Benedict Fenwick School, 150 Magnolia Street


No. 11778 Benedict Fenwick School building, photograph March 31, 2011.


National Register Statement of Significance

The Benedict Fenwick School in the Dorchester area of Boston is an early example of a modern building type that reflects the early 20th century belief in the restorative powers of fresh air. The “open-air school” sought to protect children against tuberculosis and other ailments by maximizing the flow of fresh air in the classroom. Some open-air schools were almost entirely glazed, while others, like Benedict Fenwick, simply emphasized light and air through increased fenestration. This development in medical theory manifested in required changes to the design of public schools in Boston, a city that led the nation in the effort to improve public health through the public school system. The Benedict Fenwick School was designed and constructed in 1911 and 1912 just after the adoption of a new policy on open-air and fresh-air classrooms by the progressive Boston School Committee. The Benedict Fenwick School is significant under National Register Criteria A and C, representing a national trend in public health reform and the impact of that reform on both the public education system and school building design.

The open-air classroom phenomenon “was based on principles learned from European sanatoria where doctors had demonstrated that the right environment could help improve health.” It was intended to cure patients with tuberculosis, pneumonia and other infectious diseases in an age preoccupied with public health prior to the discovery of antibiotics. Johannes Duiker’s Open Air School in Amsterdam (1930) and Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium in Finland (1929-32) attest to the pervasive and persistent belief in the therapeutic value of open air building design in the first half of the 20th century.

The earliest manifestations of the influence of open-air theory in American school and tenement housing design appear in about 1910 in buildings like the Benedict Fenwick School in Boston and East River Homes in New York City. To protect residents against tuberculosis, the innovative East River tenements included dozens of triple-hung windows to allow plenty of fresh air into each room as well as an open-air school on its roof. The Benedict Fenwick School was one of several constructed immediately after the Boston School Committee recommended in November 1910 that all rooms in new school buildings have one wall “open wholly from floor to ceiling to the outer air.” The policy was intended to benefit all children “as all are vitally affected by the matter of ventilation,” but especially to benefit delicate children with anemia or tuberculosis.

Boston had a history of leading the country in a movement to reform public health through the school system. In 1894, Boston was the first in the nation to adopt a system of medical inspection in schools, a system which continues today. In 1907, it was the first to establish a Department of School Hygiene. In 1908, the same year that “instruction as to tuberculosis and its prevention” became a required subject in schools throughout the Commonwealth, Boston assigned a teacher to an “open-air class” for children with tuberculosis on Parker Hill. Between 1909 and 1913 many additional open-air classrooms were added to the Boston schools.

The Annual Documents of the City of Cambridge, which are much more descriptive than those of Boston, thoroughly record the rise of the open-air school in that city beginning in 1910. The first open-air school served as a kind of quarantine for pupils in the public schools identified for isolation by the Anti-Tuberculosis Association or the medical inspector. The students, ranging in age from five to fifteen, were placed in a house remodeled expressly for that purpose by removing the entire southern wall to allow the free flow of air into the classroom. Each child was provided with “a chair bag, a leg blanket, a soapstone footwarmer, a worsted toque, a pair of woolen gloves and an outside coat.” When the health of a student improved, he or she could return to regular classes.

Cambridge converted single rooms in existing schools for open air use beginning in 1913, but did not build new structures for that purpose until 1916. The Agassiz School (now demolished) was designed with buttresses in order to minimize the dead wall space, and to provide approximately 25% more light and air to each classroom than existed in “even the most modern schools of Boston and vicinity” at the time. Only two of its rooms were intended for permanent open-air use.

In 1915, the privately owned and operated Rivers School in Brookline (now in Weston) and the Cooperative Open Air School (now Shady Hill School) in Cambridge opened as experiments in open-air education. They were supported by a group of Boston doctors and Harvard professors respectively and, being little more than an open shelter, offered an open air education to all pupils in its strictest form. The Cooperative Open Air School met on the porch of a private home for two years before constructing four buildings “built of wood and looking from the street side like low brown barracks. There was one large expanse of windows on the inner side… [that] were kept open, even in zero weather.” Similarly, the Rivers School classes were conducted in bungalows designed by the doctors with folding windows that prevented rain and snow from entering while permitting the free flow of air. Since there was no central heat, the children were well bundled like their peers in the Cambridge public school system.

