Chauncy Hall School was founded in 1828 by Gideon Thayer in the heart of Boston on the site of what is now the Jordan Marsh Company. At first a man of business, Thayer turned to education in the early 1820s by starting a small, single-room school which eventually grew, moved, and culminated eight years later into Thayer's "ideal institution," Chauncy Hall.
The original Chauncy Hall school house was built in 1828 and named for Dr. Charles Chauncy, the minister of the First Church which stood adjacent to the school house on Chauncy Place. With an Upper Department for older boys and a Preparatory Department for their younger brothers, Chauncy Hall originally trained the children of well-to-do Bostonians for careers in business and only later shifted to preparation for college. The intimacy of Boston at the time is reflected in Thomas Cushing's book Historical Sketch of Chauncy Hall with Catalog 1824-1894, as he describes the method by which students were listed in the first Chauncy Hall catalog. "Instead of stating the residences of the pupils, as afterwards became customary, it simply mentioned whose son each boy was . . .”
Within the first ten years of its existence Chauncy Hall became known as a school whose graduates could be "counted on for the possession of several highly useful qualities and accomplishments." The school succeeded in sending several candidates to Harvard and in 1834 it shifted its focus from business to preparation for Harvard as well as other colleges.
Throughout the mid-1800s both Boston and Chauncy Hall grew. After more than 30 years of service, Gideon Thayer resigned in 1855 and the firm name (the school was a proprietary organization until 1939) was carried on as Thayer and Cushing with Thomas Cushing as acting principal. In 1858, Chauncy Hall began accepting female students, usually the sisters of boys already in school. In 1865, a female teacher was employed as "an experiment and . . . entirely successful." With the founding of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1865, students began seeking acceptance into the "Institute" as well as Harvard.
Chauncy Hall was also known for its many innovations in education. The comfort and wellbeing of the students was emphasized and the building area included a playground, central heating, adequate ventilation, and plenty of sunshine; the school was outfitted with extensive equipment - blackboards, adjustable chairs, maps, globes, and even a microscope; "real" literature was used for reading lessons; the Department System was initiated recognizing that teachers were "gifted and accomplished in different directions" and a "medal" system of reward "prevented any rivalry between candidates" and "all who reached a prescribed standard, could receive the desired honor." Chauncy Hall became a model for many new schools and Gideon Thayer was active as an advocate for better education nationwide. In 1861, Chauncy Hall was proud to have one of the first organized School Companies known as the Chauncy Hall Battalion. Many Chauncy men and boys fought during the Civil War with "not a few of them laying down their young lives on far off southern fields."
The expansion of Boston began to take its toll on the ideal educational environment of Chauncy Hall. Chauncy Place was converted to Chauncy Street and became a major business thoroughfare. Buildings grew up around the school and as a large commercial structure "shut out the light of heaven from our very windows," Chauncy Hall School, with over 200 students, moved in May of 1868 from the original building, which was later razed, to an old family residence on Essex Street.
The school stayed at the Essex Street location until the summer of 1873 when fire demolished the school building along with its first library and all other contents. Temporary space was occupied while a new location was researched. Cushing states, "Fortunately our attention was directed to the neighborhood of what is now Copley Square, and though then it seemed somewhat out-of-town, it was thought best to take the risk of the city's growing in that direction." The location was agreed upon and Mr. William Ladd, Associate Principal with Mr. Cushing, formed a stock company consisting of parents of pupils and former pupils to raise funds for the erection of a new building.
The new Chauncy Hall School opened in Copley Square in September of 1874 built in the most up-to-date architectural style with an emphasis on ventilation and the comfort of the students. Many changes, both in physical setting and curriculum, accompanied the new location: the teaching staff was augmented to accommodate the varied needs of the students; a Kindergarten was introduced and later run by Miss Lucy Wheelock who went on to found Miss Wheelock's School, now Wheelock College; special courses were initiated "where age, health, or future position, rendered them desirable;" and a gymnasium was built which was shared with the Institute of Technology. Up to this point, preparation for Harvard sufficiently covered preparation for other colleges as well. But as the requirements for college acceptance diversified, Chauncy Hall broadened its curriculum to meet the changing needs of various institutions of higher education.
