Architects: Louis Warren Ross
Johnson House is one of ten structures that comprise the Northeast Residential Area of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. These ten buildings were uniformly designed in neo-Georgian style between 1935 and 1959, and laid out in a bilaterally symmetrical site plan surrounding an open grassed area that is known as the Quad (quadrangle).
Johnson House was the last part of the quadrangle to be completed, and was built in 1959 to the design of Louis Warren Ross, the same architect who had done the first building of the quadrangle 24 years earlier. Originally designed as dormitories, the group includes Knowlton House, Arnold House, Hamlin House, Crabtree House, Leach House, Lyon House, Dwight House, Thatcher House, Lewis House and Johnson House. All continue to serve as dormitories in 2008, except for Arnold House, which was converted into offices in 1966.
The main planning axis of the Northeast Residential Area runs northeast-southwest, in a straight line between the central doors of Lewis House and Arnold House. This axis is the center line of the quadrangle’s bilateral symmetry, meaning that the building footprints and appearance of Hamlin, Leach, Dwight and Johnson Houses, located on the north side of the axis, are mirrored by the building footprints and appearance of Knowlton, Crabtree, Lyon and Thatcher Houses on the south side of the axis. The spatial relationship of Lewis House and Arnold House as the anchors of the planning axis is visually reinforced by the cupolas that top these two buildings.
Johnson House is a 3½ story brick neo-Georgian structure with a slate gambrel roof, regularly-spaced hip roof attic dormers with single windows, and paired brick interior chimneys at the northwest and southeast ends of the building. The building is 15 bays wide and three bays deep. It has decorative brick quoins at its corners, a brick water table at its basement level, and brick stringcourses. The windows are wood. Johnson House has a wood dentil cornice at the roofline and within the gable peaks.
The 3-bay wide northwest end elevation has a fully exposed basement, due to the slope of the land, making this end of the building 4 ½ stories. The basement level has a central door at the top of a flight of steps, with two glass panels in the door’s upper half and a 6/1 transom over the doorframe. The door has a 12/12 sash window at either side. The first, second and third stories each contain three evenly spaced sash windows, with 12/12, 8/12 and 8/8 windows, respectively. The attic story of the northwest end elevation includes two oculus windows, flanking a central 8/12 sash window, and a demilune or crescent-shape opening that contains a louvered vent.
The building’s northeast elevation facing Thatcher Way is 15 bays wide and includes two 3-bay wide, front gable, projecting brick portions, which are located near each end of the elevation, set one bay in from the south and north ends of the building. Because of the slope of the land, the part of the basement story at the northwest side of the main door is above ground. The windows in this section of the basement match the first story windows (described below), except that there is no three-part window in the basement of the pedimented projecting portion of the building.
The fenestration on each story of the northeast elevation’s projecting portions consists of a central three-part window with a single window on either side. On the first story, the single windows are 12/12 sash and the three-part windows are comprised of a central 12/12 sash flanked by 6/6 sash. On the second story the single windows are 8/12 sash and the three-part windows are a central 8/12 sash flanked by 4/6 sash. On the third story the single windows are 4/4 sash and the three-part windows are a central 8/8 sash flanked by 4/4 sash. The gable peak has paired 4/6 sash windows with an oculus window to either side.
The 7-bay wide central portion of the northeast elevation, located between these projecting sections, has a central door, which is at the top of a stairway. At either side of the door are one set of paired 12/12 windows and two evenly spaced 12/12 windows. The second and third stories each contain seven windows, consisting of three closely spaced windows at the center and two evenly spaced windows at either end of this section. The first, second and third stories have 12/12, 8/12 and 8/8 windows, respectively. The central section of the attic story has seven dormers that are aligned with the second and third story windows. The dormers have 8/8 windows. The attic story also has a matching dormer on the outer side of each of the projecting gable peaks.
The building’s southwest elevation is 17 bays wide and has the same 3-bay wide, front gable, projecting brick portion layout as the east elevation. The window arrangement in the projecting brick portions and in the end bays is the same as on the northeast elevation, except for the fully above-ground section of the basement, which has evenly spaced 12/12 windows on this elevation.