The Boston schools adopted comprehensive open-air policies for the benefit of all children several years before the experimental private schools or the City of Cambridge. The entire Boston public school system was affected by an order that was passed as early as November 1910, recommending that “all rooms in new school buildings shall, on one side at least, open wholly from floor to ceiling to the outer air, in order that during warm weather, at least, the pupils may have as much fresh air as possible.” Funds were allocated for the Benedict Fenwick School just three months after the adoption of this policy, making it one of the first in the city and region to be designed specifically for open air classrooms with large banks of windows characteristic of the movement.0 The architect was appointed in June 1911 and the building permit was issued on November 11, 1911 with an estimated cost of $56,000.

The Boston School Committee spent the next year educating parents and teachers about the benefits of the open-air theory and developing an expanded policy that was adopted in January 1912. The policy addressed routine classroom ventilation and cleaning procedures, but also affected the design of school buildings as indicated in the November 1910 order. Furthermore, every school building, whether new or old, was required to have “at least one fresh-air room not especially for anemic children.” These “fresh-air rooms” for healthy children were distinguished from the “open-air rooms for anemic and delicate children” which were far fewer in number and limited to children of no more than two grades.2 Since this policy was the primary concern of the Boston School Committee in 1911, James McLaughlin, the young architect of the Benedict Fenwick School, must have carefully considered the new fresh-air requirements in designing the new school that year.

McLaughlin, born in Nova Scotia to Irish parents, had been listed as a draughtsman in the Boston City Directories since 1893. In the 1910s when he practiced independently as an architect, his works were made available to a national audience through the American Architect. His practice that focused in the Boston area included at least two other school buildings, the Saltonstall School in Salem (1916) and the Boston Trade School (1917). He designed Fenway Park (1912) in a panel brick design similar to that of the contemporary Benedict Fenwick School. Other published McLaughlin designs of this era include the Commonwealth Armory (1916, demolished 2002), South Terminal Station in Boston (1918) and his own home in Brookline (now Brighton, 1914). When McLaughlin died at age 92 in 1966, his funeral was held in the home where he had lived for 52 years.

Constructed on an unused Magnolia Street parcel containing approximately 80,000 square feet that had been transferred by the Commissioners of Public Works to the Board of Schoolhouse Commissioners, the Benedict Fenwick School was originally a part of the Phillips Brooks district. Within its first year, it was transferred to the new John Winthrop district that was established on December 1, 1911. The school was named for the second Catholic Bishop of the diocese of Boston, who was appointed in 1825 when the Catholic population in Boston was quite small. In response to increased Catholic immigration in the 1840s following the potato famine in Ireland, Fenwick established new parish churches, the first school for Catholic children in Boston, and Holy Cross College in Worcester. Despite its namesake, the Benedict Fenwick School was from the beginning open to all religious denominations. Rabbi Phineas Israeli served as the first president of the parent association in its district.

The Benedict Fenwick School opened on September 11, 1912. That year, attendance in the Boston Public Schools was “the largest ever known.” However, four new school buildings including Benedict Fenwick, two large additions, and several temporary portable school buildings ensured that nearly every child had a seat.

Just before opening day, Dr. Franklin B. Dyer of Cincinnati was appointed the new Superintendent of Boston Schools. Although he had not been responsible for instituting the open-air policy, he heartily embraced it, “beginning at the very beginning to have the rooms continually flooded with fresh air.” Dr. Dyer, who “has visited all of the cities of any size in the country and knows much concerning their schools and courses of study,” was of the opinion that Boston “one of the finest school systems in the country.” He visited thirty or more schools in the week before opening day “and without exception have found them in perfect condition.”

There was an active parent-teachers association (the Brooks-Winthrop Home and School Association) in the John Winthrop district, as well as a kindergarten, which met in the basement of the Benedict Fenwick School. PTAs and kindergartens were both relatively new phenomena

in the American public school system. The Department of Parent Teacher Associations had been formed within the National Congress just a few years earlier in 1907. While the first American kindergarten had been founded in Boston as early as 1870, the national PTA was still advocating that kindergartens become a part of the public school system in 1911.

As a Boston elementary school designed in 1911, the Benedict Fenwick School would have held grades one through eight (in addition to the kindergarten). The eight-grade system, adopted in 1906 to replace a nine-grade system, remained controversial in the 1910s. As late as 1919, a superintendent of the Boston schools found himself defending this improvement to the system against “the taunt of ‘Fads and Fancies.’” At the turn of the century, few students had continued beyond the elementary school level to high school. “Those who went beyond were as much distinguished as those who go to college today,” recalled the superintendent in 1919. The nine-year elementary system was abandoned, the superintendent explained, to promote high school attendance and encourage children to remain in school as long as possible. In Boston, the present elementary, junior and senior high school system began on a limited basis in 1913. The first junior high in Boston was called an Intermediate School.

