An ever-changing campus

Since 1912, Perkins School for the Blind’s historic campus in Watertown, Mass. has evolved to meet the needs of its students

The Howe Building sits on a small hill, behind sparse trees on the banks of the Charles River. People in three canoes paddle on the river.

In 1913, the sparsely wooded banks of the Charles River afforded a clear view of Perkins’ campus, which had recently relocated to Watertown, Massachusetts.

October 20, 2015

The best way to show a newcomer the Perkins School for the Blind campus, some would argue, is to say as little as possible. The gothic buildings, topped by the school’s signature bell tower, gracefully set on the rolling campus, and the teachers and students going about their work – all speak for themselves.

But that would only tell part of the story. Beneath the brick facades and arched windows is an innovative and bustling campus – one that has adapted and evolved to meet the changing needs of children and young adults who are blind.

At the center of campus is the century-old Howe Building. Named after Samuel Gridley Howe, the school’s first director, it consists of two squares with the iconic 180-foot bell tower at its center. In addition to classrooms and offices, the building houses a performance hall, museum, chapel, research library, two gymnasiums and a pool. At either end of the Howe Building are two sets of facing cottages, originally boys on the east and girls on the west. Today the cottages are coeducational. The family-style cottage plan helps teach students skills for living.

The campus has many built-in features to enhance accessibility. Tactile guides are everywhere – from varied floor tiles at the ends of corridors to carved rosettes marking the seats of the Allen Chapel in the Howe Building. Walkways on campus are slightly crowned to help students navigate.

A nationwide rubella epidemic in the mid-1960s left many children blind or deafblind and also led to the construction of two new buildings on the Perkins campus. The North Building, which was renamed the Conrad N. Hilton Building in 1994, is the home of Perkins’ Deafblind Program, which expanded significantly in the wake of the rubella epidemic. The Northeast Building, which originally housed teacher trainees and parents bringing children for evaluation, is now the home of Perkin’s Community Programs – serving students, families and education professionals throughout New England.

The new century brought new additions to the Perkins campus. In 2003 Perkins’ Horticulture Therapy Program moved into the newly dedicated Thomas and Bessie Pappas Horticultural Center. The sunny greenhouse, filled with plants chosen for touch, scent and visual appeal, now hosts classes, vocational training and a farmers market.

Between 2009 and 2010, Perkins broke ground on two new state-of-the-art buildings. The first was a new Lower School building. Equipped with the latest technology and modern amenities, the spacious building provides an optimal learning environment for students with multiple disabilities. The second was the Grousbeck Center for Students & Technology. Made possible with a $10 million commitment from the Grousbeck Family Foundation, the Center is a dedicated space for students to gather and experiment with cutting-edge technology, while also offering opportunities to practice transition and vocational skills.

Today, the Perkins campus continues to grow and change. In 2015 Perkins unveiled a new accessible playground. Located at the center of campus, the Bradlee Park playground includes a wheelchair-accessible play structure, musical instruments, high-contrast colors to help students with limited vision, and physical challenges – both for students in wheelchairs and those who are more mobile.

Together these buildings and structures represent the seamless merging of the school’s traditional commitment to excellence and the creative innovation that Perkins School for the Blind brings to education in the 21st century.

This article includes language and research from the book “Perkins School for the Blind” by Kimberly French. For more information about the history of Perkins, sign up for the Perkins Archives’ newsletter. See historic photographs of Perkins’ campus on Flickr.

Read more about: Perkins Campus, Perkins History