The Rivers campus at 333 Winter Street in Weston is the school’s fourth campus, and October 5, 2020 will mark the sixty-year anniversary of its opening. While the Weston campus has served as the school’s home longer than any other previous campus, it is similar to the previous three campuses in that it was originally built as a private residence. At each campus the conversion of a private residence into a school required school leaders to confront a number of major challenges. Luck would play a large part in the acquisition of the Weston property, a fact that all the campuses share as well. What would set the Weston campus apart from previous campuses would be the fact that school leaders were able to create a campus unconstrained by already existing buildings.
Mr. Rivers Open-Air School opened in September 1915 at 81 Marion Street in Brookline. The mansion at 81 Marion Street had been the home of one of Brookline’s wealthiest and most prominent residents, William Henry Hill. Mr. Rivers and his wife lived in the mansion, and the mansion would also house the school’s administrative offices, and food for students and staff was prepared in the kitchen and served in the mansion’s dining room. Bungalows—one-room buildings with walls that consisted mostly of windows—were created for the classrooms on the mansion’s grounds, and students played and exercised in St. Mark’s Park across the street from the mansion. Mr. Rivers moved the school to Dean Road in the Fisher Hill neighborhood of Brookline after two years at Marion Street. The Dean Road property had a private home and other buildings that could serve the school’s administrative and food service needs. The bungalows at Marion Street were moved and additional ones built to create more classroom space for the growing school. After fifteen years as an open-air school, Clarence Allen, the school’s second headmaster, decided to move the school again. He did not like what he considered the shabby look of the Dean Road property, which he felt made an unfavorable impression on families and negatively impacted the school’s ability to attract students. The Adie Estate on Heath Street was an upgrade in “class.” The property had a mansion that would house the Upper School and a carriage house that would house the Lower School. The grounds were spacious enough to provide space for football and baseball fields and a hockey rink, and plenty of room—at least temporarily!—to accommodate the school’s academic and extra-curricular needs.
When George Blackwell became the school’s third headmaster in 1953, the school was still at the Adie Estate and opened that year with an enrollment of 167 students. In the 1940s, the buildings and grounds of the Adie Estate were large enough to accommodate a student body of 100-150 students, but the growth of the school created pressure for more classroom and study hall space, more kitchen and dining space, and more playing fields. Within a few years of his arrival, Mr. Blackwell and the Board of Trustees were seriously investigating the idea of moving the school again. By this time Rivers was drawing its students from a wider circle of cities and towns, and the Board began to consider moving the school to a suburb further west of Boston. Mr. Blackwell’s brother John, who had graduated from Rivers in 1930, was a consultant, and he was hired to do a “family location study,” which would draw on census and population records to identify demographic trends for the purpose of determining where Rivers families might be living ten and twenty-five years in the future. Weston was one of the areas under consideration when luck intervened in the story. The school clearly needed more space, and the town of Brookline had raised the possibility of taking the Adie Estate by eminent domain to increase its recreational land, putting further pressure on the school to consider moving. In 1956, Trustee Peter Coues learned from his wife, a metrowest realtor, that a large parcel of land on a pond in Weston had just become available and that it might make an ideal location for a school. Coues shared the information with the Board, but raising the money to buy the property and then transforming the property into a school was seen as a major obstacle. Luck intervened again, this time at Mass General Hospital. Dr. Hathorn Brown, who was president of the school’s Board of Trustees from 1955-1957, was scrubbing in for surgery and talking with a colleague, Dr. Philip Walker. He told Walker about the dilemma the school’s Board found itself in. Walker offered to write him a check that day to purchase the Weston property. Through Walker’s generosity, the school acquired the majority of the property that now makes up the Rivers campus.
The Weston campus was actually created by combining two properties, the purchase of the larger of the two having been facilitated by Dr. Walker. The larger property had been a farm owned by Elisha Jones at the time of the American Revolution. It consisted of about twenty-three acres and was purchased at a cost of $42,500. Today it makes up the bulk of the school’s campus and contains the majority of fields and buildings. The smaller of the two properties consists of the land across the brook, the location of the maintenance building, junior parking lot, and baseball field. This seven-acre property was purchased for $15,000.
The Weston property has an important and unique part in the history of Weston. At the time of the Revolutionary War the land was owned by Elisha Jones (1710-1776), one of Weston’s most prominent and successful citizens. Jones lived in a large house in Weston center, and owned over 274 acres of land in various parts of the town and another 9000 acres in western Massachusetts. His real estate holdings were just one part of his many business and commercial interests. Jones was also a loyalist—someone who supported the British king during the Revolution—and he was vocal in that support. He was harassed by his neighbors, and he eventually left Weston for the safety of a loyalist enclave in Boston. Jones had eleven children, some of whom, like their father, supported King George, but others of whom supported the colonists. Jones’s loyalist sons were banished from Massachusetts by order of the General Court by its Act of Banishment (1778). The following year the General Court passed an Act of Confiscation (1779), which allowed for the seizure of all of Jones’s Weston properties. These properties, including his “field at Nonesuch,” were sold in a series of seven auctions between 1782-1785. Jones was not the only Weston loyalist, but he was the only Weston loyalist whose property was confiscated and sold by the state. After 1785 the properties changed hands on a number of occasions before being purchased for the school in 1956.
