Share on Google+
The Coffin School. Photograph from the collection of the author.

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

Part II of a brief history of the Coffin School.  Read Part I here.

When the Coffin School re-opened with a new mission on October 5, 1903, no fees were passed along to the students – all expenses were paid by the endowment.   Ninth through twelfth grade boys and girls learned woodworking and mechanical drawing, and for a small fee, island adults could come in for evening classes once the building was wired for electricity.  Then basketry and sewing were added to the class offerings for students and to assist in keeping the endowment strong, items made at the School were often sold to support it.  In an effort to better support the School, the well-known Garden Days were instituted in 1914.  They were started by the CSA as a fundraiser and quickly became a community-wide event that was looked forward to with much anticipation for its festivities which included music, pony cart rides, baked good sales, games, auctions, and more.

In 1918, an addition at the rear of the School was built to serve as the home economics room where cooking could be taught, thus expanding the offerings.  The coursework completed at the School counted towards the high school diploma.  Students who enrolled at the Coffin School took their academic classes in the morning at the Academy Hill School and then walked the few blocks to Winter Street for their afternoon classes.  Numerous islanders who attended the School in later dates still fondly recall the walks to and from the buildings, the pranks that were pulled during the walks and at the schoolhouse, and the teachers who taught them.  Alvin Paddock, the principal – starting in 1918 – and the manual trades instructor, was once such admired teacher. When the 1870s addition was renovated in 1954, it was given the name “Paddock Room” in his honor – it had once served as his office.  The Home Economics Department, under the tutelage of Leila Coffin Ray, decorated the space in that year.  Sewing, cooking, and millinery for girls and wood working, mechanical drawing, pattern making (for woodworking and carpentry), lathe work, metalwork, blueprint drawing, and other classes were taught to the boys at the School.  When an individual with a specialty on the island became available to teach, other training could be taught at the School.  Evening classes for adults included upholstery, rug hooking, and carpentry.  Island artist and architect Edgar Jenny taught a class on planning a home.  Interestingly, at one point when senior girls had completed their courses of study, they were taught blueprint drawing.  And the School also taught academic classes required by the G.I. Bill of Rights after the Second World War.   

By 1941, the classes taught at the Coffin School were fully integrated with the Nantucket public school system.  The Manual Training Department was reinvented to some extent because it became a state aided vocational school.  Over the course of the next few decades, teachers included Thomas McAuley, Leroy True, Leila Coffin Williams Ray, Grace Holdgate, and Patrick Paradis.  Classes offered included metalwork and woodworking for the boys and domestic science classes, cooking, and sewing for the girls.  Boys and girls continued to be separated but records show that on occasion, if senior girls had completed all of the requirements in their areas, they were allowed to take some of the classes taught to the boys.  While some of the regulations changed on the types of diplomas awarded and the forms of schooling – both academic and trade – found at the Coffin School, the original desires of Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin in re-inventing the School lived on.

By 1968, a new addition to Nantucket High School had been made and all of the vocational classes left the Coffin School and united under one roof.  While simplifying things for the school system, this left the Coffin School without students for the first time since it opened in the 1850s.  However, always finding a new niche in learning, the building continued to be a place of education.  The 1960s saw the use of the building by several island non-profits for lectures, classes, musical events, and more.  The Maria Mitchell Association, the Nantucket Learning and Resource Center, Preservation Institute Nantucket, the University of Massachusetts, and Cape Cod Community College all offered various programs to the public keeping the Coffin School as a vital community learning center.  Then, from 1969 to 1978, the School was used by the public school as the home of the kindergarten class.  Under Jane Lamb, kindergartners who had parents and grandparents who attended the School found their first school experiences in the same spaces using the former Sewing Room and Home Economics Room of the School for their activities. 

Other groups would continue to use the building as they had in the early 1960s until in 1996 when the Coffin School Trustees leased the use of the interior of the building to the Egan Maritime Institute, providing a home for the new organization and a continued use of the Main Hall for lectures and concerts by other island organizations.  Today, the former metal working classroom in the basement area is used by Nantucket Community Sailing as its office and the old Home Ec room is now the office space for the Nantucket Community Preservation Committee. The Coffin School Trustees, some of whom are descended from the original trustees, or who went to school at the Coffin School, or who had family members who were teachers at the School, continue to own the Coffin School and continue their work supporting education – this time providing grants and scholarships to island youth and island youth oriented programs.  They continue to maintain and protect this special building and preserve it for future generations.

Architectural Features

The Coffin School was built in the Greek Revival style – a style that was commonly used for buildings associated with learning.  The red brick structure sits on a high podium of limestone at the street side of the building and granite at the sides and rear.  The façade that faces Winter Street has a large recessed portico with two wood Doric columns and a centered false doorway.  The actual entrances are found on the right and left sides of the recess – today the right entrance is no longer operable.  Two separate entries might have provided separate entries for the girls and the boys.  On the entablature one can see brick dentils and moldings.  An open belfry where the School’s bell once hung is located on the top of the main portion of the building and the imposing building is made more so by the cast iron fence that runs in front of it.  This fence dates to the late 1850s.  Additions were made to the building in 1872 and 1918.  Much of the building still maintains many of its original interior features, including original horsehair plaster, doors, windows, and wood floors.  The Library, also known as the Sewing Room, maintains its bookcases installed in memory of Frances Macy – the daughter of Alfred Macy the School’s principal and his wife, Anne Mitchell Macy, who was the School’s language teacher.  She was the daughter of astronomer William Mitchell and his wife Lydia Coleman Mitchell.  The Coffin School Trustees continue to maintain a unique collection of artifacts at the School including student made items and instructional materials, fine art (including several portraits of the Admiral), the original sewing tables and sewing chairs, school books, the School bell, and other items used by teachers and students over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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.