On Feb. 13, the midnight atmosphere of Amherst College shuffled back and forth from anxiety and fear to disbelief and joy as emergency emails notified the students that classes located in Johnson Chapel were canceled due to “extensive flooding.”
The abrupt email, followed by a subsequent, more detailed one, informed the campus community of a burst pipe in Johnson Chapel on Sunday, which caused severe water damage to parts of the building. All faculty and staff residing within the chapel were quickly relocated to temporary office spaces on campus as inspection and restoration of the building promptly went underway.
Built in 1827, Johnson Chapel has been — and still remains — a favorite building for a multitude of students roaming about campus. Standing erect, the chapel is recognized as the centerpiece not only for College Row, but for all of Amherst College. Today, it serves as a house for over 27 faculty offices (including the English Department Office), a place for worship on Sundays and a bastion for the “Worthies”.
While the solemn portraits of the former College presidents had not been damaged, the flooding, concentrated mainly on the west side of the building, did ravage heavily the walls and ceilings of Johnson Chapel. Contrary to popular belief, the burst pipe was not caused by the erratic drop in temperature on Sunday, but rather as a result of the Chapel’s age. The nails which held together the plaster ceiling in room 30E (office of Women’s and Gender Studies Professor Krupa Shandilya) had loosened, causing the ceiling to collapse and fall into the sprinkler pipe. Fortunately, this triggered the alarm system, eliciting swift response.
“The water level was probably about a foot high in some places,” said Ralph, one of the workers on site. “It was leaking through the floors and through the ceilings. The chapel itself wasn’t damaged very much, [but] some of the rooms were. They’ll need new walls, new rugs.”
Though loose nails seem to be a careless thing to overlook, they were in fact quite hard to detect. Many older buildings on campus go through infrastructural inspections regularly; workers on site for the restoration have even noted that some pipes in the chapel have been recently updated. Check-ups on the building had shown that the structural integrity of the chapel was sound, and unless they are quite obvious, nuances such as individual ceiling nails are difficult to discover.
The College has hired three main companies to tackle three components of the overhauling: Aquadro & Cerutti as the general contractor for reconstruction; Sitterly Movers to vacate and relocate items into storage; and Polygon Company, which specializes in document recovery and restoration. Using an industrial strength dehumidifier, recognizable as the titanic blue tubing that protrudes out of the chapel window, the Polygon Company blow dries the parts of the chapel that retained the most moisture. Areas that are too saturated to dry fully will be replaced to minimize mold and bacteria growth, which would make the air quality a health hazard.
Much of the English Department has been moved to the Robert Frost Library, where professors have set up temporary offices in order to maintain smoothly operating office hours. Professor Judith Frank described the situation as a general feeling of “disorientation and dislocation,” especially as the new semester was just beginning to pick up.
“Everybody’s daily routine has now changed; we’d gotten into the swing of the semester, and now, getting things done is just a little harder than it was before,” Frank said.
Important documents and books from various offices are being transferred to a restoration facility in Chicago, where they will undergo a three-month-long freeze-dry process. Professor Andrew Parker, whose office was one of those that sustained the most damage, was not too optimistic about seeing them again.
“Most of the important things — course materials and books — were not damaged. My laptop was not in my office at the time, luckily. Nothing was lost that wasn’t replaceable,” Parker said.
According to Professor Parker, with the majority of the teaching materials salvaged, classes originally held outside Johnson Chapel by professors who were affected by the flooding remained largely the same — only slightly more disorganized.
On a brighter side, the large-scale renovations will provide the College and faculty an opportunity to redecorate the interior. New carpeting in Johnson Chapel has been long overdue; everywhere the carpets, both wet and dry, were stripped from the floors of the edifice, in preparation for replacement. Some professors have also commented that an air-conditioning system should be installed, as well. Moreover, the College has taken this flooding as a caution sign and is prepared for the future assessment of each ceiling on every building on campus.
Despite the ruffling experience, the consensus among the displaced faculty was overwhelming gratitude towards College staff. The Frost staff, the IT department and individuals, such as Police Chief John Carter and Capital Projects Manager of Facilities Peter Root, were all held in the highest esteem for their efforts in coordinating this multifaceted response process and minimizing inconvenience.