Offices & Resources

"The School Under One Roof": Present, Past, and Future

Chapel Talk

John Warren
March 26, 2019

"One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn't as individuals." – Jean Vanier

"In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it. – Marianne Williamson

"The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members." – Coretta Scott King
A distinguishing characteristic of St. Mark's is that so much of the life of our School takes place in this Main Building. Here we are in the Chapel, so we worship together in the Main Building; 13 faculty and over 100 students live in the Main Building;
we take our meals together in the Main Building; most of the School's academic work takes place in the Main Building in classrooms, offices, and the library; many administrative offices are located in the Main Building; and the intellectual heart of the School, the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, is located right in the physical center of the Main Building. So, while we are not literally a school under one roof, since living and learning take place elsewhere on our campus too, the phrase "school under one roof" certainly describes St. Mark's accurately.
When I ask St. Markers, students and adults alike, to tell me the first word that comes to mind about our School, the answer—again and again and again—is community. Surely, a major reason the sense of community is so strong at St. Mark's is because so much of the life of our School takes place within the walls of this Main Building, within the very thoughtfully designed 190,000+ square feet that exist under one (big) roof.

I am convinced, too, that the Main Building contributes to the vibrancy of the School's educational program. Because we see each other so much in the Main Building, both formally and informally, we develop a depth of relationship which fosters many virtues, including student self-confidence. Frequent affirming interactions with peers, and with faculty and staff, including House Heads, classroom teachers, advisors, administrators, and support staff, provide many benefits, like the encouragement to take positive growth inducing risks. Both implicitly and explicitly, you are encouraged to apply to be a peer discussion leader, apply to be a Monitor, seek a STEM Fellowship or a History Fellowship, apply to the trip to Namibia or Segovia, or the Australia or Chile Exchange, or try wrestling or crew even though you have never done it before.

St. Mark's needs students to be willing to put themselves out there in these ways in order for such a diversity of programs to thrive. So, our Main Building, an integral part of our intentionally small school, creates the conditions for you to think big.

I am convinced, too, that the fact so much of our lives takes place under one roof encourages the development of positive character and leadership qualities. When you spend so much of your life together, you can either become very frustrated with another — and I know that happens sometimes — or you can be motivated all the more to be your best self, exhibiting kindness, consideration, the desire to understand the perspective of someone different from yourself, the desire to work collaboratively and bring out the best in others. I am so pleased by the number of instances of these positive qualities that I see and I hear about every day.
When I was a student here, St. Mark's was even more of a school under one roof than we are now. Some parts of the school that have now moved to other buildings all took place here. The Health Center, for example, called the Infirmary, was located in the Main Building, occupying some of the square footage that is now Thayer House.
In my day, about halfway down the corridor from what is now Gaccon, heading to Thayer, you entered doors into the Infirmary. I gained a little more direct experience of the Infirmary than I wanted to during the fall of my VI Form year as I recovered from a concussion. During the last play of the Groton football game, on Belmont Field, I was kicked in the head by a Groton player, as I undertook a block for our tailback. While everyone else was streaming off the field, Groton happier than St. Mark's because they had won the game, I was lying there all by myself, passed out cold. While I have only foggy memories of the next few days, I do remember being treated very kindly by the nurses in the Main Building's Infirmary.
And the Headmaster lived in the Main Building. The stairs outside my office that lead to Admission Offices and Thayer led to the Head's family residence. The residence, at one point, occupied the entire wing above my office and the Faculty Room. That is why the Thayer student rooms closest to Thieriot House contain hardwood floors and fireplaces.

