Architects: Louis Warren Ross
Wheeler House is an approximately 35,000 square-foot student residence hall on the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts. The building is one of nine structures that comprise the Central Residential Area. All nine buildings were designed and constructed between 1940 and 1963, and sited according to a Beaux-Arts formal plan.
Seven of these buildings (Butterfield, Brooks, Van Meter, Greenough, Chadbourne, Baker, and New Africa) were uniformly designed in Georgian Revival style. Wheeler and Brett, which are both sited at the bottom of the hill and constructed last, are less ornate structures and have subtle Art-Deco details. All buildings continue to serve as dormitories in 2008.
The main planning axis of the Central Residential Area is perpendicular to the ridgeline of Clark Hill and extends northeast to southwest. The axis is defined by the center of Van Meter and Baker Houses, with the remaining dormitories sited to the north and south. The bilateral symmetry and duplication of building footprints and appearance only deviates with the location of Butterfield House and the design of Brett House. The spatial relationship of the planning axis is visually reinforced by the central block and cupola of Van Meter House. The steep grade of the overall site was graded to create narrow terraces between the individual structures.
The rectangular building is 4 stories tall with a basement level exposed by a decrease in grade at the west elevation. The structure is generally 15 bays wide by 3 bays deep. The top level of the building is setback to include 11 bays and the tiered composition is reinforced by flat roofs. The basement and foundation are finished with architectural concrete, while the upper stories have common-bond brick veneer with continuous limestone belt courses at the top of the first and second levels.
The façade is defined by a window pattern of primarily double-hung sash accentuated by circular windows at the east elevation to distinguish the entrance bays. The north and south ends of the long elevations are given prominence by a slight wall projection of the far-most 3 bays to express their cubic form. These flanking projections divide the long elevations into three blocks. On the west elevation, basement level building entrances occur at the central bay of each of the three blocks. Each is accentuated with a raised limestone door surround which extends to a window surround at the upper floor. The associated windows also feature decorative wrought-iron railings. These details also occur at the entrance elevations at the first floor on the east elevation. At this elevation the doors are further accentuated with glass transoms.
The Wheeler House site is located on the west side of Infirmary Way opposite the Mills House (New Africa House) with views of the campus to the west. A bituminous concrete parking area with granite curbing is located to the east of the building and bordered by a bituminous concrete sidewalk that connects to concrete steps with handrails leading into the building. A bituminous concrete walk through mown lawn along the west side of the building connects to Thatcher Way. The landscape features regularly spaced, mature deciduous trees planted over lawn along Infirmary Way. Foundation planting around the building includes deciduous shrubs, evergreen shrubs, and perennials. Structures on the site include a concrete retaining wall and concrete block planters. Site furnishings near the building include wooden benches, bike racks, and a stockade fence.
The Clark Hill development grew to be known as the Central Residential Area. The first building of this complex was Butterfield House which was constructed in 1940 to the design of architect Louis Warren Ross, who was a member of the College’s class of 1917. Ross remains the most prolific architect of the campus and was responsible for the design of more than twenty structures, including nearly all the dormitories constructed between 1935 and 1963. This body of work established the Georgian Revival style as a dominant tradition for the residential quadrangles of the campus. However, Ross’s later work for the school also includes the 1956 Student Union, which was designed in a more contemporary modern style.
The Central Residential Area was developed between 1940 and 1959 as a men’s dormitory complex. Buildings in this area included Butterfield House (1940), Greenough House (1946), Chadbourne House (1947), Mills House (New Africa House) (1948), Brooks House (1949), Baker House (1952), Van Meter House (1957), and Wheeler House (1958). The buildings were laid-out in a Beaux-arts style plan with a central axis of symmetry and a distinctive hierarchy of spaces.
Wheeler House was constructed in 1958 on the west side of Infirmary Way, mirroring in scale Mills House (New Africa House). A 1959 campus map shows pedestrian walks providing access to all sides of the building (extant) with vegetation along Clark Hill Road adjacent to the building (no longer extant).Historic images also show sheared evergreen hedges along the eastern façade of the building (no longer extant).
The integrated design of Wheeler House and the other structures of the hillside Central Residential Area is in the tradition of ambitious campus expansion planning of the inter-war and postwar era. In general, the Central Residential Area complex retains a great deal of its landscape integrity, modified by the addition of parking along Infirmary Way, to the east and west of Butterfield House, along the east of Chancellor’s Way, and to the east of Van Meter House. The Y-shaped intersection formed by Chancellor’s Way and Clark Hill Road was removed by 1955 and rerouted to a spur off of Chancellor’s Way located to the east of Greenough House and Chadbourne House that existed since at least 1943. Removal of this portion of Chancellor’s Way enabled the construction of Van Meter House. Many changes in vegetation patterns are the result of new construction, much of which occurred prior to 1959. The loss of foundation planting at Butterfield House, Chadbourne House, Baker House, and Wheeler House, along with the introduction of new foundation planting at Butterfield House, Greenough House, Chadbourne House, Baker House, and Van Meter House has changed vegetation immediately associated with the buildings.
Wheeler House was named for civil engineer William Wheeler (1876-1930) who was a member of the first graduating class of Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1871, and was one of its most prominent alumni of the nineteenth century. In 1876, Wheeler joined MAC President William Smith Clark and two other alumni of the college in helping to found the Sapporo Agricultural College in Japan (now Hokkaido University), succeeding Clark as president of SAP from 1877 to 1879. In later life, he was a successful hydraulic engineer and long-time trustee of MAC (1887-1929).