"A place of attraction to all..."

The Importance of Beauty According to Edward E. Allen

Perkins tower in the background with pear trees and horse drawn carriages in the foreground.

The Howe Building seen across Charles River Road with a horse-drawn carriage at the lower right and pear trees at the left. Part of a postcard book from the Perkins Institution, printed circa 1923.

November 6, 2018

In the 1912 Annual Report, Edward E. Allen made a convincing argument for why Perkins needed to move out of South Boston. He described how the campus had become “cramped and uninviting” and that it was “shut in by streets and structures.” As Perkins grew and expanded, there was not enough room for the programs. He also explained that the site “though really near the main city, was out of the path of many desirable visitors.” There is also mention of a fire hazard created by overcrowding in the boys’ collective housing arrangement. 

Perkins purchased the Josiah Stickney estate in Watertown in 1910. Construction began soon after a contract was signed on December 31, 1910 and students moved in for the 1912 school year. An article in The Brickbuilder, published in July 1913, describes the property: “It is very largely level, sloping off towards the river, with steep banks and terraces which swing back to form a small valley near the middle of the boundary line. An existing driveway, bordered by splendid trees for half its length, has been used as an approach from the west. Along the west boundary a fine row of lindens screen the lot from the adjacent dwellings, and there are as well several small orchards. An attractive feature is a small natural pond near the middle of the property.”

Allen was a firm believer in the benefits of “simple beauty” for schools for the blind. Before returning to Perkins as the third director, Allen worked as the director of Overbrook School for the Blind. While at Overbrook, he oversaw the design of their campus and, despite being sent all over Europe by the Perkins Trustees to observe different models, he remained certain that the Overbrook model was the best. At Overbrook, the architectural planning made use of “every sensed object of the place to convey intelligence and beauty to the sightless…” (Allen, 62). In the 1912 Annual Report, Allen wrote about how as he “helped shape the plan of the new buildings of [Overbrook], [he] laid [his] main emphasis on centralized control with a beautiful environment.” He goes on to say that he “unhesitatingly” recommends repeating the same plan for Perkins’ new campus. 

Allen believed so strongly in the benefits of a beautiful campus that he even included as one of the requirements to fulfill the object of Perkins. The object, he wrote, is “the training of blind boys and girls to live lives of happiness and efficiency, both in the institution and in the world.” To meet this, the institution must not only be “a laboratory in which shall be possible plenty of hard work and play…” but also, it must be “A place of attraction to all -- first, those who live and labor there, and, second to visitors -- to the public who are the to be future employers of the graduates.” 

As a arboriculturist, with a specialty in pears, Mr. Allen not only “multiplied the shrubbery but also directed the setting out of young orchased, small fruit, grapevines, and nut trees” across the new campus (Allen, 66). He was known to tend to the trees himself before breakfast and in the evenings without a professional gardener on staff. Allen also kept bees. He hoped that there would be a “wide-spread interest in personal gardening at Watertown,” but staff interest ultimately dwindled (Allen, 67).  

Sources:

Allen, Katherine Gibbs. (1940). Edward Ellis Allen. Cambridge MA: Riverside Press.