The first few years in Copley Square were very successful and the school prospered until 1896 when financial and administrative difficulties made it necessary to sell the building, which was torn down in 1908. The school consolidated with the Berkeley School, run by three Chauncy graduates, and moved into the Y.M.C.A. building which occupied the corner of Boylston and Berkeley Streets. This building was destroyed by fire and after temporary quarters the school moved in September of 1910 to 553 Boylston Street where it remained until 1964. This location was the first which still survives.
In September of 1896, Franklin Thomas Kurt was hired to develop a department of Science, and he began an affiliation with Chauncy Hall which lasted over 50 years until his death in 1947.
The Kurt Years
By the early 1900s, Franklin Kurt had become sole proprietor of Chauncy Hall and began shaping the school to his dream — "an educational institution with...superior standards." Improved public grammar and primary school education led Chauncy Hall to end its Kindergarten and Preparatory Departments. After 1904, women instructors were dropped and girls were no longer admitted. Preparation for college became the main focus of the curriculum and rigorous instruction in mathematics and science led the school to focus specifically on preparing students for MIT and other technical institutes.
Kurt brought with him a new system for ensuring success in math and science called "checking." Students were required to go over all incorrect problems with their instructors within two days and provide the correct answers. Of even more importance was demonstrating that they understood the concept represented by the problem. Students spent many after-school hours with their instructors striving to get a "check" of approval.
A man of talent, discipline, and unswerving high standards, Kurt led Chauncy Hall with great success through the first half of the twentieth century. He demanded a great deal of his faculty but returned as much in dedication and faith. In A School and a Man, Edward H. Cole recounts Kurt's relationship with his faculty. "He bolstered the confidence of his instructors in ways that thoroughly inspired them with his aims and made them deeply loyal to him. Throughout the long years of Mr. Kurt's principalship there were few changes of personnel. Mr. Kurt himself never failed to attribute the success of Chauncy Hall to its faculty."
His demands were equal on the students of Chauncy Hall. Academic standards were maintained to the highest. At the beginning of each school year there was only one rule governing discipline: "Every boy at Chauncy Hall can do whatever he pleases wherever he pleases and whenever he pleases — provided that it is the right for every other student to do likewise." As one might expect, instances arose during the year which called for the establishment of additional rules. But, in this way, the students were responsible for the rules under which they were to be governed.
Up to this point, all Chauncy Hall principals had been selected from within the structure of the school. (The exception being when, in 1896, Chauncy graduates Taylor, De Merritte, and Hagar of the Berkeley School took over.) Kurt felt it was necessary to ensure this tradition and the future of the school and in 1939 he established the Kurt Foundation, a non-profit corporation controlled by a Board of Trustees.
Franklin Kurt died in August of 1947 after 51 years of service to Chauncy Hall School. In keeping with tradition, the Board of Trustees chose Ray Dwinell Farnsworth, named Associate Principal the previous year, to succeed him. Farnsworth was a Senior Master and instructor of mathematics and had been on the Chauncy Hall faculty since 1911.
Farnsworth continued the Chauncy Hall heritage established by Kurt for over ten years while at the same time continuing to improve and update the course offerings of the school. Author of the text Plane Geometry which was used in his classes, he also introduced PSSC Physics to the curriculum.
By 1960, the need for a larger and improved facility had become apparent and a committee headed by math teacher Roland A. Hueston began looking for an appropriate site. Farnsworth's sudden death in 1961 precipitated Hueston being named principal, and by 1963 a renovated building in Cleveland Circle was chosen as the new location of Chauncy Hall. A new library made up of contributions from faculty and friends, updated and extensive laboratory facilities, a modern language lab, and attractive offices were all publicized features of the new Chauncy Hall.
In 1964, Captain Kenneth Earl, USN (Retired), was named headmaster. Decreased interest in math and science as a primary educational focus along with fewer student applications caused the standards for admission to become less competitive and a wider range of students were accepted. With students of varied skills, it became difficult to maintain the rigorous math and science training and "checking" was eliminated.
Earl retired in 1968 and Roy Hatt was named headmaster. The first head of the school to be hired from the outside community, Hatt faced difficult times with fewer students and the general financial difficulties which faced independent schools in the late 60s and early 70s. In 1970, Chauncy Hall began looking for a solution by seeking a merger with another school. Undergoing some of the same difficulties, Chapel Hill School in Waltham was chosen and in January of 1971, the full Chauncy Hall staff and students moved to the Chapel Hill campus. Classes were conducted separately throughout the remainder of the academic year, and in September 1971 Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall emerged as a product of its predecessor schools.