The New England Asylum for the Blind was incorporated in 1829 and opened its doors in August of 1832 at 140 Pleasant Street in Boston. Director Samuel Gridley Howe, having returned only weeks earlier from a tour of schools for the blind in Europe, was eager to find students and begin instructing them.
At first, the new institution had no facility and no funds, so Howe persuaded his father to convert his home into a residential school. With two teachers he had hired while he was in Europe and the cheerful assistance of his sisters, Howe started with six students, ranging in age from 6 to 20 years.
The school’s success brought generous donations from the public, appropriations from the legislatures of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island - and yet more students. In less than a year the Pleasant Street house became too small. Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins, a wealthy merchant and philanthropist, donated his house on Pearl Street as a new home for the school.
Pearl Street beginnings
The sturdy brick stables at the Pearl Street site were converted to classrooms and workshops. For $14,000 the adjoining estate fronting on Atkinson Street was purchased for a playground. In September of 1833 the institution moved to its new home with 34 pupils. This site is now part of Post Office Square in Boston.
Within a few years, the Pearl Street facility was cramped and overcrowded. At the time, male and female students were kept strictly separated, which was increasingly difficult and inconvenient as enrollment continued to grow. By 1836, 80 pupils needed to be accommodated, so the school built an addition to the mansion, nearly doubling its size. The boys lived and studied in the new wing, and the girls had the original house. The dining room was shared by the two departments, with girls entering from one end and the boys from the other.
During the construction of the additions to the Pearl Street campus, the entire school moved to an unknown location in Cohasset. The distance from the religious, musical and other cultural amenities of the city underscored Director Howe’s determination that the school remain in its urban setting.
South Boston home
By 1839, overcrowding had once again become critical, and there was no more room to expand. A fairly new hotel building on Dorchester Heights in South Boston came on the market, and Colonel Perkins allowed the house on Pearl Street to be sold so that the hotel could be purchased. The school trustees were so grateful to Perkins that they named the school after him: Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind.
The South Boston location had "the advantages of unobstructed streets and open grounds in the neighborhood; and the facilities for sea bathing." The main building had large and airy rooms, plenty of space for classrooms, workrooms, gymnasiums and dormitories. The new accommodations allowed for an increase in the number of students and even more efficient separation of the genders. Additionally, the spacious lot allowed for creating a workshop for adults with completely separate entrances and facilities. Perkins Institution moved to its new campus in South Boston in May of 1839.
In the early 1850s, the city of Boston re-graded the streets around the campus, lowering them by 15 feet. The result was that Perkins was suddenly perched well above the street level, and a long stairway from the street to the front door had to be constructed. The lowering of the streets diminished the square yard of the lot by creating steep embankments that had to be fenced to prevent students from falling. In order to enlarge the playgrounds, an adjoining lot was purchased in 1855.
The water supply in the building was unreliable. It never rose above the basement, and sometimes it failed altogether. The construction of the Cochituate reservoir didn’t remedy the problem, and it wasn’t until 1872 that the water pressure was sufficient to rise to all five floors of the building.
In 1865 a new wing was built, adding a gymnasium, living quarters for school officers, new music rooms and workshops. The last empty lot in the area was purchased to restore the playground area lost to the additions.
Over the years, Director Howe had become dissatisfied with the effects of institutional life upon his students. In the late 1860s he proposed a cottage system, in which students of varying ages would live in a family-like atmosphere. Howe preferred this because it brought the students under the guiding influence and example of the teachers and houseparents with whom they lived, and helped minimize the institutional elements of dormitory life.
While planning for the new cottage system, the Perkins trustees had considered selling the South Boston property and moving to a more rural location. However, Director Howe persuaded them to keep the school in an urban setting. Music was a central element of the Perkins curriculum, and he argued that it was invaluable for students to be within a short distance of professional performances, and also to be easily accessible when they gave their own popular concerts. He pointed out the importance of being near churches of every denomination. Finally, he argued that the urban setting provided more opportunity for exercise and outdoor activity because the paved sidewalks were more easily navigated than muddy rural highways.