The southwest elevation’s 9-bay wide central section, located between the projecting pediment sections, has a central door at the top of a stairway. The door is sheltered by a shallow portico that has Ionic columns and a segmental pediment. The door has four 12/12 windows at either side. The second and third stories each have nine evenly spaced windows that are 8/12 and 8/8, respectively. The attic has nine evenly spaced 8/8 hip roof dormer windows above the central section of this elevation and a matching single dormer in the end bays of the building.
Johnson House is located along the west side of Thatcher Way to the north of the Lewis House on a site that slopes from the east to the west. All four sides of Thatcher House are bordered by bituminous concrete pedestrian walks with sets of concrete stairs leading to the building’s entrances. The site to the west of the building consists of a slope with deciduous trees over lawn. At the base of the slope is a mown lawn quadrangle with a mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees. East of the building is Thatcher Way with a lawn area and a heavily wooded/forested area beyond.
By 1933, the University of Massachusetts, then known as the Massachusetts State College, was facing a severe shortage in student housing. Between 1929 and 1933 at the onset of the Great Depression, student enrollment had grown by more than 40 percent, from 862 to 1,220 students, quite unlike periods during earlier depressions when student enrollment had declined. No new dormitories for men had been added to the campus since 1868 and the one campus dormitory for women, Abigail Adams House, was completely filled, which prompted the College to stop enrolling additional women in 1932.
In response to this housing shortage, the College began construction of a dormitory complex at the southeast corner of North Pleasant Street and Eastman Lane, which ultimately consisted of ten neo-Georgian buildings now known as the Northeast Residential Area. The first building of this complex was Thatcher House, which was constructed in 1935 to the design of architect Louis Warren Ross, who was a member of the College’s class of 1917. Ross’s later works for the school include the Student Union, which was constructed in 1956. Ross also designed Johnson House in 1959, which was the last structure of the quadrangle to be completed.
Cary’s 1962 history of the University indicates that the primary reason the College was able to pay for the construction of new buildings in general during the depression of the 1930s was because the Federal government was providing new forms of financial aid at that time, which supplemented more traditional sources of capital improvement funding such as alumni donations. However, the construction of the Northeast Residential Area dormitories was financially made possible through the efforts of the MSC Building Association, a private group that was led by alumnus Alden C Brett (MAC, 1912) and issued bonds to pay for the costs of the construction. This financing was structured in such a way that the dormitories were leased to the MSC Building Association for 20 years, during which time the rent paid by student occupants was used to pay down the bonds. At the end of the 20-year lease, the bonds were to be fully paid and the dormitories were to revert to the State.
What makes Johnson House unusual for its construction date of 1959 is the University’s choice of a neo-Georgian building to complete the dormitory complex in the same style as the one in which it was begun in 1935, by the same architect that designed the complex’s first building. Besides Thatcher House and Johnson House, Ross designed at least five other neo-Georgian buildings of this complex, including Lewis House (1940), Hamlin House (1949), Knowlton House (1949), Crabtree House (1953) and Leach House (1953).
The integrated design of Johnson House and the other structures of the Northeast Residential Area quadrangle is in the tradition of ambitious campus expansion planning of the 1930s. The most notable example of this kind of campus expansion in the neo Georgian style during the 1930s may be President Lowell’s House plan for Harvard. The development of the Northeast Residential Area quadrangle is unusual for the consistent use of neo-Georgian over a long period of time, from 1935 through 1959, in order to complete the quadrangle in a unified style.
Johnson House (1959) was the last building in the north residential area to be completed. The siting of the building completed the eastern edge of the complex by mirroring Thatcher House to the south. The line of symmetry for the complex runs from Lewis House to Arnold House across the open quadrangle (extant). A new bituminous concrete path was added to the quadrangle leading diagonally from Crabtree House to the southern end of Johnson House after 1969. To the east, Thatcher Way retains its historic alignment, arcing along the eastern façade of the buildings that form the edge of the complex and splitting near Lewis House. A comparison of the existing conditions with historic photographs of Johnson House indicates that vegetation immediately surrounding building has changed from the time of its construction. Changes include the introduction of deciduous trees to the slope along the western façade that block formerly prominent views of the building entrance from the quadrangle below and the loss of evergreen shrubs that once framed the principal building entrance on the western façade.
Johnson House was named for Anna McQueston Johnson (1876-1954), who served as a Trustee of the Massachusetts Agricultural College/Massachusetts State College/University of Massachusetts from 1918 to 1954. She was also an author and a member of the College’s Advisory Council for Women from 1921 to 1944.