Home » Season 3 » The Architecture of New England’s Boarding Schools and Its Significance

The Architecture of New England’s Boarding Schools and Its Significance

By Claudia Chung, VI Form


The Architecture of New England Boarding Schools and Its Significance


Post Revolutionary War boarding schools focused on educating America’s elites. These schools were products of their time; their values reflect a set of specific principles that their founders deemed admirable. Although these values evolved over time, they often included concepts of leadership, service to the nation, and dedication to one’s family. Schools built in the mid- to late- eighteenth century, the “Academies”, seem to reflect vastly different values than those of their  “Episcopal” counterparts founded in the mid- to late- nineteenth century. Following the religious teachings of the Episcopalian tradition, episcopal schools boasted community and family based values; while the academies prided themselves on their focus on classical academics and service. The architecture of these schools closely follows architectural trends of their time and, at the same time, serves as powerful testament to the schools’ founding values. Despite each school founding with different affiliations, purposes, and people, the architectures of these schools deeply reflect the principles valued by the school —from its founding to present day.

Despite the establishment of various types of boarding schools since the Revolutionary War, few have continually attracted the younger generations of the upper classes.[1] These selected few included both the Episcopalian and Academy schools. The purpose of the New England Academy, like most other boarding schools of its era, was originally to prepare young boys for college. It is the oldest type of boarding school in the United States.[2] Some of the most well-known New England Academies include Governors, Phillips Andover, Phillips Exeter, Deerfield, and Milton.[3] Closely linked with the sense of intellectual inquiry put forth by the name academy, which was also the name of Plato’s school of thought in ancient Greece, these institutions combined ancient Greek and Roman ideas of scholarship with the stern American Puritanism of the time. These schools also exemplified the classical values of ancient Greece and Rome through their distinct Federal architectural style. The nineteenth century brought forth a new wave of Episcopalian boarding schools founded under different values than their Academy counterparts. The founders of these New England boarding schools were often of the American Upper-class, and closely affiliated with the Episcopal church. The schools’ religious affiliations eventually led to their rise to popularity and prestige in the American elites during the mid- to late-nineteenth century.[4] St Mark’s, Groton, St. George’s, Brooks, The Hill School, and St. Paul’s were amongst the most prestigious and well-known of American boarding schools during that time.[5] Affiliation with the Episcopal church shaped these schools’ identities in a way that distinguishes them from the old Academies. It reinforced the idea of a community, which was modelled after abbeys and monasteries, where members lived a familial life with others while receiving quality education. As seen on the official website of Groton School, “Endicott Peabody, the School’s founder, was driven by a belief that the best education was provided by a school modelled after a family.” Naturally, this familial concept remains central to the Episcopal schools mentioned above.

Despite the seemingly identical purposes of both types of institutions, the Academies and the Episcopalian schools were often built in two very different architectural styles: the Federal and Tudor styles. The Academies of the mid to late-eighteenth century used a exceptionally distinctive Federal style of architecture, while the Episcopalian schools mostly used a Tudor style.[6]

