The development of the Cliff Estates is a subject that’s been written about many times over the years. And in each of these narratives, there’s only a brief mention, if any, of Rock Ridge Hall, a private school located on Cliff Road during the early 1900s. That, of course, made me curious. Were details about the school lost to history? Or was it too insignificant to write about? Turns out, much of the school’s history wasn’t lost. It was just scattered and difficult to piece together. But that doesn’t mean that the school wasn’t an important part of the story.
Before I try to reconstruct the history of Rock Ridge Hall, I need to give a brief overview of the earliest development of the Cliff Estates so that you have a good understanding of the geography of the area at the time that the school opened. So let’s start with Albion Robert Clapp — the “Father of the Cliff Estates.” When Clapp bought the 15-acre Ayling farm (now known as 11 Cliff Road) in 1867, the street extended only as far as the current location of Garden Road. All the land north to the Weston town line and west to Weston Road was part of the Hundreds Woods. Over the next decade, Clapp began acquiring some of this land, but it wasn’t until the late 1870s that he began developing part of it. The first houses built were on the east side of Chestnut Street (which was the original name of the lower stretch of Cliff Road). This was in part to avoid building on the steep hill that gives Cliff Road its name. Clapp soon, however, carved into that hill and extended Cliff Road further north. By 1897, he had built nearly twenty houses in the vicinity of Cliff Road:
It was at the northern edge of this development that George Rantoul White established Rock Ridge Hall. An 1886 Harvard graduate and former chemistry teacher at Phillips Exeter, White had long dreamed of running his own school. But the opportunity didn’t present itself until 1899 when he married Albion Clapp’s daughter, Irma May Clapp, and was given five acres of land on Cliff Road on the day of their wedding. Although the details regarding the construction of the school’s campus are a bit unclear, it seems most likely that the main building (known as Rock Ridge Hall) was built that fall or the following spring. During that time, White actually was on an extended honeymoon in Europe where he was able to study several prominent English preparatory schools as he laid the groundwork for Rock Ridge.
The year 1899 was also when White’s father died and that may have given him another reason to start his own school in Wellesley. At the time, his parents were in the process of constructing their own house at 41 Chestnut Street across from the home of their daughter and George’s sister, Mary Hawthorne (White) Bunker, at 46 Chestnut Street. It seems probable then that White would have relocated there as well to care for his mother and younger brother, Edward, who was still a student and who would later prepare for Harvard at Rock Ridge under his older brother’s tutelage.
Rock Ridge Hall opened in October of 1900. Although the first class had only eight students, the school’s enrollment quickly grew to seven-five by 1906. This increase was no doubt a testament to White’s strong abilities as headmaster. He had created an elite private school that was extremely successful preparing students for college — in particular, Harvard — but also provided the education needed to enter a scientific school or business career. It’s no surprise then that Rock Ridge attracted students from throughout the United States as well as foreign countries such as China and Japan. Even Booker T. Washington, a leading proponent of education, sent his own son there. (Booker Jr., however, was quite a troublemaker and not interested in academics, and soon transferred to the Wellesley School for Boys on Linden Street.)
In addition to the high school, a small preparatory program for boys of grammar school age, known as the Hawthorne School, was added in 1904. These younger students were housed across the street from Rock Ridge Hall in a large dormitory known as Hawthorne House. Collectively, the two schools were known as the Rock Ridge School.
The Rock Ridge campus also included an industrial arts shop, a large gymnasium, a swimming pool, bowling alleys, tennis courts, a baseball field and, of course, Rockridge Pond. An additional dormitory, Gray House, was added around 1912. The following map shows the extent of the Rock Ridge campus in relation to the modern geography. Note that Hawthorne House and Gray House still stand at 54 Cliff Road and 25 Hawthorne Road, respectively.
Unfortunately, this map doesn’t give you an appreciation for the imposing presence of Rock Ridge Hall. As its name suggests, the main building sat on top of a rocky precipice. This, of course, was the perfect location for the centerpiece of the campus. However, this site would be problematic when a fire (caused by a defective flue) broke out on the top floor of the main building in 1911. Initially, Wellesley’s firefighters were unable to fight the flames because the water pressure was too low at the top of the hill. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Newton Fire Department — which was far better equipped — that the fire was extinguished and Rock Ridge Hall was saved from total destruction. Fortunately, nobody was injured. But the students, whose living quarters were on the upper floors, lost most of their personal possessions. The damaged portion of Rock Ridge Hall was quickly rebuilt and the school soon reopened.
Despite the rebuilding of Rock Ridge Hall, the school did not stay open very much longer. In 1915, White retired and sold the entire campus to Mary S. Nichols, who used the former school as a seasonal resort and boarding house. Unfortunately, it must not have been profitable because she was foreclosed upon in 1925. The property was then broken up and sold the following year. Although Hawthorne House and Gray House were converted into single family residences, the rest of the school’s buildings, including Rock Ridge Hall, were torn down. Over a dozen large dwellings were built in their place, which included the Rockridge Road development.
So even though there are very few visual reminders of the Rock Ridge School, its brief history is an important part of the story about the development of the Cliff Estates. It is also another example of the high value that Wellesley places on education. Schools like Rock Ridge, Dana Hall, Wellesley College, the Babson Institute, and even the early public schools made Wellesley into the desirable community that still exists today. Why Rock Ridge School was forgotten about for so long is beyond me.
- Norfolk County Registry of Deeds
- Wellesley Historical Commission files: #15-17 Chestnut Street; #21 Chestnut Street; #41 Chestnut Street; #46 Chestnut Street; #5 Cliff Road; #11 Cliff Road; #34 Cliff Road
- Needham Map of 1876
- Wellesley Atlas of 1897
- Wellesley Townsman: 11 May 1906; 5 October 1906; 31 March 1911; 26 November 1915; 30 April 1926; 14 May 1926; 11 June 1926; 22 July 1948; 19 August 1954; 24 May 1956; 4 June 1981
- Boston Evening Transcript: 15 September 1906
- Secretary’s Report by Harvard College, Class of 1886 (1907)
- The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, Volume 16 (1908)
- Munsey’s Magazine, Volume 39 (1908)
- Who’s Who in New England, Volume 1 by Albert Nelson Marquis (1909)
- New York Times: 26 March 1911
- Cosmopolitan, Volume 53 by Schlicht & Field (1912)
- Secretary’s Third Report by Harvard College, Class of 1908 (1920)
- My Valuable Time: The Story of Paul Bridgman Boyd by Amy Sherman Bridgman (1938)
- Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915 by Louis R. Harlan (1983):
- Find a Grave: George Rantoul White
Additional images which might be of interest — from The Country Calendar, Volume 1 (1905):