Rivers’ Innovative Start as an Open-air School for Boys

It would be difficult to describe the beginnings of the Rivers School as anything other than modest. When the school opened in 1915, there were three students enrolled, two teachers (one of whom was the headmaster), one classroom building or bungalow, an administration building (a house on the property utilized for its kitchen, dining room, and office space), and a park across the street from the school that provided an area for students to exercise and play. The current enrollment and campus at Weston are certainly a far cry from these modest beginnings!

By contrast, it would be hard to describe the school’s founder Robert Wheaton Rivers as having modest beginnings. Robert Rivers hailed from a well-to-do family with deep roots in Milton, MA. Two of his ancestors sailed on the Mayflower, and his family owned the mansion of Massachusetts’s last colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson on Milton Hill. On Milton Hill, members of the Rivers family mingled with members of other prominent Massachusetts families like the Russell and the Forbes families. Robert’s father had graduated from Mr. Noble’s School, Harvard University, and Harvard Law School, and his mother had been a member of the first graduating class at Wellesley College. Robert and his younger brother Henry attended Milton Academy, which was a short walk from their Milton home, and then went on to attend Harvard. After graduation, Robert Rivers took a position as a teacher at Nobles, his father’s alma mater. He taught a variety of subjects in his first few years at the school, but eventually he came to focus solely on English and French. He was also able to gain experience in administration while at Nobles, serving as the English Department chair and athletic director for short periods of time. At Nobles, Mr. Rivers worked with Shirley Kerns, who would leave Nobles to found the Country Day School for Boys of Boston in Newton in 1907. In 1940 The Rivers School would combine with the Country Day School to become the Rivers Country Day School, though both men had retired by that time.

While at Nobles Mr. Rivers married Rosalie Channing of Brookline, who also hailed from a well-to-do family with deep Harvard roots. Channing’s father was a well known alienist—the term in use at the time for a psychiatrist—who had testified as an expert witness at the trial of the assassin of President Garfield. Her grandfather, a poet, was a friend of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau. Her great grandfather had founded the Boston Lying In Hospital, was the first professor of obstetrics at Harvard Medical School, and served two stints as dean of the Harvard Medical School. A grand uncle, William Ellery Channing, was instrumental in the establishment of Unitarianism in the United States and in the founding of the Harvard School of Divinity.

These family and work connections would play an important role in helping shape Robert Rivers’s vision of the school he wanted to found and would prove critical in turning the vision into a reality. Unfortunately, Robert Rivers did not leave behind any writings from the period before the school was founded that might answer important questions about the event, but his writings after the fact, and evidence about educational practice from the time, provide a number of important insights into the process.

First, Robert Rivers founded his school at a time of tremendous ferment in American eduction. The nature of education in the United States underwent dramatic changes in the second-half of the nineteenth century. The number of public high schools grew dramatically during this time in response to the huge influx of immigrants in the 1880s and 1890s. The growth of public high schools was attributable in part as a response to the need to assimilate the children of these new immigrants to the American way of life and prepare them for work. Growth was seen in private education, both religious and non-religious, as well. Many of the ISL schools that Rivers competes with today were founded during this same period of time: St. Mark’s (1865), Nobles (1866), Groton (1884), St. George’s (1896), and Middlesex (1901). All of these schools were established as all-boys schools and the focus of their curriculum was most definitely on college preparation.

Second, by the start of the twentieth century germ theory was becoming established in the minds of medical practitioners and the public at large. With a better understanding of the causes of infectious diseases, government officials and doctors were able to take actions to help reduce the number of deaths related to infectious disease. According to the CDC, in 1900 the top two killers of Americans were pneumonia and tuberculosis. Heart disease was fourth on the list, and cancer was eighth. By contrast, by the end of the twentieth, these two diseases were one and two, and pneumonia and tuberculosis did not even make the top ten. Infectious disease was particularly hard on children. In 1900, 3 in 100 children could be expected to die between their first and twentieth birthdays. Today that number is 2 in 1000. Because so many children died from infectious disease, much of this decline can be attributed to actions that reduced the impact of infectious disease on children. Over the course of the twentieth century, the number of childhood deaths attributable to infectious diseases dropped from 61% to 2%. The decline in the impact of infectious disease was due to a combination of factors: the creation of public health departments, improvements in sanitation and hygiene, the chlorination of public water supplies, the development of vaccines and antibiotics, and better education about the cause and prevention of disease. At the time that Robert Rivers was thinking about founding a school, the public’s understanding of disease, and the medical community’s approach to it, were changing dramatically. Mr. Rivers’s intellectual understanding of these changes was made all the more palpable for him when his brother Henry contracted tuberculosis. Henry did in 1909 after a two-year struggle with the disease.

Third, one innovation of the early twentieth century for addressing the impact of infectious disease on children was the creation of the first open-air schools. As knowledge about the causes and spread of disease improved during this time, progressive educators looked to improve the health of sick children and keep healthy children from being exposed to potentially deadly illnesses. One consequence of these concerns was the creation of the first open-air school. This school was opened in Charlottenburg, Germany, a suburb of Berlin, in 1904. The school enrolled only students with tuberculosis, and the schedule for the school day was designed to combine learning and treatment. The school day alternated periods of academic work, rest, exercise, and healthy meals to improve the health of sick students. Open-air schools quickly popped up in other European countries. By 1908, the first open-air school was opened in Providence, Rhode Island. In the United States the first open-air schools were public schools. Some were entire schools devoted to sick children, but often a special open-air classroom was created within a school that otherwise enrolled healthy children. By 1915, open-air schools could be found in most states, and they were accepted as a sound approach to addressing the needs of children stricken with tuberculosis.