If the School had not decided to move the head and family out of the Main Building in the 1980s, you would join Dr. Warren and me for our advisor dinners in the head's family dining room which was located where the package closet and bathrooms are now. As a Monitor, I had lunch with the headmaster once a week in that dining room. The dining room had an adjoining kitchen, where Mr. Henchey's office is now, and VI Formers got to fix snacks there from a well-appointed refrigerator every night after Study Hall. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, with two pieces of perfectly cooked toast, at 9:45 p.m. was pretty great, especially since no one ordered take-out at that time.
We were also more of a school under one roof when I was at St. Mark's in the 1970s because all of the boarders lived in the Main Building. West Campus and Thieriot House had not yet been constructed. Some of the Main Building spaces that contained student rooms and faculty apartments have now been renovated and put to other uses,for example Red Hall. And the living conditions for younger students were a bit more spartan than currently.
The north and south Wings of Coe, and Gaccon's Hotel Hall contained cubicles; only the prefects had real rooms. The cubicles contained three walls and a curtain and no ceiling. If you stood in the middle of the cubicle and stretched your arms, your fingertips touched each of the side walls, which were about seven feet tall.
The cubicle was only a bit longer than the bed. Employing creativity for place names was not a St. Mark's hallmark in the 1970s. The dorms were named A, B, and C, with A and B (now Coe) for III Formers, and C (now Gaccon) for II Formers, eighth graders.
Except for Sunday, we used Dorms A, B, and C pretty much only for sleeping. During free periods and in the evenings we studied at an assigned desk in what was then the School Room and is now the main floor of the Center. There was no Lower Center at that time, so the School Room floor, and the desks, extended all the way to the far wall which currently holds the video screen that we use during School Meetings. Study Halls were supervised by a faculty member from a desk on a raised platform close to where Mr. Camp's office is now. School Meeting took place in the School Room too, run by the Headmaster and taking the form mostly of pretty dry announcements.

While the living and learning conditions I describe may sound a little grim, being together so much did create a strong sense of community. I very much appreciated that sense of community then, just as I do with what I see at a far more comfortable St. Mark's now. I also know that the positive features of that community, our school under one roof, helped me to think big and also to grow intellectually and personally in important and lasting ways.
So how did this school under one roof concept come into being? It actually dates to the School's founding in 1865. Originally, St. Mark's was located on the corner of Main Street and Marlboro Road, where the booths are set up for the Harvest Fair in early October, and where Santa lands in his helicopter every December. The original building contained alcoves for the 12 enrolled boys, and rooms for the headmaster and his wife and three faculty members. The building also contained classrooms, a dining room, kitchen, offices and a desk-filled School Room.
Chapel took place every morning in the School Room when the headmaster led the School in prayers after rotating the large blackboard located behind his desk to reveal a stained glass window and small cross affixed to the other side of the blackboard.(1)
By the 1880s, student enrollment had grown to over 70 and so the Trustees, including founder Joseph Burnett, purchased the land up the hill from the original Main Building, identifying the top of the hill as the perfect location for an enlarged school. Influenced by the advocacy of Headmaster William Peck, the Trustees decided that the School would remain under one roof, just under a bigger roof. The Trustees made a courageous and brilliant choice for the school's architect: Henry Forbes Bigelow, St. Mark's Class of 1884. While only 20 years old at the time of his selection, Bigelow had already distinguished himself as an architectural student at MIT. He would go on to become one of the foremost architects of his era.(2)
The original Main Building, which opened in 1890, did not look quite as it does now. For example, the English Wing only had classrooms on the VI Form Quad side, the Hinkle Room and Small Dining Hall did not exist, and the School's main entrance was the door across the hall from the Hinkle Room.
A circular gravel path, around the circumference of the VI Form Quad, accommodated cars that could drive through the archway of the Cloisters and drop visitors off at the original main entrance.

Headmaster Peck and architect Bigelow thought hard about designing spaces that would most effectively foster community. The result was three distinctive gathering spaces, each with its own purpose and each that would fit the entire student body and faculty. We can all be deeply appreciative of this visionary thinking.
The first gathering space is the Chapel, originally about half its current size and with all the seats facing forward, toward the English Wing. The second is the School Room, now the Center.
As I mentioned, the School Room contained desks for every student, lined up in rows. Originally these desks faced the English Wing, and they were later turned to face the current Center offices. The third large community space is the Dining Hall, the same 30-foot width as today and 60 feet long instead of the present 90.
(The original length would take you from the front door to the current fire escape.) The dining hall had a raised platform as it does today, however the platform was located at the opposite end, by the front door, underneath the balcony. The animal heads came later. (3)

One of the many brilliant aspects in Mr. Bigelow's design is the width of the Main Building corridors. I wish I knew how deeply Mr. Bigelow's choice of width was guided by theory because our corridor widths align perfectly with seminal research about space undertaken by the cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall in the 1960s. (4)Hall, not relate to the former St. Mark's Headmaster, is related to Mr. Waters. Edward T. Hall created the field of proxemics, which identified the amount of space people need between each other to feel comfortable and also the amount of space between people that makes them feel disconnected from one another. (5) So, Hall's research allows you to identify the width of a corridor that will avoid the feeling that someone is invading your personal space when they pass you and will also avoid the experience of not even seeing the other person when they pass. Corridors that are just the right width, like Bigelow designed for St. Mark's, encourage us to make eye contact and greet each other as we pass, enhancing community.