federal homeThe Federal style has its roots in the Georgian architecture that rose in popularity during the reign of the first four British monarchs from the Hanoverian House.[7] Named after King George I, II, III, and the IV, Georgian architecture became known for its “symmetry, and regularity of detail.” Large pediments and colonnades inspired by the ancient Greeks and Romans decorated these types of buildings. [8] Although early Georgian architecture took inspiration mostly from the Italian Renaissance and Palladianism, by the time the trend reached the American colonies in the mid-eighteenth century, it had already transformed into a Neoclassical movement.[9] In simpler terms, however, the Federal style was seen as a refinement of Georgian style in order to be more suited to American culture. Federal style removed the excess decoration seen in ancient Greek and Roman pediments and replaced it with side gable or low-hipped roofs. Instead of complex firenzes seen in Greek structures, Federal style buildings sported less elaborate door surrounds with decorative crowns or small entry porches that were often elliptical or semicircular. Other typical features include semi-circular or elliptical fanlights over front entry, iron railings and balconies, cornices emphasized with decorative molding, and bowed or polygonal bays. Federal-styled, three-story, hipped-roof examples can still be seen and are common in Salem and Newburyport, Massachusetts, and coastal New England. Soon after its rise to popularity, the Federal style became the first definitively “American” architectural style from which the first true architects in the American scene emerged.[10] A great example of this is the work of Pierre Charles L’Enfant.[11] Despite not being able to fully realise his plans for the nation’s capital, L’Enfant’s had designed the first plan for the nation’s capital city. Though Federal architecture was almost strictly American, it was evolved from a combination of contemporary European trends such as the Neoclassical movement that was mostly led by the French.[12] Neoclassicism was sparked by various European powers’, included France and Great Britain, renewed interest and expressed admiration for a classical education similar to the Greeks and Romans. It is widely believed that this movement was spread from the European continent to the United States due to the close relations between the United States and both France and Great Britain. The Federal architectural style then symbolised values that, after both the French and American Revolution, were of undeniable importance, such as Liberty, Democracy, and Freedom. On the other hand, it also takes inspiration from the democracies of ancient Greece and republicanism of ancient Rome due to its Neoclassical influences.

Hence, the Federal architecture of New England Academies displays the institutions’ support towards similar ideals of Democracy, Republicanism and Liberty. Furthermore, early Academies often express their philosophies of dutiful service to the country through their various mottos: Non sibi, Non sibi sed aliis, and Omnibus Lucet.[13] The mottos show an emphasis on civic duty and service to the nation and its people, which also has its roots in Roman and Greek culture. Compared to their later counterparts, these schools were founded upon the notion that they would educate the younger generations to lead lives of service and leadership to their country. Moreover, during times of revolution and war, the general sentiments are to remain patriotic and serve the nation, which were expressed in these founding mottos.

The Tudor Revival began in the 1860s as a popular style for English country houses.[14] In the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution practically obliterated the traditional styles of Old England.[15] In the beginning, Gothic buildings made small comebacks but the style was too decorative and complex to be used for ordinary buildings. Tired of the flying buttresses and excessive decor, people sought out the simpler forms of past architecture — eventually leading to the development of the Tudor Revival in England and America.[16] The style found its inspirations not in the complex and higher architecture of castles and manors but from simple timber structures of countryside cottages. Therefore, the Tudor style was dominated with the use of locally sourced materials with featuring stone, brick, half-timbering techniques, and thatched or tiled roofs. This style was also sometimes defined as a type of vernacular architecture since even though all Tudor styled buildings had some, if not all of the common recognisable features, buildings varied slightly due to the materials being locally sourced.[17] The materials and techniques used in this style was comparably less grandiose than its Federal counterpart, thus more suited to use for suburban homes, country houses, and family styled structures. Naturally, with the focus on a familial school structure, this was one of the reasons the American Episcopal school used this specific style of architecture.

Some say that Episcopal schools “epitomise the ethos of the elite tradition” since they are modeled directly after British Public Schools.[18] However, the founders of American Episcopal institutions did not completely replicate the features of their British counterparts, they simply captured the essence of the eliteness: similar architecture, sports and the use of various terminology.[19] Perhaps it is result of their religious affiliations, but Episcopalian schools often hope to create an educational institution that also works as a family — preferably an idealised Anglo-Saxon family. The founders hoped that these schools would be able to combine the main business of living, eating, working and worshiping under the same roof, or as closely as possible.[20] The architecture also reflect the same intentions since schools were designed to be like a small town or community, where all buildings were either located within close proximity of one another or were interconnected complexes. Most American Episcopal schools were also built around a “quadrangle” or a main circle in the front of the building or main complex.[21] Similarly to its British counterparts of Eton College and Harrow School, cloisters and religious buildings were key structures in the Episcopal school complexes.[22] This extreme replication can be seen as a way the upper classes dealt with the rapidly changing American society. Having just entered the Guilded Age, the American society was experiencing rapid cultural changes: especially in terms of increased immigration and industrialisation. There was a general sentiment of Nativism that prevailed over the upper-classes of the American society. By establishing institutions that embodies Anglo-Saxon elitism in its most traditional sense, the older generations of the American upper-classes created sanctuaries where the their children could escape to, away from the constantly changing society. They attempted to retaliate against the changes of the country, and these Episcopalian boarding schools symbolised the desire to protect and preserve the elite culture that some feared would be lost.