A more recent twist related to this part of the campus’s history came in 1996 when Congress passed the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity Act, otherwise known as the Helms-Burton Amendment. This act created a process for American citizens who had lost property during the Cuban revolution to sue for compensation, and it denied visas and entry into the United States to individuals who “trafficked” in U.S.-claimed properties in Cuba. The act affected many Mexican and Canadian companies, and two members of the Canadian Parliament introduced a bill that would have allowed Canadians who were descendants of Revolutionary-era loyalists to sue for recovery of property that their families had lost in the American Revolution. The authors’ allowed the bill to die at the end of the session, but Jones’s loyalist sons had migrated to Canada, and many of their descendants live there to this day. Would they have sued for compensation for the loss of the family’s fields on Winter Street if the bill had become law?
It would be four years from the time of the purchase of the Winter Street property until school opened in Weston on October 5, 1960. The Weston property was an old farm that consisted of a large farmhouse, a barn, and a blacksmith’s shop. The farmhouse was a logical choice for the headmaster’s residence, and Mr. Blackwell, his wife, and three daughters moved into the house in October 1957. Over the next three years as planning for the new campus took place and building was commenced, the Board held its meetings at the campus, and a series of father-son workdays was held to clear brush, rake leaves, and trim trees to help get the campus ready. The school also invested in the preparation of fields long before the construction of any buildings commenced. Some of the first donations for the new campus were made to help create a football field, which was completed in November 1958 at a cost of $21,000.
The school’s first two campuses had relied on relatively simple and inexpensive bungalows for its classrooms, and at the Adie Estate the many rooms in the mansion and carriage house provided the spaces needed for study halls and classrooms. The situation was different at Weston. The barn and blacksmith shop could not easily be converted for classroom use, so buildings would have to be created to provide classroom buildings and a gym. This would give school leaders their first opportunity to design a campus they really wanted rather than trying to “fit” the school into already existing spaces. The school was lucky to engage two young and visionary architects to design the new campus. Luck played a role here as well, and this time it was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean! The Blackwells spent the summer of 1956 traveling in Europe. On their return trip, they met Rem Huygens, a young architect who was traveling to New York to begin work for the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer. The recently purchased Weston property was discussed by them, as well as the plans for the new campus. When Huygens reached New York, he discussed the project with Allan Chapman, who was also a young architect at the firm, and Chapman proposed to Huygens that they submit plans for the project. The Board ultimately engaged them to design the new campus.
Many challenges had to be overcome to get the Weston campus built. Groundbreaking took place on November 14, 1959. The Board believed the project would cost about $525,000. Some of that money came from the sale of the Adie Estate to the town of Brookline, but most had to be raised or borrowed. The school had only just created its first endowment fund, and an annual giving program did not exist, so school leaders needed to fundraise and borrow to cover the costs. Strikes provided further complications. America was in the midst of a major steel strike at the time, and this created the possibility of increased steel costs. Near the end of the project, a bricklayers’ strike slowed the completion of building exteriors, which is one reason why the school opened in October not September. Because the Board was not able to raise all of the necessary monies for the project, the gym was started late and was not designed to be full size in order to save money—it had only three bays, not the five it has today. The gym could not be completed in time for the opening of school and would not ultimately open until January 1961. As students were supposed to be served lunch each day in the gym, students and faculty were forced to bring bag lunches to school during the school’s first four months. With the gym incomplete, athletes were also forced to shower after practices and games in the barn using garden hoses!
When the school finally opened in Weston on October 5, 1960 it looked very different from today: there were just two academic and administrative buildings (today’s Prince Building and Haynes Hall), a partially-completed gym, and multiple playing fields. Over the years at Weston the school has continued to grow, adding new buildings and the renovating old buildings and field space. When the school moved to the Weston campus, school leaders for the first time had the power to create and shape the kind of campus they wanted. Their creativity was certainly limited by the physical limits of the property, but they were not constrained by a need to find ways to accommodate the school’s programs by fitting them into already existing buildings as had been the case on earlier campuses. The new art and science building, scheduled to open in January 2020, is a reminder of the freedom that the Weston campus has given school leaders to remake the campus and allow it to better meet the needs of the school’s evolving programs and growth.