Amherst Magazine

Walker Hall destroyed by fireThe Acropolis of Amherst College

For almost 100 years, Walker Hall was the landmark at the center of the Amherst College campus. Though it was built to last “for the ages,” the building is no longer with us. The Robert Frost Library now stands on the site.

Amherst College President William A. Stearns called Walker the “Temple of Science” when the cornerstone was laid in 1868. Constructed of Monson granite, Walker Hall was the largest and most elaborate building on campus, housing the recitation room and the scientific departments, as well as the President’s Office, Treasurer’s Vault and Trustees’ Room. It was named posthumously for a friend of the college, Dr. William J. Walker, who contributed $100,000 toward the building fund.

On the night of March 29, 1882, a fire broke out in Walker Hall, destroying not only the building itself, but also most of the Shepard Mineralogical Collection and scientific apparatus. The tragedy was compounded by the fact that the college, expecting Walker to stand for years, had underinsured the building—only about $50,000 of the $200,000 loss (the cost of the building and scientific apparatus) was covered. The April 22, 1882, edition of The Amherst Student reported the peculiar circumstances of the conflagration, which began during a school vacation a few hours after the janitor had applied Crocker’s Solution (a mixture of turpentine and linseed oil) to the building’s floors:

Between 20 and 25 minutes past 10 that evening, [witnesses] saw a column of smoke pouring from the roof of Walker Hall.…The first on the ground...saw that the fire had already attained great headway within...after some delay in getting a hose in readiness, [the fire company] broke open the door.

With the opening of the doors, the wind rushed in, driving the smoke before it.…Fanned by the wind, the flames roared up the interior as up a great chimney; and thenceforth, if not from the very first, there was not the shadow of a hope of saving the building.

Within one week, alumni and other friends of the college pledged enough money to fund the insurance deficit and begin rebuilding Walker Hall. The replacement was constructed on the same site and in the “revised medieval” style of the first building, but using new plans because, in a bizarre coincidence, the original architectural drawings had been lost in a fire in the architect’s New York office. Professor W.S. Tyler 1830 described the new building as “more than ever the archives, the treasure, the capitol, the Acropolis of Amherst College.” 

Walker Hall was razed in 1963 to make way for the new Robert Frost Library. Both its architecture, which some found at odds with the rest of the campus, and the activities within the building, which are neatly summed up in a poem by Rolfe Humphries ’15, explain why, even in memory, Walker can still provoke intense controversy and emotions.

—Daria D’Arienzo, head of Archives and Special Collections