Despite having commonalities with other aforementioned schools, Saint Mark’s remains unique in its philosophy of “school-under-one-roof”.[23] Many schools, especially Episcopal schools, began with one large school structure and later acquired separate buildings for specific purposes: dining halls, dormitories, science buildings, or athletic buildings The buildings, since they were mostly either bought or received as donation and not commissioned by the school, would often be built in the Federal style seen in the old New England Academies since they were built during that time. A clear example of this shift in style is the buildings of Groton School. Much like Saint Mark’s, Groton’s first main building built in 1899, also called the Schoolhouse, was part of the Tudor Revival wave.[24] However as time passed and the school developed in size and structure, the new additions were made to the Schoolhouse but various buildings were added to the campus complex. These buildings, individual from the Schoolhouse, were clearly designed with colonnades and pediments that are icons of Federal style architecture. When Henry Forbes Bigelow Jr., a Saint Mark’s alumnus and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, first submitted his drafts of the new school building to the Trustee Committee in the summer of 1888, the building was to encapsulate “Tudor Revival” with its cloisters, stone walls, slate roofs and Tudor façade.[25] According to the descriptions and drawing provided by Bigelow, the school was to be facing the south, with a southern front of 270 feet and a western front 235 feet: making the total enclosure 63,450 square feet.[26] As a St Mark’s graduate, Henry Forbes Bigelow Jr. understood the founding philosophy of the school and incorporated it into his flexible design. Although it should be noted that Henry Forbes Bigelow Sr. was part of the Trustee Committee in charge of electing the architect of the building, his son’s experiences as a St. Mark’s alumnus combined with his talent with architecture allowed him to preserve the principle of a “family school” with his design.[27] To this day, when additions to the school became necessary, it would all simply be attached to the existing structure (with the exceptions of the Thieriot House, Athletic Centre, and Arts facilities).[28] During this time of change, Headmaster William E. Peck played a crucial role in recreating the “intimate, family-style atmosphere” that existed in the original Saint Mark’s School with the new school building, albeit on a much larger scale.[29] With dormitory and dining under the same roof as classes and study hall, Headmaster Peck believed that the good moral influence and strong motivation of a close knit community could encourage greater academic success as well. To this day, Headmaster Peck’s success in preserving this unique philosophy allows us all to take pride in the all-under-one-roof structure of Saint Mark’s.

Both the Academies and the Episcopal schools were essentially products of their time and consequently they represented the things valued by the elites at the time. During the late eighteenth century, both the American and the French Revolutions spread ideas of democracy, liberty, republicanism throughout the world. Hence the the Neoclassicism architecture, especially the Federal style, that was adopted by both nations were specifically chosen to exemplify the fact that the ancient Greek Democracies and the Roman Republic inspired the nations’ priorities and values. Architects from both nations sought to represent the new wave of democracy by drawing inspiration from the ancient Classical civilisations. Schools that were founded in that period then followed a similar trend. In the mid to late nineteenth century, when the second wave of boarding schools were built and founded, there was a popular trend of Tudor Revivalism which became popular in the suburbs. The wealthy families were almost all members of the Episcopal Church; which then led to these institutions’ frequent affiliations with the Episcopal Church and concept of a familial school structure.[30] Traditionally Episcopalian schools such as Groton, Brooks, St Mark’s, St. Georges, The Hill School and St. Paul’s were all built as community style residences where student and faculty lived a familial life.[31] Therefore, a school’s architecture unmistakably expresses the moral essence and principles of the era in which it was created. Some may say the prestige surrounding New England boarding schools schools is due to the elitist attitudes still being practiced on campus. Others may say that these schools represent a desire to preserve a social hierarchy built on decadence and a lack of acceptance of change. In the end, however, the boarding schools of New England have evolved from the original all-male, anglo-saxon and religious origins. Perhaps, the architecture remains to be the reminiscence of a desperate struggle to preserve the quintessence of the elites that have long been disregarded.

