(Note: This is a long post.)
One of my biggest regrets in life — please don’t laugh — is that I didn’t get involved in the debate over the preservation of the 1938 High School. I was off at college and grad school and by the time I returned to Wellesley in 2010, the matter was settled. The Town had voted to tear down the old high school and construct a new one.
Had I been in Wellesley during this time, I would have tried to contribute what I felt was missing from the public debate: the story of Wellesley High School. Any fight to preserve a building must focus on the people affiliated with it and the impact that the structure has had on the community. If you concern yourself with just the bricks and mortar, then only the architecture wonks are going to care.
But to be quite honest, I don’t think this contribution would have changed the outcome. It was clear that a very, very long time had passed since the townspeople had really thought about the importance and symbolism of the 1938 High School. How else can you explain the mishmash of additions and the school’s poor upkeep over the years?
This post, therefore, is probably a few years — actually more like a few decades — too late. But I hope that it can provide a few lessons. First, if you build something that you’re proud of, don’t forget that feeling and bastardize it later on down the road. And second, if you don’t know the history of a particular building or house, that doesn’t mean that it’s unimportant. Although ignorance may expedite the decision-making process, you can end up looking quite foolish when everyone realizes what was lost.
So what exactly was lost when the 1938 High School was razed last year? Well, more than just seventy-four years of memories. When that building was constructed, it served as a symbol for the evolution of Wellesley High School from a single classroom with a few dozen students and only one teacher to one of the leading secondary institutions in the Commonwealth.
How the high school got to that point is a rather complex story. In fact, to fully understand it, I need to discuss the development of secondary education in Massachusetts, a subject that I realize may not be of great interest to very many people. So I’ve tried to keep it brief and narrowed two centuries of history into four bullet points (with a little bit of expanded commentary).
Chapter 1: The (Incomplete) History of Secondary Education in Massachusetts
- In 1647, Massachusetts passed a law that required towns with more than 100 families to establish a central grammar school.
This wasn’t the kind of grammar school that you’re probably thinking about. It wasn’t a K-8 school, but rather a “Latin grammar school” that only taught Latin, Ancient Greek, and maybe some English. Its only objective was to prepare boys for college, specifically Harvard (whose sole requirement for admission up until 1807 was the ability to read and speak both Latin and Greek). If you didn’t have plans to go to Harvard, you probably didn’t attend grammar school.
But that doesn’t mean that you skipped school entirely. An additional requirement of this law was that “every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to the number of fifty householders shall then forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read…” In other words, boys and girls — even those lads who didn’t intend to go to grammar school — were at least given the opportunity to learn how to read and write.
- Nearly a century and a half later, in 1789, it was mandated that all Massachusetts towns create school districts so that children living in rural areas far from town centers could receive an education.
This was the first real attempt to establish what became the modern public school system in terms of both inclusiveness and content. All children were now given the opportunity to receive at least a crude formal education: reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and arithmetic. But there wasn’t much in the way of secondary education. Once you matriculated through the district school, if you lived far from a Latin grammar school (or were a girl), then that was it.
- Not too long after the 1789 law went into effect, private academies replaced Latin grammar schools as the primary option for secondary schooling. These academies — many of them coed — offered a comprehensive education not provided by the district or Latin grammar schools.
It seems that people finally realized that receiving a well-rounded education — not just English, Latin, and Greek, but also subjects like music, logic, and declamation — was beneficial even if you weren’t planning on attending college. The only problem was that many of these private academies accepted only boarding students. Any boy or girl who was needed at home couldn’t attend. So the completion of the district school curriculum still marked the end of formal education for most children.
- In 1821, the first public high school was established: the English Classical School in Boston.
The increasing popularity of the private academies had made it clear to city and state leaders that the old form of public secondary education — Latin grammar schools — was antiquated. There was a clear benefit of and demand for a comprehensive secondary education. Therefore, in 1827, Massachusetts required that all towns of 500 families or more establish their own high schools. The rest is history.
So given this lesson in the development of the modern school system in Massachusetts, how does it all relate to the establishment of Wellesley High School?
