A lift for downtown: Amherst College expands presence with renovated South Pleasant Street building

Last modified: Tuesday, November 26, 2013

AMHERST — From the windows inside Amherst College’s refurbished downtown building there are views of the Town Common, the Lord Jeffery Inn, the Grace Episcopal Church and the brick-faced dormitories that ring the perimeter of the campus.

Given its downtown location at 79 South Pleasant St., college officials wanted its newest administration building to serve as a bridge between town and gown.

“The college really wanted to actively use this as transition space,” said Thomas Davies, assistant director of facilities and director of design and construction.

Originally built as the First Baptist Church in 1835, 79 South Pleasant, as the college is calling it, underwent an extensive, nearly two-year-long renovation that preserved the historical exterior appearance of the building, which is partially clad in Pelham gneiss stone, modernized the interior, and placed a new addition onto the rear.

Inside, the first floor is dedicated to the Five College Center for the Study of World Languages, which had previously been housed in Bartlett Hall on the University of Massachusetts campus.

“We’re excited about them being here because of the international vibe they bring,” Davies said.

The second and third floors are used for Amherst College offices, housing the human resources and public affairs offices, respectively, following their move earlier this month from Converse Hall. The investment office is expected to relocate from College Hall to the first floor at a later date, college spokeswoman Caroline Hanna said.

The college purchased the building in 2008 for $2.3 million from Perry Thompson and Anne Hastings. At that time, it was used by several commercial offices, including three psychotherapists, five psychologists, an attorney and other professionals. The building was also the home of the Fiber Arts Center from 2001 until May 2008.

Straddling old and new

The college’s 2001 master plan advises keeping the core of the campus for education and social life for students and moving some administrative functions to the periphery, and so the building at 79 South Pleasant was eyed for college offices.

Davies said Kuhn-Riddle Architects of Amherst was hired to handle designs and Aquadro & Cerruti of Northampton was contracted to manage the construction. The college is not revealing the project’s costs.

The building now is energy-efficient, Davies said. It has thick insulation inside the walls, 14 inches of spray foam in the attic, an energy recovery ventilation system that ensures that the temperature remains constant and the lighting adequate, and “quad glazing” windows with air spaces between the panes of glass.

“The insulation value of the windows is about what you’d find in the typical wall of a home,” Davies said.

The Pelham gneiss was kept on the building, including in a common area that separates the original building from the addition, where the staircase, elevator and bathrooms are located. The addition intentionally doesn’t blend in with the original, using terra cotta panels for a distinct appearance. “We wanted to highlight the historic against something that is clearly not historic,” Davies said.

Inside, very little of the original church remained, but, Davies said, a tin ceiling, found on the third floor, was restored and now serves as the ceiling in the conference room for the public affairs office.

‘Ideal’ location

The Five College language center has been at its new site for less than two weeks and its employees are still unpacking. But Elizabeth Mazzocco, director of the center and a professor of Italian at UMass, said staff members are excited about the location.

“It’s fabulous to have the new space,” Mazzocco said. “We’re appreciative of Amherst College adopting us.”

The center, which works with students, faculty and others studying 35 less common world languages, had been on the UMass campus for 23 years.

The new space allows smaller classrooms for instruction, an area for showing films and two rooms dedicated to Skype sessions, which link up scholars from across the globe.

Mazzocco said she anticipates more outreach into the community.

The location is ideal, she said, as students from not only Amherst and UMass, but also Smith, Hampshire and Mount Holyoke colleges can take buses right to the front door.

“It’s such a welcoming space right in the middle of things,” Mazzocco said.

Though the building opens onto the Amherst campus, with a sidewalk leading up to the side entrance from nearby dorms, the front features a public rest area with two large benches and a flower bed.

Hanna said the building, occupied now for the first time in four years, will increase foot traffic at the southern end of the South Pleasant Street. Around 40 people are working out of the building. Nearby are restaurants, including La Veracruzana, Fresh Side and Oriental Flavor, along with retail stores such as Hastings, Collective Copies, Art Alive and J. Austin Antiques.

Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tony Maroulis said the renovated building is a “fantastic complement” to the Town Common and could prove to be a boost to businesses.

“This adds one more shot in the arm to Merchants’ Row and keeps it vibrant,” said Maroulis, observing that storefront vacancies on this historic commercial stretch have diminished over the past year.

“Having all these workers downtown will be a nice addition to the workers we have right now,” Maroulis said.

The completion of the work brings to a close a series of projects in the area of the Town Common in recent years that have included the Lord Jeffery Inn, which was shuttered in November 2008 and reopened following a $14 million renovation in January 2012, and the reconstruction of Spring Street between South Pleasant and Churchill streets finished last summer.


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