How and when Robert Rivers first learned about open-air schools is not clear, but he likely engaged with ideas of health and open-air schools as a result of a number of influences. The death of his brother from tuberculosis was certainly one of them. Another was certainly his father in law. Walter Channing, was a progressive medical professional, who innovated in the practice of treating the mentally ill. He was also a member of the Brookline School Committee for many years, and he would have likely shared with Mr. Rivers his knowledge of Brookline’s experiments with open-air classrooms. It seems very likely that Robert Rivers learned something about open-air schools in this way.

It is difficult to tell how long Robert Rivers was thinking about founding a school before 1915, but it would not be surprising to find out that he had had conversations with a Nobles colleague, Shirley Kerns. Kerns worked with Robert Rivers for a couple of years before leaving Nobles in 1907 to found the Country Day School for Boys of Boston. Kerns had worked at the Gilman School in Baltimore, the country’s first country day school, and wanted to create a similar school in the Boston area. Mr. Rivers would certainly have followed the progress of Kerns’s school after he left Nobles. While it is unclear how long the idea for a school was on Mr. Rivers’s mind, the founding of his school certainly happened very quickly. Mr. Rivers resigned his teaching position at Nobles unexpectedly during the March break of 1915, and he and his wife Rosalie rented and moved into the mansion of Caroline Hill in Brookline. Mrs. Hill, whose husband had died in 1913, had departed for France in March 1915 to do relief work with children from northern France, Belgium, and Alsace, who had been made refugees by World War I, or whose parents wanted to get them away from war zones. Mr. Rivers either knew Mrs. Hill through Brookline social circles or through Harvard friends that worked with her in the Women’s Municipal League of Boston, or both. Mrs. Hill’s husband had been a wealthy investment banker, and the mansion and grounds of the estate were extensive and would serve the school well in its first two years. The mansion would provide a home from Mr. and Mrs. Rivers. Food for the students would be prepared in the home’s kitchen, and it would be served in the dining room. A bungalow was built for use as a classroom, and St. Mark’s park, across the street from the school, would serve as a place for students to exercise and play.

The Chronicle of Brookline reported on the opening of Mr. Rivers’s school and called it “a project unique in New England private school education.” What was unique about Mr. Rivers’s approach was that his school was created as an open-air school for healthy boys. Essentially, he believed that if the open-air had salutary health benefits for children sick with tuberculosis or other contagious diseases, that the same approach would keep healthy children healthy. In the school catalogue for 1926-27, he explained his approach in this way:

The Rivers School is founded on the principle that every growing boy, like every growing plant, is entitled to all the sunlight and fresh air he can get…. We have never pretended that fresh air would be a panacea for all ills; there are too many ways to pick up germs in our modern life; only we have said that we would suffer less often—and that when we did suffer we would suffer less.

The school was designed to maximize the exposure of boys to the open air. During Mr. Rivers’s tenure as head of school (1915-1928), students were taught in bungalows. These bungalows were bare-bone classrooms. Each had a roof to protect students from the direct impact of rain and snow, but the walls consisted almost entirely of windows, and the windows were kept open year round, no matter what the weather. There were no artificial heating systems in the rooms. To keep warm, students sat in sitting bags during the coldest months. These sitting bags look a lot like sleeping bags, and plans for making them were readily available in magazines and journals devoted to education and the treatment of tuberculosis. During the 1920s, electrical outlets were installed in the classroom floors, and students were able to plug in electric sitting bags to keep warm. Heated ink wells were never introduced, so on the coldest days it was sometimes not possible to do written work because the ink would freeze.

In the early years of the school, Robert Rivers was advised by a panel of eight doctors, who all graduated from Harvard Medical School by 1907, and who represented a diverse combination of specialties: tuberculosis, urology, throat ailments, orthopedics, mental diseases, and children’s diseases. The most important of these advisors was Dr. Richard Smith. Smith was a pediatrician, and had been trained at a time when pediatrics was a relatively new field. He emphasized the connection of health and education in his research and practice, and was a recognized expert in pediatrics throughout his career. He helped found the American Pediatric Society, and he developed and served as the first head of the department of maternal and child health in the Harvard School of Public Health. He also taught the first course in the United States on the “maintenance of health in the well child.” Robert Rivers could not have asked for a better advisor than Dr. Smith and the other doctors who served on his committee.

The claim for the uniqueness of Rivers is likely a bit hyperbolic, but there is a grain of truth to it. At the time that Rivers was founded, there had been a couple of attempts to repurpose already existing private schools as open-air schools, but there does not seem to have been any private school founded specifically as an open-air school where the health of already healthy children was the driving focus. In the end, the fact that Mr. Rivers Open-Air School was founded with this particular philosophy does give it a valid claim to uniqueness.

By the 1930s, the open-air movement in U.S. schools was in decline, and most open-air schools had revised their philosophies. When Clarence Allen became Rivers’s second headmaster in 1929, he immediately had Franklin stoves in all the classrooms, and the school slowly abandoned its open-air philosophy. While you will find no evidence of the philosophy in the current iteration of the school, the open-air days are still reflected in the school’s architecture: the four campus buildings on the quad, with their peaked roofs and many windows, as well as the covered walkway that connects recall the look of the buildings on the Dean Road campus, the heyday of Rivers as an open-air school.
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