Chapter 2: The (More Thorough But Still Incomplete) History of Secondary Education in Wellesley, Pre-1865
Prior to 1789 — when the creation of school districts became state law — education in Wellesley was pretty simple. A paid town citizen taught children how to read and write. That’s it. More often than not, these lessons were held in private homes, but there is record of a few very primitive schoolhouses around town at different times — one on Church Street, another on Linden Street. There was even a “traveling school” that was literally moved — probably by animal — between the small clusters of people spread throughout Wellesley.
But as for secondary education, let’s face it. Wellesley was a poor and sparsely populated farming community. The children who lived here probably received no secondary education whatsoever. Although there was a Latin grammar school in Dedham — to which Wellesley belonged until 1711 — it’s unlikely that any children from what is now Wellesley attended. Unlike our town today, getting into Harvard wasn’t on anyone’s radar.
It probably goes without saying then that the 1789 law marked a significant change in our town’s public school system. Over the following few years, two schoolhouses were built in town: ‘West’ near Wellesley Square and ‘North’ on the site of Warren Elementary School near Lower Falls — both named so because they were in the western and northern sections of what was then Needham. A third school was added around 1854 in Wellesley Hills on the eastern corner of Washington and Forest Streets, and then a fourth — now the Fells Branch Library — was built in 1858.
But none of these district schools offered advanced education beyond the primary and grammar levels. (Now, I’m using ‘grammar’ in the conventional sense.) If you wanted to continue on in school, the only real option was to attend a private academy, of which most, if not all, were far from Wellesley. That changed, however, in 1854, when Nathaniel Topliff Allen established the West Newton English and Classical School, the first private high school in the area that accepted day students (including girls).
Well, to be more precise, there was one other option for students — specifically girls — who desired advancing training that actually predates the founding of the West Newton English and Classical School. And that was the Normal School of Cyrus Peirce. Not technically a high school, the Normal School was where aspiring teachers of the primary and grammar levels learned their craft, practicing their instructional skills on classes of students at the affiliated Model School (which was basically a primary and grammar school that only had student-teachers).
Founded in 1839 in Lexington, Peirce’s Normal School — the first such school in the country — had moved in 1844 to the same house on Webster Street in West Newton where Nathaniel Allen would later establish his English and Classical School. The Normal School proved so successful that nine years later, in 1853, it moved once again, this time to Framingham. That freed up the space for Allen — who had been the head of the Model School — to open his own private school. (The Framingham Normal School has since evolved into Framingham State University.)
Chapter 3: The (Even More Thorough But Still Most Definitely Incomplete) History of Secondary Education in Wellesley, 1865-1938
In order to make this as simple as possible, I’ve broken down the history of Wellesley High School into four distinct periods:
- Year One (1865)
- The Early Years (1866 – 1885)
- The Seldon Brown and Marshall Perrin Era (1886 – 1916)
- The Evolution into a Modern High School (1917 – 1938)
Year One (1865):
The details regarding the founding of Wellesley High School — then known as ‘Needham High School, West Division’ or simply ‘West High School’ — are a tad bit unclear. It could have been that Needham reached the 500 family threshold that would have forced the town to establish its own high school. Or maybe it felt compelled to do so because several of the surrounding cities and towns — Newton, Natick, and Framingham to name a few — had recently opened their own high schools. Regardless, the members of the 1864 Annual Town Meeting voted to establish the Needham High School. Well…actually they voted to establish two high schools — one in the more populous eastern half of town (now Needham) and another in the western half (now Wellesley).
And so in April of 1865, just over 30 of Wellesley’s brightest students — hand-picked from the district schools — met in Wellesley Hills at Maugus Hall, a former storage shed that had been used during the 1834 construction of the Boston & Worcester Railroad before its conversion into a social hall. As you can imagine, this pseudo-schoolhouse was a far cry from what we have today. The only “teaching tools” were a platform that had been erected at the far end of the hall on which the principal (and only teacher), David Smith Farnham — a recent graduate of Amherst College — lectured, as well as a 12’x12’ recitation room in the cellar. Nevertheless, the first term seemed to go well. Farnham was quite a capable teacher and the students seemed to really like him.