The available acreage at Perkins wasn’t sufficient to build cottages for the entire student body. Selling the facility and relocating to another urban site was a possibility, but the value of the South Boston property wasn’t enough to purchase an equivalent one in Cambridge or Boston. Another proposal was to tear down the main building and replace it with cottages and separate educational buildings for boys and girls. This was also found to be too costly. Finally, in 1870, using the existing open space, Perkins built cottages and a schoolhouse for the girls only. The boys remained in the main building, with the dormitories and dining hall reorganized to create family-like groupings as much as possible.
In 1876, upon the death of Samuel Gridley Howe, Michael Anagnos became the second director of Perkins. Anagnos was acutely aware of the need for educational opportunities for younger children who were blind. He founded the Kindergarten for the Blind, which opened in 1887 with a single building in Hyde Square, at the corner of Perkins and Day Streets in Jamaica Plain. Designed by Perkins graduate and building superintendent Dennis Reardon, the three-story brick structure was 46 feet wide and 85 feet deep, with an attic playroom and a basement. In spite of its size, the new school was cozy and homelike, with room for 32 children. Each bedroom housed two students, and the classrooms for boys and girls were separate. The six-acre lot had plenty of room for playgrounds and tree climbing. The kindergarten was very successful, and by 1913, there were four buildings on the site: boys’ and girls’ kindergartens and primary schools.
By the early 20th century, the campus in South Boston was more than 60 years old. Over the years, Perkins had maintained and upgraded the facility, but the wooden structure was increasingly seen as a fire hazard. The school was completely hemmed in by development, and the grounds were "cramped and uninviting." Perhaps the most untenable situation at the South Boston campus was the impossibility of introducing the highly successful cottage system for the male students. The time had come to find a new home for the school.
Under the leadership of Edward Ellis Allen, Perkins’ third director, a 38.5-acre property was purchased in Watertown. Situated on the Charles River, the spacious and lushly wooded Josiah Stickney estate was within walking distance of shops, public transportation and churches.
Having led the Pennsylvania school for the blind during its relocation to a new facility, Director Allen had come to appreciate the inspiring influence of a beautiful school atmosphere. Architect R. Clipston Sturgis created a graceful integrated campus design in the Collegiate Gothic style. The buildings were "wholesomely simple and yet beautiful in lines and coloring." The construction was of brick and concrete with a slate roof, ornamented with gables and bays to admit light and air. Nearly all living and sleeping rooms had a sunny southern exposure. Separate cottage clusters allowed family-style living for both boys and girls, and an independent facility for the kindergarten. The new campus had plenty of room for playgrounds and gardens and rowing on the Charles became a new student enthusiasm.
Perhaps the most distinctive and memorable feature of the campus design was the soaring belfry and tower of the main building. Rising to 180 feet, it was surmounted by a symbolic lantern of education, and for many years has been a beloved symbol of Perkins School for the Blind. Images of the various campus locations can be seen at the Campus Locations Photo Gallery.
When Perkins moved to Watertown in 1912, the school leadership said repeatedly that the school "did not rebuild to change its character, did not build larger, but better." Nonetheless, Perkins’ students and their needs have changed over the years. In the mid-1960s, many children were born blind or deafblind as a result of a nationwide Rubella epidemic. In anticipation of the educational and program needs of these students, in 1970, Perkins built the Northeast Building and the North Building (re-dedicated as the Conrad N. Hilton Building in 1994), both designed by architect Edward Diehl.
Another modern addition to the Watertown campus is the Thomas and Bessie Pappas Horticulture Center - a graceful building combining classroom space and a geothermally heated greenhouse. The Pappas building is made from bricks manufactured by the company that supplied them for the campus construction in 1911. It is at once ultra-modern in its design and versatility, and harmonious with the beauty of the neighboring Howe building and its tower. Together the two buildings represent the seamless merging of the school’s traditional commitment to excellence and the creative innovation that Perkins brings to education in the 21st century. To see images of the various campus locations, go to the Campus Locations Photo Gallery
Suggested citation for scholars
McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Campus Locations. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.