Claudia Chung is a VI Former from Hong Kong.  She enjoys watching Game of Thrones and is a varsity coxswain for boys’ crew.


Benson, Albert Emerson. “The New Building.” In History of Saint Mark’s School, 111-17. N.p.: The

Plimpton Press, 1925.

Cookson, Peter W., and Caroline Hodges Persell. Preparing for Power: America’s Elite Boarding

Schools. New York: Basic, 1985.

The Editors of Historic New England. “Architectural Style Guide: Federal (Adam): 1728 -1820.”

Historic New England. Accessed December 7, 2015. http://www.historicnewengland.org/preservation/


Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Georgian style”, accessed December 07, 2015,


Goff, Lee, and Paul Rocheleau. Tudor Style: Tudor Revival Houses in America from 1890 to the

Present. New York: Universe, 2002.

The Governor’s Academy. “The Governor’s Academy: Mission and Philosophy.” The Governor’s Academy.

Accessed December 7, 2015. http://www.thegovernorsacademy.org/page.cfm?p=358.

Hall, Edward Tuck. Saint Mark’s School: A Centennial History. Lunenburg, VT: The Stinehour Press,

Howe, Jeffery. “Styles in American Architecture.” A Digital Archive of American Architecture. Last

modified 1998. Accessed November 20, 2015. http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/fa267/


Lawrence Academy Staff. “Our Mission.” Lawrence Academy. Accessed December 7, 2015.


Manco, Jean. “Georgian Architecture.” Researching Historic Buildings in the British Isles. Last

modified December 14, 2013. Accessed December 7, 2015. http://www.buildinghistory.org/style/


———. “Tudor and Elizabethan Architecture (1485-1603).” Researching Historic

Buildings in the British Isles. Last modified December 14, 2013. Accessed November 20, 2015.


National Park Service. “The L’Enfant and McMillan Plans.” Washington, DC: A National Register of

Historic Places Travel Itinerary. Accessed December 7, 2015. http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/wash/


Noble, Richard E. The Echo of Their Voices: 150 Years of St. Mark’s School. Hollis, NH: Hollis,

“Our Mission.” – The Lawrenceville School. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Phillips Academy, Andover. “PA History.” Phillips Academy Andover. Accessed December 7, 2015.


Saint Mark’s School Trustee Committee. Report on the New School Building. N.p., 1888.

Taverner, Gilbert Y. St. George’s School: A History, 1896-1986. Newport, R.I.: School, 1987.

The Vindex. The New School. 1889. Illustration. St. Mark’s School Archives. Southborough, MA.

———. “The New School.” The Vindex, 1889.


(DECEASED). Reprint of the 1970 edition ed. Detroit: O

[1] Peter W. Cookson and Caroline Hodges Persell, Preparing for Power: America’s Elite Boarding Schools (New York: Basic, 1985), 42.

[2] Ibid., 38.

[3] Of the schools mentioned above, Phillips Andover, Phillips Exeter, Milton, and Deerfield Academy were included in E. Digby Baltsell and Nelson W. Aldrich Jr.’s list of the Select Sixteen. The list included a total of sixteen “most socially prestigious American boarding schools”, their years of founding and locations.

[4] Cookson and Persell, Preparing for Power: America’s, 38.

[5] Cookson and Persell, Preparing for Power: America’s, 43. Again all schools mentioned above with the exception of Brooks were included in E. Digby Baltsell and Nelson W. Aldrich Jr.’s list of the Select Sixteen.

[6] Jeffery Howe, “Styles in American Architecture,” A Digital Archive of American Architecture, last modified 1998, accessed November 20, 2015, http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/fa267/amstyles.html.

[7] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Georgian style”, last modified June 22, 2008, accessed December 07, 2015, http://www.britannica.com/art/Georgian-style.