The second term also went smoothly. This time, however, the high school met on the second floor of Waban Hall (on the current site of the Waban Block at the southeast corner of Washington and Grove Streets in Wellesley Square), a move made as part of an arrangement where the high school would alternate locations (one term at a time) between Wellesley Hills and Wellesley Square so as not to favor one part of town over the other. The only drawback to this plan was that each term, the entire contents of the school — books, chairs, desks, etc. — had to be transported back and forth between these two locations. Not an easy task when all you had were horses and wagons.
The Early Years (1866 – 1885):
In the two decades between 1866 and 1885, Wellesley High School made huge strides forward, most obviously with regards to its schoolhouse and facilities. Neither Maugus Hall nor Waban Hall — which the High School alternated between through 1869 — were meant to be schools. They just provided the space needed to fit a few dozen students.
It wasn’t until 1870 that the high school held its first classes in a dedicated schoolhouse — the brand new Hunnewell School, located on the triangular lot bounded by Central Street, Weston Road, and Cross Street. But even then, the high school had to share the three-story building with the primary and grammar levels. This held true even after the high school moved yet again, in 1875, this time to the newly constructed Shaw School on the eastern corner of Washington and Forest Streets. It was, however, a markedly better facility than either Maugus Hall or Waban Hall.
Progress was less steady, however, when it came to the principals. Although Farnham was great, others were god-awful. And since the principals were the only teachers during those earliest years, the success of the school depended almost entirely on their capabilities.
Just check out this list of principals of the high school (up through 1941). What should really be striking is the inexperience of the principals in the top half of the list compared to those at the bottom.
1865-1866: David Smith Farnham (born 1834 — Amherst ‘64)
1866-1867: Thomas Wright Hale Hussey (born 1836 — Bowdoin ‘63)
1867-1869: George Francis Robinson (born 1843 — Harvard ‘66)
1869: Amos Bancroft Putnam (born 1846 — Amherst ‘69)
1869-1871: Charles Abraham Cole (born 1847 — Bowdoin ‘69)
1871-1874: Joseph Hale Noyes (born 1825 — honorary degree from Bowdoin ‘71)
1874-1875*: Julia Frances Jennings (born 1849/50 — Mount Holyoke ‘70)
1874-1876*: Charlotte E. Cameron (born 1849/50 — Framingham Normal School ‘68)
1876-1879: Charles Everett Washburn (born 1850/51 — Cornell ‘76)
1879-1881: Louis Emil Denfeld (born 1854 — Amherst ‘78)
1881-1886: Frederick Orin Baston (born 1852 — Bowdoin ‘75)
1886-1916: Seldon Lester Brown (born 1856 — Wesleyan ‘79)
1916-1917: Joseph Albert Davis (born 1882 — Bowdoin ‘08)
1917-1919: Carl Bradlee Wetherell Jr. (born 1886 — Harvard ‘08)
1919-1930: George Holley Gilbert Jr. (born 1892 — Dartmouth ‘14)
1930-1941: Ralph Warner Proctor (born 1900 — Tufts ‘21)
*Believed to have been co-principals from 1874-75
Two principals on this list warrant a special mention due to their inept abilities: Hussey — known simply as “yellow-beard” to the students — and Putnam — with “his kid gloves, a tall hat, and his constant threat to punish somebody if he (or she) didn’t obey.” In fact, Putnam nearly derailed the entire high school experiment after his poor teaching and classroom management caused a number of students to drop out never to return.
It’s also worth noting the interesting choice to appoint Julia Jennings and Charlotte Cameron (the only Wellesley natives on this list) as principals. After all, unlike their predecessors, both had been grammar school teachers (in Wellesley) before moving up to the high school level. Their familiarity with the students, however, may have made up for their lack of a strong academic training. But their tenure as principals would only last a few years — when Charles Washburn was named head of the high school in 1876, Cameron returned to teaching at the grammar school and Jennings left to teach in Connecticut (but would later return to serve for over two decades as the first librarian of the Wellesley Free Library.
By 1885, the high school seemed to be well on its way to resembling what we know as Wellesley High School. It wasn’t just that there were now four teachers, each with his or her own special subject. Or that the school now had its own football team, which had already begun its now-infamous rivalry with Needham High School in 1882 (although Wellesley was down 1-3 through the first four Thanksgiving Day games). Rather, it was that the high school had become a dedicated part of the community, a valuable resource that the town’s leaders saw as a way to make Wellesley stand out.
