An Architectural History of St. Paul’s School

What is St. Paul’s School? Many men and women, though men primarily, have sought to define and redefine this place since the beginning of its existence. Many have long left the school, yet they have also left their marks through their voices and contributions, as well as buildings they erected on school grounds. These marks represent a dialogue passed from generation to generation about our school’s identity.

The conversation began when the first three boys arrived at the school to realize Dr. Shattuck’s vision. Shattuck feared the corrupting influences of industrialization in the mid-19th century, and sought a place filled with the beauty of nature and withdrawn from the materialistic world, for his sons to spend their teenage years. In 1856, he appointed Dr. Coit to be his missionary to establish that ideal community “exempt from the annoyances and temptations” of urban life.

Because of his intensely religious education, Dr. Coit placed faith at the center of the school. It is no wonder that the first building constructed in Shattuck’s Garden of Eden, was the Chapel of St. Paul (built 1858-1860), commonly known as the Old Chapel. Designed by an English-born architect George Snell, the Old Chapel is a modest and quaint structure in the English Gothic style. Yet the building’s fine red brickwork set the tone for other buildings on campus to follow.

As the school grew, it gradually attained a village-like atmosphere. Though few of the original houses remain standing, the Post Office (1880), once used as a gashouse, and the rectory (1871) may offer glimpses into the school’s looks of its early years.

The construction of the Chapel of St. Paul and St. Peter (1886-1894) marked an end to St. Paul’s maiden years. Dr. Coit died in 1895, and the leadership was passed to his older brother. This landmark, designed by Henry Vaughan and probably his most important work, is also an important figure in the American gothic revival. Originally as high as it was long, the narrow layout evokes the spirit of medieval Oxford and Cambridge. This building represents an outward rejection of the materialism of the time, and is a perfect tribute to Dr. Coit’s endeavor to create worlds untarnished by contemporary influences.

Vaughan went on to build four other buildings, but only the New Upper (1902-1904) remains standing after the demolition frenzy in the 60’s. His quadrangular organization of school buildings signified a departure from Dr. Shattuck’s village layout, to a plan more akin to that of English universities. The Upper, for example, is an incomplete rectangle, originally intended to be part of a larger series of quadrangles.

At the turn of turn the century, a structure of a completely different character was to arise. The architect of this building was Ernest Flagg, a New Yorker who went on to design the Singer Building, once the tallest building on earth. Sheldon Library (1901), a pavilion in the French Classical style, was monumental, bold, and lacked the sentimentality of Vaughan’s. Sheldon articulates a logical optimism towards the modern era – the corrupt era that Vaughan and Shattuck had sought to escape.

About this time, conservative forces in the faculty took control, ending the first golden age of the school’s history. But in the 20’s, Dr. Drury’s reforms brought both academics and athletics to new heights. Drury’s legacy is perhaps best represented by the construction of the School House (1936), a neo-Gothic structure with allusions to medieval and renaissance motifs. Stylistically, it is a synthesis of modern techniques with gestures from the past, and fitted perfectly in between the clashing ideals of Flagg and Vaughan. Stern, the architect of the Ohrstrom Library claims that “no classroom building at any American school or university is more carefully crafted or more subtly arranged”, reflecting Dr. Drury’s dedication to academic excellence.

The post-WWII era marked a decline of religious impulse. A more relaxed atmosphere gave a sense of disorientation but also allowed for creativity. A proposal for a gothic-style auditorium was denied, and instead Richard Kimball was assigned the task with a site separate from the main buildings at the time. Though very useful for the community, Memorial Hall (1951) is an “overblown evocation of the Greek Revival meeting houses”, as Stern put it.

Material influences also stepped onto the grounds. In an attempt to cut budge costs, the trustees voted in 1952 to demolish the Old Chapel. Thankfully, the decision was overturned due to the resentment of students and faculty, but other buildings were less fortunate. New buildings began to appear to replace the old. Soon, the modernist architecture of Edward Larrabee Barnes appeared on the grounds.

The architect of the Conover, Twenty, and Conner Houses (1961), Barnes was a minimalist who used simple geometric figures in place of elaborate work of previous eras. However, Barnes succeeded in making his unorthodox creations seem comfortable in the physical context, complying with the redbrick theme that runs through most of the campus. These designs sparked a discussion in the architectural profession hardly short of the one the New Chapel started. With the appearance of these odd-shaped buildings, the modern forces that swept the 50’s and 60’s had inevitably left its mark in St. Paul’s.

For SPS, the 70’s were not only notable for the admission of girls, but also prevalent substance abuse, smoking, and alcoholism. Clark reawakened the religious tradition in the 80’s in attempt to put an end to the disciplinary problems of the day. Though his measures were largely ineffective, echoes of the previous religious ideals can be found in the latest architectural landmark on campus – Robert Stern’s Ohrstrom Library (1992).

One of Stern’s best work to date, Ohrstrom was built in the traditional plan of a church with the reading room resembling the choir, and the nave-like stacks. Stern also drew inspiration from the Scottish keep, and its detail alludes to other buildings on campus, especially the Schoolhouse. Through Ohrstrom, the post-modernist architect strove to demonstrate that “a modern building need not, indeed must not, be a repudiation of the past”.

Today, the school comprises 118 buildings. They are the articulation of our self-definition. Without these buildings, the vision of our founders cannot be manifested. Yet our school has long outgrown what its founders had in mind, in its size and mission. And new buildings will continue to arise.

As we continue past our 150th year, this dialogue concerning our identity will live on, just as we are forever engaged in a struggle between the old and the new, religious faith and worldly influences, tradition and creativity, ideals and painful realities.

Originally published in The Pelican, the student newspaper at St. Paul’s School.