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School Choices: Your House a School? Maybe!

A look back at local private schools, many of which are now homes.

On Sunday afternoons, visiting realtors' open houses, I've visited a number of houses that seem large, even by the standards of last century. Some have a surprising number of public spaces, while others have many small bedrooms. I toured a house once that had a third floor lined with tiny rooms, each opening into the hallway and into one another. "Servants?" I asked the realtor. "Students," was the answer. 

The last century saw rapid growth in the number and size of public schools in our district. At the same time, the private schools in our area changed and consolidated, many moving from local houses into school buildings as we know them today. Our neighborhoods are dotted with buildings that are homes now, but once served as schools for day or boarding students. What they offered in terms of curriculum and appeal is surprising.

Mrs. Dorr's Boarding and Day School on Clark Place (now East Clark Place) offered kindergarten through "College Preparation." The students were divided into primary, intermediate and academic departments, and an equal attraction was Miss Davenport's Dancing Classes. Held "under the auspices of the school," the classes met on Thursday afternoons at the South Orange Field Club. 

Miss Baldwin and Miss Nelden's School was located on Prospect Street, between Irvington and South Orange avenues. Their advertisement boasted that, "to the usual curriculum there has been added a department of physical culture, in charge of Miss Frances Temple Ellery of Boston." Not only that, but new in the fall of 1900, "individual drinking cups have been introduced."

The Adams School on Clinton Street in East Orange offered a Kindergarten Normal Training Class, a course designed for prospective teachers, as well as a kindergarten, primary and intermediate school. Miss Cora Webb Peet, Principal, ran a competing school at 16 Washington St. in East Orange.

Miss Beard's Boarding and Day School offered college preparatory, post-graduate and special courses from its Berkeley Avenue location. An advertisement further offered "stages run to different parts of the Oranges at a nominal price." Indeed, this location was convenient for many Montrose families; Rosamond Halsey was a graduate of Miss Beard's School and George McCoy studied there as well. The school offered Domestic Arts and Sciences, riding, tennis, hockey and basketball to its female students, and it boasted a four-building campus. Its central building, the "Recitation Hall," was located between Tremont Avenue and Elmwynd Drive. 

Down the block, Carteret Academy instructed boys. (Carteret Academy, located at Essex and Central, was also described as being in South Orange.) At the location in Orange, it offered preparation "for all colleges and scientific schools... Hot lunch served every day." The school's name is a reflection of its location: it was built on land originally granted to Sir George Carteret. 

Carteret was an outgrowth of the  Dearborn-Morgan School "for Girls and Young Ladies only." Previously a coed school, Dearborn-Morgan became single-sex around 1901 and offered a "thorough high-grade school through the course. Special attention given to Literature, History, Art and Gymnastics." 

At the turn of the 20th century, it wasn't uncommon to find a school as small as six or eight students, sometimes living with the head teacher or principal's family. (Think of the "parlor borders" in Jane Austen's novels and you'll picture this easily.) Warwick Avenue hosted one such school; it became a private residence in the early 20th century. 

A number of other schools are listed in South Orange in directories of the period; the limited information I have gleaned about them comes from wedding announcements of their graduates. The Montrose School for Girls, which was founded by author and lecturer Lorinda Munson Bryant, was apparently in operation from 1895 until 1901. (This may have been the Warwick Avenue school.) Spining's School, founded and administered by the Rev. Dr. George Spining, was located at 123 Irvington Ave.,  now a parking lot. Rosemont Hall, Woodcliff School and the Clark School are also South Orange schools of the past century, though their location is lost to history (at least for now). 

Many of the local private schools were still listed in a guide published in 1931. It appears, however, that few survived the Depression. Carteret Academy seems to have relocated. Miss Beard's School merged and moved to become Morristown-Beard Academy, and Dearborn-Morgan left no evidence for me to find. 

It surprises me when institutions disappear, especially since I think of schools as brick-and-mortar institutions. Still, I hope the lessons taught remain, the traditions—even when their genesis is forgotten—remain as a family inheritance, passed down from students who passed through South Orange. One legacy remains for sure: the Baird Center, however, which grew out of the Field Club, still offers dance on Thursdays. 

Laura Griffin January 26, 2012 at 01:39 PM
Interesting piece, Marcia. I love reading about the history of South Orange!
John R. Overall January 26, 2012 at 08:11 PM
Hi Marcia, The bluish Victorian house is actually the Brantwood Hall School for Young Ladies, and I will add a postcard of the house as it was a school. There were wonderful garlands and wreaths around the top of the larger tower. I brought a blow up of the card to the people who owned it and were restoring it about 10 or 12 years ago. They were very happy to get it. The house as it was in my picture originally had rounded columns, which had been replaced. They were going to get square columns, but ironically bought (the appropriate) rounded ones because they were less expensive. Sadly the house had had asphalt shingles added, and when they took them off, you could see where the wreaths and garlands had been. :o( I will also add a post card of Miss Spining's School. She was, I believe, the daughter or wife of a Methodist minister (church across the street, of course.) There was also a Fairview School (on Fairview Ave.?) but I could never find anything about it; I only saw it as an address in an old (school)book: Fairview School, South Orange. I have an ad (which I need to find) from a school on Prospect; not sure if it's the one you mentioned.
Barbara Martin August 19, 2012 at 10:18 PM
I attended a boarding school in (I think) South Orange for six months in 1945 named The Montrose School for Girls. As I recall, it was a religious school, not Catholic but maybe Methodist. You mention a Montrose School for Girls but the dates are wrong. Could it be the same school?

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