[8] Jean Manco, “Georgian Architecture,” Researching Historic Buildings in the British Isles, last modified December 14, 2013, accessed December 7, 2015, http://www.buildinghistory.org/style/georgian.shtml.

[9] Palladianism is defined as a style based on the designs by the 16th century architect Andrea Palladio who drew heavily upon ancient Roman buildings for inspiration. In turn, British designers during the Georgian period turned to his work for inspiration and the creation of a British Classical Style. When the style became a highly sought after trend in Great Britain, it was introduced to the Americas as a Neoclassical style from the European mainland.

[10] The Editors of Historic New England, “Architectural Style Guide: Federal (Adam): 1728 -1820,” Historic New England, accessed December 7, 2015, http://www.historicnewengland.org/preservation/your-older-or-historic-home/architectural-style-guide#federal-adam-1780-1820.

[11] National Park Service, “The L’Enfant and McMillan Plans,” Washington, DC: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary, accessed December 7, 2015, http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/wash/lenfant.htm.

[12] Howe, “Styles in American Architecture,” A Digital Archive of American Architecture.

[13] Phillips Academy, Andover, “PA History,” Phillips Academy Andover, accessed December 7, 2015, http://www.andover.edu/About/PAHistory/Pages/default.aspx.


The Governor’s Academy, “The Governor’s Academy: Mission and Philosophy,” The Governor’s Academy, accessed December 7, 2015, http://www.thegovernorsacademy.org/page.cfm?p=358.


Lawrence Academy Staff, “Our Mission,” Lawrence Academy, accessed December 7, 2015, http://www.lacademy.edu/page.cfm?p=359.


The mottos are all in Latin and respectively means Not for themselves, Not for themselves but for others, and The light shines for all.

[14] Jean Manco, “Tudor and Elizabethan Architecture (1485-1603),” Researching Historic Buildings in the British Isles, last modified December 14, 2013, accessed November 20, 2015, http://www.buildinghistory.org/style/tudor.shtml.

[15] Lee Goff and Paul Rocheleau, Tudor Style: Tudor Revival Houses in America from 1890 to the Present (New York: Universe, 2002), 23.

[16] Ibid. 40.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Cookson and Persell, Preparing for Power: America’s, 40.

[19] Ibid. Terminology that was used included “form” instead of “grade”, “prefect”, “monitor”, “senior master” or “master” instead of teacher etc.

[20] Edward Tuck Hall, Saint Mark’s School: A Centennial History (Lunenburg, VT: The Stinehour Press, 1967), 14.

[21] Cookson and Persell, Preparing for Power: America’s, 40.

[22] Ibid, 38.

[23] Hall, Saint Mark’s School: A Centennial, 14.

[24] The Schoolhouse has since undergone renovations and addition in the years 1927, 1931,1951, 1974, 1989, 2015. Only the L shaped section Original Building has remains of its former Tudor style.

[25] Richard E. Noble, The Echo of Their Voices: 150 Years of St. Mark’s School (Hollis, NH: Hollis, 2015), 54.


Saint Mark’s School Trustee Committee, Report on the New School Building (n.p., 1888), 1. This was found in an entry in the Log book of Trustee meetings from the summer of 1888.


Henry F. Withey and Elsie Rathburn Withey, BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN ARCHITECTS (DECEASED), reprint of the 1970 edition ed. (Detroit: Omingraphics, 1996).

[26] The Vindex, The New School, 1889, illustration, St. Mark’s School Archives, Southborough, MA. This was a student sketched illustration of what the new school building, or current main building was supposed to look like.


The Vindex Staff ‘89, “The New School,” The Vindex, April, 1889.

[27] Hall, Saint Mark’s School: A Centennial, 15.

[28] Ibid. 16.

[29] Noble, The Echo of Their, 59.

[30] Hall, Saint Mark’s School: A Centennial, 20.

[31] Gilbert Y. Taverner, St. George’s School: A History, 1896-1986 (Newport, R.I.: School, 1987), 8-20.

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