But the situation was still far from perfect. Besides the fact that the high school had to share the Shaw School with the primary and grammar levels, many students in the Wellesley public schools were dropping out long before they reached high school. So there was still very much work left to be done.
The Seldon Brown & Marshall Perrin Era (1886 – 1916):
There are really only two men who deserve almost all of the credit for transforming Wellesley High School into a legitimate institution of secondary education: Seldon Lester Brown and Marshall Livingston Perrin.
Seldon “Pa” Brown — as you may have noticed in the list above — served as principal (and teacher of Latin, civics, and, occasionally, mathematics) for thirty years, nearly three times as long as anyone else on that list. He was the original Mr. Wellesley High School and possessed all the characteristics that you’d want in a principal: a strong leader, a scholar, and a firm disciplinarian. He also was a fierce supporter of the school’s athletic teams, was engaged in all forms of town government, and was a longtime Trustee of the Wellesley Free Library. It was through his efforts and civic commitment — as well as his connection to nearly every citizen in town — that helped elevate Wellesley High School to the highest level of importance. By the end of his tenure in 1916, it was no longer viewed simply as a school that catered towards Wellesley’s academic elite.
The success that Brown had, however, wouldn’t have been possible were it not for the efforts of Marshall L. Perrin, the first Superintendent of the Wellesley Public Schools. Before Perrin arrived in 1893, running the entire public school system — everything from developing the curriculum to operating the budgets to hiring and firing the teachers — was left up to the three-member School Committee. I don’t know about you, but I sure as heck wouldn’t trust a bunch of non-educators to decide what’s the best way to teach our youth.
Fortunately, Perrin came in with a superb academic background as well as an unparalleled knowledge of the best pedagogical methods of the time. He had both an undergraduate degree from Harvard — that he got at the tender young age of 18 — and a Ph.D. in the Germanic Languages from the University of Göttingen in Prussia. And it was while overseas that Perrin became familiar with the revolutionary Prussian school system that forms the foundation for education in the United States today.
In addition, Perrin was intimately familiar with Wellesley long before he became Superintendent. He was, after all, born and raised in the town, even attending the very first classes of Wellesley High School in 1865 (as a rather overachieving nine-year-old!). Furthermore, he had briefly served on Wellesley’s first School Committee from 1881-83 before he began his journey abroad.
So it could be argued that no one was more qualified than Perrin to help Wellesley High School excel. Of all the many changes he made, two stand out: i) the implementation of system-wide grading and ii) the removal of the upper grades from the grammar school buildings.
- The implementation of system-wide grading: Until 1893 — as had been the case since the first district schools opened in the 1790s — students weren’t segregated by grade. All you had were the primary and grammar levels and then the high school (which was graded as just Year 1 through Year 4). The problem with this was two-fold. First, the lack of cohesion between the grammar level and high school made it easier for students to leave after the completion of the grammar school. As silly as it sounds, the first year of high school sounds a lot more important to one’s education if it’s called ‘9th Grade’ rather than ‘Year 1.’ But more importantly, without grades, it was more difficult to hold students to the academic standards that were required for success at the high school. Children were just pushed through primary and grammar school as they aged, independent of their skills and academic abilities. It’s no wonder that many students who came into the high school were woefully unprepared and soon dropped out.
- The removal of the upper grades from the grammar schools: Once grades one through twelve were established in 1893, the problem remained that the district schools still housed students from all of the lower eight grades. Today, such a grouping would seem insane. No one wants fourteen-year-olds hanging around first-graders. Besides asking for trouble, it surely didn’t help the older students mature, making that jump from grammar school to high school all the more difficult. So Perrin fought for and, in 1907, oversaw the separation of grades six through nine from the grammar schools.
Well, the actual story is a bit more complex than that. Perrin, in fact, formed two groups: an ‘Intermediate’ level with grades six and seven and a ‘Grammar’ level with grades eight and nine. And to make it even more confusing, from 1902 to 1915, there were actually thirteen grades (not including kindergarten) because there was also a different ninth grade at the high school. Of course, many of the advanced students who managed to make it all the way through high school often skipped grades, so it probably wasn’t the case that very many of them attended all thirteen grades.
