A Brief History of Classical’s Buildings

Providence High School, 1843

Top right, Providence High School, 1843
Bottom right, Providence High School, 1878

Providence High School, 1878 Floor Plans

Providence High School, 1878 Floor Plans

Classical High School, 770 Westminster St.

Classical High School Today

Classical High School wasn’t always known as such and it wasn’t always located on 770 Westminster St. It all started on President St. with Providence High School, the very first high school in the city, in 1843. Designed by architechts William Tallman and James C. Bucklin, the total cost of construction was about $12,485 at the time, an equivalent of $403,887 in 2018 US dollars. There were ample discussions amongst community members and policy makers prior to 1843 regarding whether or not offering Providence’s residents a high school education was warranted. Some people arguing against the high school cited it as being a tax burden on the city and felt that a high school education was “excessive.” 

However, a graduate of Brown University’s Class of 1812 and future professor at the school, Professor William Giles Goddard used his newspaper, the Rhode Island American, to advocate for a high school education as a solid foundation to anyone’s success, regardless of their future career paths. The City of Providence agreed with Goddard and Providence High School opened its doors on March 20th, 1843.

By 1869, about 26 years after the school first opened, Providence High School was becoming overcrowded and the building was falling to disrepair. In 1873, Superintendent Reverend Daniel Leach addressed the Council and advocated for a newer, more spacious building. Leach testified: 

“The present building is not only too small, but it is ill adapted for a High School. The rooms are much too small. They are badly lighted and without efficient means of ventilation. These evils are so great that they ought not be endured.”

It wasn’t until 1877 that the School Committee secured land for the new school and hired H. G. Macomber and Samuel Porter to build it. The total cost of construction and purchasing of land was about $216,974 at the time, an equivalent of $4,961,753 in 2018 US dollars.  

The building stood on Pond St until the building was demolished in the late 1960s. Since then, Classical High School has been housed on 770 Westminster Street, where it stands today. 

In the 175 years that Classical has existed (in one form or another), plenty of history has been made both within the school’s halls and without and plenty of debates have been had at the community and political level. One recurring discussion is the condition of the school’s building, specifically whether or not the building is suitable enough to house and educate our city’s youth. In the past, Classical’s aging and deteriorating buildings spurred concern but were not met with immediate or swift action from policy makers.

Today, the state of the 770 Westminster St. building has sparked concern once again. As in the past, policymakers and constituents are worried the building is gradually losing its utility. Perhaps, having faced the issue of a deteriorating building in the past will bring about speedier solutions this time around.    

At A Glance 

Providence High School (1843 – 1877) Fast Facts

  • Location: President St.
  • Time in existence: From 1843 – 1877 (35 years)
  • First four teachers: Henry Day, Albert Harkness, Esther J. Coburn, and Mary Williams 
  • Student body in 1843: 164 students total; 80 males, 84 females
    • Males & females had separate entrances
  • Subjects taught: arithmetic, algebra, Latin, English grammar, ancient history, medieval history, modern history, and bookkeeping
    • In 1855, the schools split male students into two courses of study: the Classical course and the English and Scientific course 
      • The Classical course was 3 years long until 1874, when it became a 4 year course. The English and Scientific course went from 4 years to 3 years in length sometime in the late 1800s. Both courses are in existence today at Classical
    • In 1872, the first female joined her male peers in the Classical Department, marking the beginning of the co-education of the two sexes in the school’s history. Other female students joined in the following years   

Providence High School (1878 – 1897) Fast Facts

  • Location: Summer, Spring, and Pond Streets 
  • Architects: William R. Walker and Thomas J. Gould 
  • Student body in 1878: 528 students total; 221 males, 307 females  
    • Males enter from Spring St. 
    • Females enter from Summer St. 
    • Teachers enter from Pond St. 

Providence Classical High School (1898 – 1970) Fast Facts

  • Location: 124 Pond Street 
  • Renamed Providence Classical High School in 1898
  • Designed by: Martin and Hall Architects 
  • Building suffered two separate fires, both in the 1950s. Serious conversations amongst policy makers regarding the integrity of the building began in 1958
  • Status of building: Demolished 

Classical High School (1970 – Present) Fast Facts

  • Location: 770 Westminster St.  
  • Building Style: Brutalist 
  • Designed by: Peter Geddes and Albert Harkness
  • Student body (2017 – 2018) demographics
    • 1,126 students were enrolled in grades 9 through 12
    • 0.2% are Native American, 3% are Multiracial, 10% are Asian Pacific, 16% are Black, 25% are White, and 46% are Hispanic 
  • Awarded National Blue Ribbon Award by the US Department of Education in 2017 
  • At almost 50 years old, the school building is in need of repairs. Current Providence Mayor and Classical alum Jorge Elorza ’94 has pledged to spend between $200 – $400 million over a ten year period to renovate a number of the city’s schools, Classical included