(Apologies for not posting recently. I was working on five different posts, none of which came together easily. If you’d like to be notified by email when I write a new post, enter your email address into the widget to the right.)
Just a few weeks ago, the School Committee approved a plan proposed by the new Wellesley Superintendent of Schools to suspend K-3 enrollment at Hardy Elementary School through the end of the school year. Overcrowding at Hardy had become too much of a problem. And now, as the School Committee tries to figure out a solution — most likely, redistricting — I’m sure that the Town is regretting closing and selling several elementary school buildings during the 1970s and 1980s. At its peak, there were twelve elementary schools in Wellesley: Bates, Fiske, Hardy, Hunnewell, Schofield, Sprague, Upham, Brown, Kingsbury, Perrin, Phillips, and Warren. The first seven are the only schools still open. Perrin and Phillips no longer stand, Brown and Kingsbury are condos, and Warren is occupied by the Recreation and Health Departments.
So what better time to bring the history of one of these closed schools back into the limelight? Remind the Town exactly what it lost over three decades ago. Let’s start with the Seldon L. Brown Elementary School, a charming little schoolhouse on Garden Road that opened in 1924.
Brown School was one of four elementary schools that opened in a span of only fourteen months between September 1923 and October 1924. At the time, Wellesley was in the midst of the largest population boom in the town’s history — from 1920 to 1930, Wellesley’s population grew from 6,000 to 11,000, a near doubling in only one decade. The five existing elementary schools (Hunnewell, Phillips, North, Fiske, and the Fells School) were bursting at their seams. Forty students in each class was not uncommon. In a remarkable feat of efficiency, the Town was able to develop and approve plans for the four new school buildings within months of taking up the issue. Construction began immediately. The first school to open was Hardy in September 1923, followed by Kingsbury in January 1924, Sprague in September 1924, and Brown in October 1924.
For the first six weeks of the 1924-25 school year, before construction of the Brown schoolhouse was complete, ninety students attended class in the gymnasium of Rock Ridge Hall, a former private school on the site of Rockridge Road. These students had been kicked out of their old classrooms at Phillips School in order to accommodate the growing junior high school population (who shared the same building). Although the temporary facilities were adequate at first, the old gym failed to keep the children warm as the temperature dropped. Even the installation of a new electric heating system didn’t help. Finally, when Brown School was completed in late October, the students and their teachers left their makeshift classrooms with their books and personal belongings and marched along a wooded path (that would become Lanark Road) to their new school.
The new schoolhouse must have been a sight for sore eyes. And what a sight, indeed. Brown more closely resembled a mansion than an elementary school, its design inspired by English manors constructed during the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods. This unique schoolhouse — with its multi-gabled roof, decorative finials, stone mullion windows, and tall chimneys — was designed by noted architect and Wellesley resident, William Hungerford Brainerd, who (unlike most builders in Wellesley today) appreciated the value that a beautiful building adds to a neighborhood and community.
So who was Seldon L. Brown? Better known as “Pa” Brown by the entire Wellesley community, Seldon Lester Brown was the principal of Wellesley High School from 1886 to 1916, as well as the Latin teacher (and occasionally math and civics teacher). A gifted and passionate instructor, Brown had a habit of flipping the switch that controlled the school’s clocks in order to prolong the school day a few extra minutes. He was also deeply invested in the success of the high school’s athletic teams and was one of their greatest supporters. Outside of school, Brown was active in town government, served as president of the Wellesley Club, and was a trustee of the Wellesley Free Library for twenty years. It is, therefore, no surprise that the new elementary school was named for Brown. Attaching his name to the Garden Road schoolhouse was also fitting because Brown resided nearby at 22 Colburn Road and even owned land that became part of the school grounds.
Brown School was K-6 until 1975 when it became one of three grade 5-6 schools. In 1981, fifty-seven years after first opening its doors, Brown closed as a result of declining enrollment and Proposition 2 ½. The schoolhouse was sold by the Town two years later to a developer (for only $350,000!) and converted into the Garden Close condominiums.
Now, in 2013, as Wellesley struggles with overcrowded elementary schools, I’m sure the School Committee wishes it had more vacant schools to help alleviate the problem. Perhaps the Town should have realized thirty years ago that some cost-cutting decisions can’t be undone.
- Norfolk County Registry of Deeds
- Our Town: November 1903
- Who’s Who in Pennsylvania: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporaries, Volume 1 (1909)
- Town Annual Report: 1913, 1914
- Wellesley Townsman: 21 July 1922; 23 March 1923; 15 June 1923; 7 September 1923; 23 November 1923; 25 January 1924; 20 June 1924; 12 September 1924; 3 October 1924; 10 October 1924; 24 October 1924; 31 October 1924; 4 May 1934; 18 February 1943; 17 November 1949; 28 August 1975; 29 January 1981; 3 September 1981; 14 April 1983; 21 February 2013