Normalcy resumed in 1916 when the number of grades went back down to twelve after the ninth grade at the grammar level was incorporated into the eighth grade. And three years later, in 1919, the Junior High School, consisting of grades seven through nine, was formally adopted, sending the sixth grade back to the lower (elementary) schools and taking away the ninth grade from the high school. It wasn’t until 1983 that the ninth grade moved back into the high school when the current Middle School structure was established for grades six through eight.
Given all that confusion, I imagine it’s obvious then that during those years the entire public school system was undergoing a massive change. And since all that was done with the goal of trying to keep kids in school longer, it shouldn’t be surprising then that the high school continuously found itself ridiculously overcrowded.
This was true even after Wellesley High School finally got its very own schoolhouse in 1895.
So the high school moved twelve years later — in 1907 — to yet another building.
Evolution into the Modern High School (1917-1938):
When Seldon Brown stepped down as principal of Wellesley High School in 1916 — seven years after Perrin retired from the position of Superintendent — the progress that the high school had undergone was truly remarkable. But I still wouldn’t put the school on par with the Wellesley High School of 1938. Although both had strong teachers and good facilities, student retention when Brown left — although vastly better than it had been only a decade or two earlier — was far from perfect.
Just take a look at the following graph that shows how the distribution of student enrollment (relative to the number of first-graders) changed from 1898 to 1938.
What should stand out are the steep drops in enrollment during the four earliest periods: 1898, 1908, 1918, and 1928. Students just weren’t making it to high school. Or, if they did make it, many left after one or two years. (Also note the steep drop in 1918 after 9th grade. That was, of course, because of World War I. Starting as early as 1915, students — mostly boys, but many girls as well — dropped out as the labor force grew in response to the conflict in Europe. This trend accelerated after the United States officially entered the war in 1917. After that, even more jobs were left vacant as men went off to battle.)
Now compare enrollment during those earlier years to that in 1938. Just as you see in the 2012 data, there was no drop in enrollment in 1938. (In fact, there was a small hump.)
Besides the implementation of grading and the establishment of the Junior High School, what else can explain this increase in student retention? Here are three more reasons:
- The increase in wealth during the 1920s and 1930s: Wellesley really didn’t become the town that it is today in terms of its affluence until the beginning of the 1920s with the rise of the automobile. Only twelve miles from Boston, the town became one of the most desirable and wealthiest communities outside of the city. That meant, of course, more funding to invest into the town’s schools. But it also changed the demographics of the town, as a disproportionate number of these newcomers came with high school and college educations. So it was far more likely that the children of these new residents would matriculate through Wellesley High School (and then go on to college).
- Decreased frequency at which students were held back: Unlike today, when very few students are forced to repeat a grade, the public schools during the first three decades of the 20th Century were holding kids back left and right. Although the intentions of this practice were noble — the teachers and administrators really wanted to make sure that the students picked up enough of the content and skills taught at each grade to succeed at the next level — the unfortunate reality was that it caused students who struggled to drop out long before graduating from high school. (For example, in 1927, there was a fifteen-year-old and three fourteen-year-olds enrolled in the fifth grade. What do you think the odds were that they completed 12th grade?) But starting in the 1930s, specialized attention was given to those students who were thought to be at risk of being held back. It was like a very primitive form of the Special Education programs that exist in all of our schools today.
- The development of electives, clubs, and athletics: Let’s face it. Not all students care about academics. Unfortunately, the high school for many, many years was only about academics. You went to school, you sat in class, and then you went home. But starting in the 1920s, more attention was given to electives such as woodworking, sewing, and cooking. Maybe if you give students some fun classes in between the boring ones, then they’ll be less likely to drop out. Or give them something to look forward to after school like special interest clubs (e.g., dramatics and the student newspaper) and athletics.
And so, by 1938, this increase in retention — compounded with the explosion in Wellesley’s overall population — resulted in yet another jam-packed high school. It was time to build yet another high school. Well, actually, efforts to construct a new schoolhouse began as early as 1930, but there was this little thing called the Great Depression that the townspeople had to work around. Although Wellesley was relatively insulated from the Depression compared to most other communities, a large group of fiscally conservative citizens — formed mostly in response to the dismal economic conditions at the time — stalled all attempts to appropriate funds to build a new high school. It was only after they agreed to support a plan contingent on the successful application of a Federal subsidy that construction of a new high school finally got the green light.
