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The Coffin School.  Photograph courtesy of the author.

Do You Know This Building? The Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin Lancasterian School, Part One

This short history became a little long so I will present it in two parts.

It is an imposing face on the small street known as Winter Street.  Captured between Liberty and Main Streets, the tall, brick Greek Revival building with its two tall white columns and marble steps and pediment, the Coffin School is surrounded by green lawns, majestic trees, and a wrought iron fence.  But despite its perhaps stiff appearance, this building has been the center of learning for thousands of Nantucketers across two centuries and into the twenty-first century.

Founded in 1827 by Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin, a forty-year veteran of the Royal Navy who was born and raised in Boston, the flamboyant Admiral still considered America his home.  As a Coffin, he was descended from the original English settlers of Nantucket and desired to give something to the island that had so wonderfully hosted him during his visit and that was populated with his kinsman.  With no heirs, he wanted to “cause his name to be remembered.”  A ship, a church, and even a monument of himself were proposed by the Admiral until he was swayed to create a school for his kinsman. 

When it was officially incorporated in June 1827, the purpose of the Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin’s Lancasterian School was “for the purpose of promoting decency, good order and morality, and for giving a good English education to youth who are descendants of the late Tristram Coffin . . .”  In the 1820s, the population of Nantucket numbered 7,266 individuals and given that just about everyone was related, most islanders were descendants of Tristram Coffin.  And thus, the Admiral’s school was open to most Nantucketers.  While originally the thought had been for a free school, the Admiral decided a small sum should be charged because he believed that free things were not valued properly.

Fair and Lyon Streets was where the school was first opened, in a pre-existing building that had been home to a school established by the Methodist Society.  On Nantucket, public schools had been slow to make an appearance in large part due to the influence of the Quaker community’s beliefs in education.  But when the Coffin School opened, it enrolled 130 children aged seven to sixteen.  Girls and boys were taught separately in the Lancasterian style – older students served as tutors and monitors and the older classes taught the younger classes what they had learned.  Additionally, this served as a very economical solution, allowing for fewer teachers.  Classes included: reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, grammar, geometry, rhetoric, algebra, chemistry, natural philosophy, and history.  Later, French, astronomy, and bookkeeping were added among several other subjects.

One of the Admiral’s greatest desires was to have boys prepared in nautical training.  In 1829, the Admiral purchased the brig Clio to serve as a training ship.  With US Navy Lieutenant Alexander Pinkham as captain (his portrait still hangs in the Coffin School), the brig set sail in August 1829 but it was to be a short-lived part of the Coffin School.  Unprofitable and with many complaints of mistreatment made by the boys aboard ship, the Clio was sold in 1831 by the Trustees but not before setting a record as the first schoolship program in the United States.

In 1846, the school was forced to close due to several events that were brought economic devastation to the island, including the Great Fire of 1846 and the demise of whaling on Nantucket. The Coffin School Trustees decided to close the School for a few years in order to allow the endowment to grow.

By 1852, the endowment was robust and building began on a new school.  Land on Winter Street had been purchased from Coffin School Trustee, Charles G. Coffin, in 1846.  While the architect is unknown, early records show that the builders were James Thompson and Edward Easton.  By 1854, the building was complete and the first students began classes in the new building on September 1854.  No longer a Lancasterian school after 1831, the new School’s faculty was expanded, classes ran six days per week, and Latin, German, and music were added to the curriculum.  But as the public schools gained popularity and the island population continued to decline, the Coffin School struggled to maintain a steady number of scholars.  When it opened in the 1850s, the School averaged about one hundred students, but later that decade it had dwindled to approximately forty.  However, an upsurge occurred and the School became so filled with scholars that the Trustees added a room to the back of the School in the early 1870s (now often referred to as the Paddock Room after a later School teacher and principal).  Principal Edmund B. Fox was the principal at the time and was credited with the surge in enrollments – due to his reputation.  Fox’s assistants were also young women who were well-known for their scholarly ability on the island and numerous young women taught under him throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century including Louise S. Baker, the first woman to serve as the island’s Congregational minister and an author, and Gertrude King who served as Fox’s assistant for the longest period and succeeded him as principal – the first woman to serve as the Coffin School’s principal.   But despite this upswing in enrollment and the good reputation for which the Coffin School was again regarded, hard times fell on the School in 1898.  The School closed. 

Its second rebirth came in 1903 when it reopened as a school for manual training classes that would work in conjunction with the public schools.  This was the brainstorm of Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin, the granddaughter of one of the first Coffin School Trustees, and an island artist.  In 1902, she founded the Coffin School Association (CSA) which in large part was to help with increasing the School’s endowment.  It was incorporated in 1909 and worked side-by-side with the Coffin School Trustees, serving as its fundraising arm.

The Nation of Nantucket

The “Nation of Nantucket” was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1847.  It was used by Edward Byers as the title of his 1987 publication on Nantucket society and politics from 1660 – 1820.  Both men spoke of the isolation and uniqueness of Nantucket and that such a title was fitting for our tiny spit of land far out at sea.  I, too, feel that it is appropriate – on many levels.  I use it as the title of this column because here I intend to regale you with all sorts of stories about Nantucketers, island life, island institutions, and the history (good and bad) of a small island that had an enormous influence on the world.  My focus will be mainly on Nantucket women, of course, but I will add some other things of interest to me – and I hope you – as well.  Stay tuned and to read my blog for the Maria Mitchell Association go to “Maria Mitchell’s Attic.”  And to read more about Nantucket's daring daughters, check out my new book The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island: How Island Women from the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries Lived a Life Contrary to Other American Women available at island bookstores and on Nantucket Chronicle's Marketplace.

Jascin N. Leonardo Finger has served as curator of the Mitchell House at the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association since 1999.  She holds a Master’s in History.  Her passions are her family, all things Nantucket, good food, weaving, and photographing historic architecture.  The island has been a part of her life since she was introduced to it at age 1½ by her parents.  She lives year-round on the island with her husband, a naval architect, their son, and their Siberian Husky who takes them on long walks from one glorious end of the island to the other.