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College Row

Painting class.
Prof. Robert T. Sweeney, second from right, teaches a painting class in a new studio at Fayerweather.

The discreet new charm of Fayerweather Hall

Fayerweather Hall, the landmark campus building that aged gracefully over the past 100 years, has now been gracefully rejuvenated, providing the college's fine arts department with attractive new office, classroom and studio spaces.

The classic, brick Renaissance Revival structure, designed as a chemistry and physics building in the 1890s by the famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, reopened in February after eight months and $11-million worth of renovation. The project has been faithful to Fayerweather's fine exterior design and handsome interiors, honoring both while upgrading the building's mechanical systems and meeting modern code requirements.

Doing it wasn't easy. For one thing, the heating, cooling and ventilation systems required nowadays for lab and studio buildings are so complex and bulky that great chunks of equipment are often placed on rooftops, where they roost as glaring steel and aluminum eyesores. Initially, planners thought they might have to violate the preservation impulse and do this to Fayerweather.

No way, President Gerety said. And the preservation architect of the project, Christopher Tavener, agreed. A specialist with the firm of Einhorn Yaffee Prescott of Albany, N.Y., Tavener recalled recently: "The president said no. And he was right." Fayerweather was one of the first college buildings designed by McKim, Mead & White, and many critics regard it as the architectural jewel of Amherst. Disfigurement of such a landmark would have been sacrilege.

It required difficult sleight of hand, though, to disguise the potential eyesores. The Albany architects solved the problem by concealing rooftop mechanical systems in a dormer and false chimneys that blend in with the original building; and they hid the largest equipment in the attic.

The architects noted in a preliminary report that the former science building was otherwise ideal for conversion to an art building: "The large lab spaces and generous natural lighting at Fayerweather provide a remarkably good fit for the fine arts program," they reported. "Most studio and classroom needs can be accommodated within the original plan without the need for major structural or architectural changes."

That was good news for preservationists, and architect Tavener takes pleasure in describing ways that his firm and the contractors—Aquadro & Cerruti, Inc., of Northampton, Mass., and others—respected the building's history and original features.

"In the attic we found a lot of original windows and doors, and they were all re-used," he said. "Also, wherever we had new windows, or non-original windows, we tried to get back to original glazing. Eighty-five to 90 percent of the glass is original."

Experts did historical paint analyses and matched the earliest colors, such as the off-whites for the exterior window trim and interior hallways. "And we tried not to obliterate other signs of the past," Tavener continued. "If you put in an entire new floor, it's just new, and the charm of the old material disappears. In the old chemistry labs, we deliberately told them not to take up the acid stains on the old wooden floors."

Contractors had to replace the original stair treads of black slate that were a distinctive feature of the 108-year-old building. They installed new treads to match, and Tavener said wistfully, "It's almost too well done, because people might think they were original." (Such are the torments of the perfectionist.)

Workmen concealed electrical conduits by snaking them through a two-story chute once used for physics experiments. Sprinkler pipes were run through a dumbwaiter shaft.

On the outside of the building, Tavener said, "the palette of materials, as a set, is particularly well-considered and appealing." McKim, Mead & White combined a pink-orange brick and matching mortar with accents of terra cotta ornamentation, sandstone, and pink granite. Although one of the original architects, William Mead, was an Amherst graduate (1867), Tavener believes the principal designer of Fayerweather was Mead's partner Charles F. McKim, who had worked earlier with the great 19th-century Boston architect H. H. Richardson. Richardson had used terra cotta features with dramatic effect in his Boston masterpiece, Trinity Church at Copley Square. Tavener also noted that Norcross Bros. of Worcester, Mass., the firm hired to build Fayerweather, was the same that built Trinity.

A historical sleuth, Tavener learned that the original construction of Fayerweather fell far behind schedule; and he found "hints that the builder took a few short cuts toward the end to make up lost time." There is evidence for instance that faulty terra cotta was installed in obscure areas of the cornice at the top of the building; apparently Norcross didn't want to wait for replacements.

In the spirit of preservation, Einhorn Yaffee Prescott made sure that a few of the most damaged terra cotta elements were replaced with new terra cotta that matched.

McKim, Mead & White are noted for their many grand public buildings including the Boston Public Library and New York City's Pennsylvania Station. Tavener thought any new features in the renovation project should respect their work. When two new industrial-looking columns were needed for a modest portico at the back entrance to Fayerweather, he decided to salute the original architects by modeling these elements on steel lattice-work columns McKim, Mead & White had designed for Penn Station.

Next: Fayerweather friends >>

Photo: Frank Ward

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