hall, the Drill Hall, South College, and other topics, click here.

For “UMass Amherst: 150 Years,” click here.

For the Morrill Land-Grant Act, click here.

For “Campus Trees” at UMass Amherst, click here.

For my own post about local trees, click here.

For my post about the Commonwealth Honors College Residential Campus, click here.

For the 2012 Campus Master Plan for the University of Massachusetts Amherst, click here.

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2 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Bartlett Hall

  1. Pingback: Bartlett Hall: Approaching the end of an Era | Conor Snell

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