Through the generations, of course, the Main Building has been added to and renovated. Each change has helped the building adjust to a new reality, like the need for more classroom and laboratory space for STEM education in 2013 or more square footage for our library in the early 1970s. Each addition and renovation has built upon the foundation of the original Peck-Bigelow design, thus supporting the development of community and its attendant benefits.
Continuing the pattern of making our spaces right for the times, while maintaining the tradition of a school under one roof, we have some exciting future building and renovation plans. First, in the fall of 2022, we plan to open a new residence hall located parallel to the visitor's sideline of Belmont Field.
While I know many people love West Campus, and for good reason, bringing all boarders back to the East side of Route 85 and close to the Main Building will further strengthen our already important sense of community. The opportunity for strong peer relationships and faculty student relationships
will be even greater when all students either have a home in one of the Main Building houses or in Thieriot or the very close new residence hall.
The new residence hall will accommodate up to 150 students and will contain 12 three and four-bedroom faculty apartments. We are thinking hard about how design decisions for the new residence hall can support the growth of intellect, character, and leadership.
This exercise is also promoting expansive thinking, that will surely continue even after the residence hall opens in 2022, about how intentional education for students in all houses, including Burnett, can further intellect, character, and leadership growth even more comprehensively than at present. We know, from current experience, about the advances in consideration, collaboration, and understanding of others that a strong community can facilitate.
While I realize that the new residence hall only strengthens the concept of a school under one roof in symbolic terms since many students will continue to live outside the Main Building, its existence also makes possible further upgrades to the Main Building that will make the actual school under one roof even better. Once the new residence hall has been completed, we will create a Humanities and Social Science Center in the Main Building that will provide every teacher of English, History, Social Science, Language, and Religion a classroom the size of Room 136, where Mr. Camp and Ms. Hultin now teach. These classrooms will be located in the current English Wing, in Sawyer, and in much of Coe. We will upgrade the part of Coe that will remain a dormitory also as part of the project. Thanks to the number of student rooms in the new residence hall, we will be able to house the students who cannot live in Coe and Sawyer there during the renovation. Once we have completed the Humanities and Social Science Center and the Coe upgrade, we will upgrade the faculty apartments and student rooms in Thayer and Gaccon. We will be able to house the students who cannot live in Thayer and Gaccon in the new residence hall during that renovation.
Surely, William Peck and Henry Forbes Bigelow never envisioned how the concept of the school under one roof would evolve in the 130 years since the Main Building opened. Indeed, as a student I never envisioned how the concept would evolve since the 1970s.
I do know that as far back as Joseph Burnett's original 1865 school, the concept of living and learning together in one building was recognized as encouraging a strong sense of community that facilitated important intellectual and personal growth. Peck and Bigelow's genius was designing spaces in the Main Building that maximized the potential for developing community, spaces that have remained central to the life of the School ever since 1890. I am excited to see how the upcoming building and renovation projects reinforce and further strengthen our sense of community while helping us nurture just the right skills and habits of mind for leading a life of consequence.

Thank you.
(1) I have taken the historical information which follows from two earlier Chapel Talks I gave about the Main Building: March 29, 2016 and March 24, 2011. I draw now, as I then, on Nick Noble's history of St. Mark's: Richard E. Noble, The Echo of Their Voices: 150 Years of St. Mark's School, Hollis, New Hampshire: Hollis Publishing, 2015.
(2) Noble, p. 51.
(3) Noble, p. 61
(4) Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension, New York: Doubleday, 1966.
(5) Hall, and others who have studied proxemics, note that perceptions of space vary, to a certain extent, between cultures.
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John Warren '74