The Shipley Magazine

What's Your Shipley Story: These Old Houses

Trina Vaux '63
The Shipley School was born in a rented house on Yarrow Street and the houses of Shipley, by now having been added to and variously repurposed over time, still evoke the “homelike atmosphere” central to the founders’ aims.
The Shipley sisters arrived from Cincinnati in 1894 to a Bryn Mawr recently developed by the Pennsylvania Railroad as a resort. Here, Philadelphia residents could escape the heat and pollution of the city. Among the first investors who built residences on land between Montgomery Avenue and Yarrow Street were Edward Y. Townsend and John M. Kennedy. Shipley’s first home was a house on Yarrow Street owned by the Hopkinson family, a summer residence, available for winter rental. Within a year, the sisters purchased a better house next door built by the Kennedys, connected it to a new building. Ultimately, they faced the whole ensemble in brick. The Kennedy house is still at the core of Shipley. The Common Room, with its original fireplace and paneling, served as the school’s library and “living room” and continues to be a gathering place on special occasions, as well as a meeting place.

1936 Townsend House

Over time, the Shipley sisters and their successors, Alice Howland and Eleanor Brownell, made changes to the “school house” and gym, but by the 1930s Shipley was increasingly cramped. Boarders were housed in nearby apartments with house mothers. The Primary School rented Arnecliffe, Henry Collins’ house on New Gulph Road at Merion Avenue. When one of the houses in a compound built by the Townsend family came up for sale, the school bought it.
Townsend House, with classrooms and a study hall for seniors, provided some relief with other benefits as well. “It gives a fine sense of senior dignity and responsibility,” the Principals wrote to alumnae. Over time, Townsend House also held an infirmary, a lunchroom for day girls, rooms for boarders, apartments for faculty, and administrative offices. By the 1970s the seniors’ “sense of dignity” had eroded: regular bridge games and general mischief were hard to supervise at a distance from the main building. Maintenance of an old building was expensive. Townsend House was demolished in 1983.

1940 Brownell House

The next addition to the main campus was the Clarke house and carriage house at the corner of Morris Avenue and Yarrow Street, purchased in 1940. In 1943, it was renamed Brownell House for Eleanor Brownell on her retirement after 30 years’ directing the school along with Alice Howland. A preschool was housed in the sunroom and there was an apartment upstairs for then Principals, Mildred and Russell Lynes and their children. Later, boarders lived in dormitory rooms on the top two floors. The original drawing room of the house served as a music room.
In 1972, as part of an effort to make Shipley more attractive to boarders, the ground floor of Brownell was redesigned as a student center. A ping pong table replaced the piano in the music room. Newly coeducational, the school allowed visiting boys stay for a night in the upper floors. Ultimately, efforts to sustain the boarding department failed and in 1983, Brownell was once again rearranged to house the school’s development offices.

1942 Howland House

Disagreements on who was responsible for repairs had begun to make the Lower School tenancy in Arnecliffe difficult. Shipley needed an alternative space for its younger students. They rented the McVitty House at the corner of Wyndon Avenue at Roberts Road in 1942. A year later, the school bought the building and renamed it for retired Principal Alice Howland, who had a particular interest in younger students.
Announcing the purchase, then head, Russell Lynes, remarked on the ample grounds, sunny rooms, and porches on three sides, a facility well suited for children. Howland House accommodated Kindergarten through grade seven, some 80 to 90 students. Over the years, as the Lower Campus was expanded and new buildings built, Howland House has been used for various configurations of grades and, at times, apartments on the upper floors. Currently, it houses music classrooms and the after school program.

1956 Beechwood

The most distinguished of Shipley’s houses is Beechwood, built in 1876 by Stephen Oliver Fuguet, a Philadelphia tobacco merchant. Designed by noted architect, Addison Hutton, and called Sylvula for its “sylvan” location, it was among the early substantial “cottages” of the Bryn Mawr resort period. In 1889 the house was sold to Thomas McVitty, who named it “Beechwood” after the surrounding trees, and chose it as his year-round residence.
By the time it was bequeathed to Shipley in 1956, the building had been altered significantly by several owners, and Shipley altered it more to accommodate faculty apartments and various configurations of Lower School, most notably the “Open Classrooms” of the 1970s. As educational practices and parents’ expectations changed, Beechwood became less and less suited to Shipley’s purposes. It was rented for a time to the French International School.
In 1997, planning a Lower School expansion, Shipley sought to demolish the building to allow room for more modern facilities. Township permission was denied because of the historical/architectural significance of the building. In the meantime, the Committee of Friends to Save Beechwood was formed by alumni and community members. Working in cooperation with the school, they raised the funds necessary to carry out a successful rehabilitation of the building. The exterior and ground floor reception rooms were restored and the upper floors renovated to accommodate faculty apartments. In 2001, the building was reopened in its restored state and in 2002 the project won an Achievement Award from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
The particular circumstances of Shipley’s founding and subsequent development and the tradition of a “homelike” non-institutional environment have put repurposed houses firmly in the school’s DNA. While maintenance crews struggle with the difficulty of keeping up old buildings and many parents appreciate shiny new facilities, it is often the students and alumni who treasure the character of what one alumnus fondly calls “the classy buildings.”

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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.