Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project

 

 
Octagon

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Institution Name: Amherst College
Original/Historic Place Name: Woods Cabinet and Lawrence Observatory
Location on Campus:
Date(s) of Construction:
1847-1848original construction Sykes, Henry A.
1855addition of Ninevah Gallery and geology lecture room
1934-1935remodel of second floor
Designer: Henry A. Sykes (Springfield, MA)
Type of Place: Individual building
Style: Italianate (Glossary)
Significance: architecture, culture, education
Narrative: see below
References: see below
Materials:
Foundation: stone rubble
Walls: brick covered with stucco (wood frame for floors)
Roof: standing seam metal (tin maybe originally), and wood frame
 
Function:
ca. 1848museum (Woods Cabinet--housed scientific collections of minerals, fossils, insects, zoological and botanical specimens)
ca. 1848academic department building (astronomy)
ca. 1848observatory (housed telescopes)
1855museum (Ninevah Gallery--a group of large Assyrian reliefs dating from the 9th century)
ca. 1908academic department building (housed music and dramatics)
ca. 2004-present (2006)other (meeting room for readings, lectures, etc.)
ca. 2004-present (2006)other (Black Cultural Center)
 

Narrative:
The Woods Cabinet and Lawrence Observatory, also know as "the Octagon," was the first building on campus specifically dedicated to the study of science. The project was initiated by College President Edward Hitchcock, who felt that rectangular brick buildings were not aesthetically pleasing and directed the architect, Henry Sykes of Springfield, MA, to make both the Observatory and the Cabinet octagonal in form. Sykes, who also designed the Morgan Library and the Appleton Cabinet, was the first professional architect employed by the college. The design is based upon Orson Squire Fowler's (class of 1834) recommended octagonal mode.

The Cabinet housed extensive scientific collections, ranging from minerals and fossils to insects, botanical, and geological specimens. These collections often rivaled those at Harvard. They were open to the public and attracted many visitors, and of course they were used in teaching as well. The science faculty at this time included Charles Upham Shepard (1845-1877), who collected minerals and rocks, Charles Baker Adams (1847-1853), who collected mollusks, and President Hitchcock himself (1825-1864), who collected fossils, including dinosaur footprints.

In 1855 additions were made for a geology lecture room and for the Ninevah Gallery, which displayed a group of large Assyrian relief tablets dating from the 9th century. Since 1908, the building has been put to a variety of uses, including housing the Music Department, the Black Cultural Center, faculty and other meetings.

The Babbott Room, a 1934-1935 remodeling of the second floor of the Woods Cabinet, was designed by architect James Kellum Smith (class of 1915) of McKim, Mead & White. With its spiral staircase and gallery, it is perhaps the most distinguished meeting room on campus. It is named for Frank Lusk Babbott, a very generous donor over many years.
 

References:

Lawrence Observatory [Amherst College]. Historic American Building Survey report and photographs. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service, 1988.

Fowler, Orson Squire. A Home for All: Or, the Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building. New York: Fowler and Wells, 1854.

Hitchcock, Charles H. The Visitor's Guide to the Public Rooms and Cabinets of Amherst College with a Preliminary Report, 2nd ed. Amherst, MA: Amherst College, 1868.

Hitchcock, Edward. Reminiscences of Amherst College, Historical Scientific, Biographical and Autobiographical: also, of Other and Wider Life Experiences. Northampton, MA: Bridgman & Childs, 1863.

King, Stanley. The Consecrated Eminence: the Story of the Campus and Buildings of Amherst College. Amherst, MA: Amherst College, 1951.

O'Connell, Kristin T. The Octagon [Amherst College]. Inventory report. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Commission, 2000.

Sears, Robert. A Pictorial Description of the United States, Embracing the History, Geographical Position, Agricultural and Mineral Resources, Populations, Manufactures, Commerce and Sketches of Cities, Towns, Public Buildings, etc., etc., Interspersed with Revolutionary and Other Interesting Incidents Connected with the Early Settlement of the Country. Boston: John A. Lee, 1873.

Turner, Paul Venable. Campus: An American Planning Tradition. New York: Architectural History Foundation; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.

 

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Last update: November 2006