But then there was the question of where to put the new high school. The old spot on Kingsbury Street just didn’t provide much in the way of playing fields or any room for expansion. So a long battle ensued over two other sites: undeveloped parkland near the Hunnewell playing fields south of Washington Street or off Linden Street at the current location of Upwey Road and Kirkland Circle. Well, to make a long story short, the first site won and the new high school was built, opening its doors to students in the fall of 1938.
I don’t think it’s very hard to see how this building was the perfect symbol for the progress made between 1865 and 1938 in regards to the high school. Not so much the architecture — although one could make a decent argument that its soaring tower that was visible all the way from Washington Street represented a beacon that called to our youth. But rather, it was the completion of the building that marked the end of a journey that began with no high school and ended with one of the leading secondary institutions in the Commonwealth, a high school not so different from our current one.
Am I all that surprised that the Town voted in 2008 to raze the 1938 High School rather than go with the renovation plan? Not really. It was the less complicated proposal and was of lower cost to the Town. But this is what we got out of it:
The best thing that I can say about the new high school is that it’s bright, clean, and provides students with the very latest in modern technology. But it’s sooooo generic and nondescript. It could be located in any town in Massachusetts (or in Kansas, for that matter). There’s nothing about it that says ‘Wellesley.’
And so, in 2050, when the current high school is falling apart and outdated, what are we going to do? Just build another one, of course, because no one is going to be arguing to save it. Maybe then we can right a wrong and just rebuild the 1938 High School on its original location.
- Needham Town Reports: 1865 – 1881
- Wellesley Town Reports: 1881 – 1938
- Biographical Record of the Alumni of Amherst College edited by W.L. Montague (1883)
- Boston Daily Globe: 7 January 1895
- Biographical Review Containing Life Sketches of Leading Citizens of Norfolk County, Massachusetts (1898)
- State Normal School, Framingham, Mass.: Catalogue of Teachers and Alumnae, 1839-1900 (1900)
- Biographical Record of the Alumni and Non-Graduates of Amherst College, 1871-1896 (1901)
- Our Town: July 1901; June 1902; November 1903
- Nathaniel T. Allen: Teacher, Reformer, Philanthropist by Mary A. Greene (1906)
- Wellesley Townsman: 7 September 1906; 15 June 1917; 6 July 1917; 30 May 1919; 20 June 1919; 6 May 1921; 24 May 1929; 11 October 1929; 18 October 1929; 10 January 1930; 28 February 1930; 25 March 1932; 4 May 1934; 14 December 1934; 5 December 1935; 28 February 1936; 19 June 1936; 9 October 1936; 26 August 1938; 10 April 1941; 15 May 1941; 18 February 1943; 14 November 1946; 11 February 1965; 1 September 1983; 20 November 1986
- Cornell Alumni News: August 1909
- United States Federal Census: 1910, 1920
- General Catalogue of Officers & Students by Mount Holyoke College (1911)
- The Rise of the High School in Massachusetts by Alexander James Inglis (1911)
- Obituary Record of the Graduates of Bowdoin College and the Medical School of Maine (1911)
- General Catalogue of Bowdoin College, 1794-1916 (1912)
- History of Needham, Massachusetts, 1711-1911 by George Kuhn Clarke (1912)
- The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine: September 1914
- Obituary Record of the Graduates of Bowdoin College and the Medical School of Maine (1914)
- Obituary Record of Graduates and Non-Graduates of Amherst College (1919)
- Secretary’s Third Report, Class of 1908 by Harvard College (1920)
- Tufts College Bulletin: December 1920
- Alumni Record of Wesleyan University by Frank W. Nicolson (1921)
- Early Days in Wellesley by Gamaliel Bradford (1928)
- Contemporary American Architecture: Schools by R.W. Sexton (1939)
- Findagrave.com [George Holley Gilbert; accessed in August 2013]
- House of Proctor [accessed in August 2013; used only for DOB of Ralph Proctor]
- Old Deluder Satan Law of 1647 from the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries website [accessed in August 2013]