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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2002 > College Row
College Row

Students in lecture hall.
Professors Marisa Parham and Andrew Parker teach a science fiction class in a new lecture room in Fayerweather.

Fayerweather friends

The sight of a building crew hard at work on a scaffolding is nothing new at Amherst these days. But when Fayerweather Hall, which houses Amherst's fine arts department, reopened at the beginning of the spring semester with brand new sculpting studios, increased work space and classrooms with skylights, it was hard not to be completely bowled over. The building was just too astonishingly the same.

"I love it," said sophomore Meredith Petrov. "They improved the building immensely without destroying the beautiful original plan. If you'd seen or had class in the old Fayerweather, you realize the new building is just incomparably better." Fellow fine arts major Bess Kargman '04 agrees completely. "It's like a Double-Stuff Oreo," she said of her department's new home. "It looks the same from the outside, but once you're in the middle it's twice as good."

And necessarily so, at least according to those who used to learn and teach in the old building. Fayerweather, as it once stood, was hardly conducive to artistic endeavor. "When I first started teaching here, the building was rundown and almost dangerous," said Nicola Courtright, chair of the fine arts department. "It was never properly fitted for what we need to do." Prof. Robert Sweeney agrees. "The biggest improvement has been in the ventilation," he said. "We're not inhaling noxious fumes anymore."

The "new" Fayerweather is, in fact, inspiring awe for its newness alone. It seems hard for some to imagine painting and welding in a place so spic-and-span. "The biggest thing is how clean it is," said fine arts major Todd Smith '03. "It's kind of weird, as an art student, to be working in a clean building!"

But, most importantly, the vast improvements are changing the shape of the classes being taught. Professors and students are going about the process of learning and teaching in better ways. "We're capable of doing things differently. I can have different kinds of things going on at the same time," said Sweeney. "A huge difference is the slide library. It allows for really short-term retrieval of the slides you need. For instance, I can move from my painting class to my next class, grab slides from the library, which is right here, and show them to my class. Having everything together is a great thing." The slides used to be in the Frost Library.

"Limitations that restrict pedagogy are the worst kind," said DeWitt Godfrey, assistant professor of fine arts. "My particular pedagogic philosophy is for students to be working directly with the materials. The new designs make that possible: students can be working on projects while class is being taught. And we have a much more comprehensive setup for metal shop and woodshop. It allows for advanced seminars and more special topics classes. In Sculpture 1, I like to do a welding unit. Before, it was very difficult, but instead of two students who can safely weld at once, which is how it used to be, we can now have five. It allows me to teach the way I want to."

Students are already seeing the difference, even in this first semester in the new building. "The classrooms are so much better equipped," said Petrov. "The studio equipment is better, particularly the photography and sculpture studios, and the classrooms have much better lighting, slide projectors and screens. The changes make it much more comfortable
to learn in."

Students are also learning, according to fine arts major Catherine Davis '03, to relax. "They aren't so different that you'd notice all the time," she said of classes in Fayerweather. "I think there's just—well, they're different in that everyone sees how luxurious it is. You feel very luxurious being there. There's more respect for the building and the space we have. There's an awareness of how nice this building is."

An awareness of the old Fayerweather was something that those involved in designing the remodeled version were meticulous about. Architects could not lose the overall spirit of Fayerweather, which is, by all accounts, an aesthetically beautiful place. In choosing the architect, "we went with someone who was going to renovate the existing building, not someone who was going to impose an alien view on it," Courtright said. "It is the most important historical building on campus."

"They managed to keep the sense of the original building," said Sweeney. "What is truly spectacular is the extra stairway up to the attic. You would never know it wasn't there originally. It looks just like the ones from the old building. That was a tremendous accomplishment. Also, the doors look exactly like the ones in the old building, while still meeting the new fire codes. A lot of good quality millwork was done during this renovation. It is Fayerweather, but a more exquisite version of it."

Godfrey concurred. "Overall, there's a better literal and figurative sense of space. There's room to do what we need to do, instead of accommodating ourselves in lesser space. The old studios we kind of put together piecemeal," he said. "The differences are like night and day."

A renewed sense of feeling appreciated and comfortable at Amherst is what almost all of those interviewed kept coming back to. "The college is finally taking the study of the fine arts seriously, and that's a change that's reflected in the high quality of the building," Petrov said. Kargman commented, "The classrooms are no longer stuffy, and the photo lab is great. I finally feel like the building was made for art."

To Courtright, the idea of reaffirming the legitimacy of the Fine Arts Department itself was very important. "We are as rigorous as the sciences," she said. "Fine Arts is not decorative or lightweight. This is not just an adjunct to learning but a substantive part of academic life, and the building now reflects that. The administration and the Trustees were great about not sacrificing quality for any reason." Davis agreed, perhaps sounding the most contented of all. "The old building—you could tell it wasn't made for art," she said. "It was originally a science building, and they turned it into the art building. Now you can tell that it's for art and that it was built to be that way. It really feels like a home for the art department."

—Rebecca Louick '04

Next: Prof. G. Armour Craig >>

Photo: Frank Ward

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