Other improvements to early 20th century Boston schools included reducing the quota of students per teacher. Originally of 12 rooms accommodating 528 students, or 44 students per room, the Benedict Fenwick School was designed with new quota restrictions in mind, which would by 1915 reduce the teacher/student ratio to 1 to 40. In 1927, the quota would be reduced again to 35 students per teacher, about half the amount that prevailed in the 1880s before quotas were established. Teachers in Boston were ranked as master, submaster, first assistant in charge and lesser assistants. The first submaster of the John Winthrop district was Joseph A. F. O’Neil and the ten assistants named were all unmarried women. O’Neil also served as the recording secretary for the Home and School Association.

General guidelines on ventilation were to be observed in this and all Boston schools by January 1912. Guidelines for the “fresh-air rooms” for healthy children were subject to the judgment of the individual teachers and were less rigid then those of the private experimental open-air schools. “As a general rule the windows on two sides of these rooms should be kept open, or the windows on one side wide open, at all times, except when the temperature in the room goes below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, or when rain, high wind, dust or some other special conditions seriously interferes…. Children…should be allowed to wear their outer clothing whenever they feel cold without it, rather than to deprive other children in the room of the air they need…. Teachers should especially watch children seated near the windows, and should see that every child is warm enough to work and enjoy himself.”

Not long after the adoption of the fresh-air and open-air policies, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health began a ten-year nutrition study, weighing and measuring 94,000 Boston elementary school children. When over 9000 suspect children were more thoroughly examined, 1200 cases of malnutrition and 200 cases of tuberculosis were identified. Upon receipt of the alarming results of the report in 1926, the Boston school system immediately established nutrition classes to provide much needed medical and nutritional care to underweight and sickly children. Advantages of the 2 1/2-hour rest and nutrition classes over the open-air classes were outlined in the Superintendent’s report of 1927. The nutrition class “includes all of the pre-tuberculosis and malnourished children, irrespective of grade; it obviates the necessity of special open-air class teachers; and it maintains continuous close contact between the school and the home. As soon as a child attains normal weight and health he returns to the regular school program.” An illustration of the Nutrition and Rest Class at the Ulysses S. Grant School in the report shows rows of cots occupied by hooded and blanketed children in a room dominated by double banks of open windows. The upper three-quarters of the walls were fenestrated, and the lower quarter held long runs of radiators. Although these nutrition classes of 1926 altogether replaced the open-air classes of the previous decade, the large-windowed rooms from the 1910s were readily adapted to their new use.

By 1940, the fresh-air concept appears to have been completely abandoned, even forgotten, by Boston school officials and employees alike. Maintaining heating and ventilation regulations were the responsibility of the sanitary inspector, who wrote, “Keeping schools warm enough is not a problem. But keeping the room temperature, in schools without heat control, from rising to a degree at which the children show the effects in flushed faces, listlessness, and drowsiness, requires constant watchfulness and checking.” The proper temperature was given as 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit. In a school heated entirely by radiators, “air must be admitted through open windows with deflectors at the bottom to prevent drafts.” In schools with heat control, “plenum fans” must be kept running to ventilate and heat the classrooms and to ensure that the rooms “are not overheated to the extent that they have been in the past.”

According to the building permits, there was no major work done on the Benedict Fenwick School building by the City of Boston, who owned it until the early 1980s. The few permits for which the school department did apply in the early part of the twentieth century were abandoned. In 1918, they were denied a permit to take down and rebuild walls in the basement because the plans and specifications were deemed insufficient. In 1948, they planned to provide additional egress, partitions, doors, etc., a new fire escape and new bathrooms in the basement but again were not granted a permit. The first building permit to be issued was not until 1952 when a stand for a siren was erected on the roof “in accordance with the plans of the civil defense.”

The Benedict Fenwick School was closed by the City of Boston in July of 1981. Electricians and plumbers were hired to check the systems before the reopening of the school in 1982 under its new owner, the American Muslim Mission. It reopened as the Sister Clara Muhammad School, named in honor of the wife of the famous Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad. Described as a role model for the Black Woman, she embodied “modesty, purpose and total commitment to her husband and her Nation.” She had no official position in the Nation of Islam (which was male dominated), but was active in work among its women followers until her death in 1972. Wallace Muhammad, her son, gave new direction to the Nation of Islam, renamed the World Community of Islam and later the American Muslim Mission.

The present owner purchased the building on August 4, 1999 from the Masjid Al-Quran, Inc. (formerly known as the American Muslim Mission, Boston Masjid). The rehabilitation of the building has recently been completed creating 15 units of affordable housing for families.



Posted on

April 8, 2020