History of The Wheeler School

The Wheeler School, founded in 1889, began as the inspiration and life-work of a visionary educator, artist, and activist named Mary C. Wheeler. Miss Wheeler, as she was always called, believed girls deserved a challenging and rigorous curriculum more substantive than the “finishing school” approach typical of the age.

letter from student to the school's founder (pictured) on her May 15 birthday.
Kindergarten student Dash wrote a letter to our founder on her May 15th birthday. What a gift! (click on image to read)

An innovator, even rebel, Miss Wheeler grew up on a farm in Concord, MA, with the influence of and personal connection to many of America’s Transcendentalists. A teacher of math and languages in her early career, she was also developing her own artistic talents. And when she created her school, she returned to Europe often,  taking her students overseas to paint — living next door and becoming acquainted with Claude Monet, his family and the artists studying his methods.

Looking for the advantages of town and country living, she developed a school with two campuses — an urban campus in the heart of Providence to benefit from the proximity to Brown University, and  a “Farm Campus,” in nearby Seekonk, Massachusetts, to serve as a “rural counterpoint.” At “The Farm” the growing crop of day and boarding students could study botany, biology, and astronomy in a pastoral environment. From this beginning more than 130 years ago, grew the coeducational, Nursery-12 day school of today.

Eighth Head of School Allison Gaines Pell began her tenure in 2017.  Read a welcome from her and more here.

For information contact Robert Martin, Mary C. Wheeler Archivist and Head of Visual Arts.

Heads of The Wheeler School

School founder, American Impressionist and educator Mary Colman Wheeler was born on the family farm in Concord, Massachusetts, on May 15, 1846. The Wheeler Family were friends and neighbors of the Alcotts, Thoreaus, and Emersons and she is buried along with other Concord notables on Author’s Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord. She graduated from Concord High School and Abbot Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.
She began her teaching career teaching mathematics and Latin in the Concord school system and, in 1868 moved to Providence, Rhode Island, to teach at Miss Shaw’s, a “finishing” school for young ladies. In the 1870s, Miss Wheeler twice traveled to Europe to study art and painting and between her trips enrolled in a variety of art history courses taught by Brown University professors. In 1882, she opened an art studio in the Waterman Building on North Main Street in Providence. Two years later she moved into a house and studio she built at 24 Cabot Street (where the School’s dismissal gazebo now stands) and began to offer painting classes for young women three days a week, and for children on Saturdays. In addition, she held an evening lecture series on Greek literature and early American history.

In 1887, Miss Wheeler began taking groups of students to France, most likely the earliest American educator to offer a study abroad program. And beginning in 1907, Wheeler took a group of young women to Giverny for a summer of painting, art history and French. These trips were repeated many times through the next two decades and link Wheeler to a number of American Impressionist artists as well as French Impressionist Claude Monet.

In 1889, adding an academic college preparatory curriculum to her art instruction, she accepted ten girls as boarders and officially founded The Mary C. Wheeler School. In 1898 a building on Brook Street was purchased to house girls enrolled in the preparatory program for her Cabot Street School. From these early beginnings, grew the School of today.

In 1889, adding an academic college preparatory curriculum to her art instruction, she accepted ten girls as boarders and officially founded The Mary C. Wheeler School. In 1898 a building on Brook Street was purchased to house girls enrolled in the preparatory program for her Cabot Street School. While the original school building is gone, a gazebo stands in its place.
In 1910, Hope Building was constructed to provide living and dining facilities required by a growing student body and faculty. In 1912 the original Fresh Air Building was completed (later rebuilt) and was ahead of many schools in espousing the theory of ‘healthy buildings.’ Miss Wheeler’s School became one of the first American schools to use the principles of Dr. Montessori in its kindergarten instruction. Miss Wheeler also purchased the Froebel Kindergarten School and the School admitted boys into its pre-primary grades until the 1950s.

The daughter of a farmer, Miss Wheeler acquired a 78-acre farm and house in Seekonk, Massachusetts in 1912-13 and subsequently purchased an adjoining farm and buildings, bringing the total land holdings to slightly more than 120 acres. At one point, she advertised her school in Vogue Magazine as The Mary C. Wheeler Town & Country School. Both American and French Impressionist artists would stay at The Wheeler Farm’s Columbine Hill House during summers to paint and provide art instruction.

Mary Helena Dey was hired in 1914 to reorder the school’s curriculum. As a result, the school became a pioneer in the educational theories of John Dewey. Through Dey’s contacts, such notables as Carl Sandburg came to campus to meet with students or in Sandburg’s case, deliver the graduation address. Students were able to take courses based on their needs and interests rather than follow a prescribed curriculum for all students — something unusual for its time for a girl’s school.
Miss Wheeler, who supported these curricular initiatives whole-heartedly, died in 1920 at the age of 73. In her will she established a Board of Trustees to oversee her school. Mary Helena Dey, who had studied under educational theorist John Dewey at the University of Chicago and had been Dean of Girls at the University of Chicago’s High School, was named headmistress. Born in Canada, Miss Dey brought a college-preparatory, progressive curriculum to the School and served the school through its second quarter of a century, retiring in 1940. It was Miss Dey who approved the School’s Motto: “The Spirit Giveth Life” in 1933, as well as created a longer school day and oversaw the construction of new campus buildings such as Wheeler Memorial Hall, a new Fresh Air Building and the purchase of surrounding buildings to serve as dormitories and classrooms.

In the mid-20s, the Farm facilities were expanded at a cost of $4,400 to include a field hockey field and two tennis courts. The “swimming hole” was enlarged and deepened. Later an arboretum featuring several hundred unusual plants and trees was established at the Farm in Miss Dey’s name, but has been lost to time.

In 1940 Mabel Van Norman was appointed the third headmistress on the retirement of Miss Dey. Miss Van Norman continued the school through the years of World War II and spent time visiting war-torn schools in the Netherlands and Belgium which Wheeler students helped to support with food and supplies.
Miss Van Norman taught Latin and was head of the day school section when first hired at the School in 1918 by Mary Helena Dey; quickly being tapped to serve as Assistant Principal and then Associate Principal in 1921. Her studies had been at Radcliffe, the University of Berlin and Columbia University. Upon becoming headmistress in 1940, Miss Van Norman listed among her goals the building of a field house at the Farm. Due to the war, money raised for the building’s construction was diverted at her request to support schoolchildren affected by the war.  At her retirement in 1950 she lamented not accomplishing her goal. In 2001, the School was able to fulfill that goal and build a field house at the Farm which was named in her memory.

Interestingly, many alumni have reported seeing an elderly woman in a long dress haunting Hope Building over the decades. Some believe that the ‘ghost’ is Miss Van Norman who lived out her years after retirement in Providence and Marblehead, MA, but others feel it is School founder Mary Wheeler who died in her residence in Hope Building!

The first man to lead the school, and among the first men to lead any girls’ school in the nation, S. Rowland Morgan became Headmaster in 1950. A student at Princeton and graduate of Williams College, he was a former college athlete, scholar and wartime naval air navigator.
“Rowly” Morgan became the first male to lead the School and it was for Morgan that a Head’s residence was purchased at 211 Hope Street to provide a home outside of the girls’ dormitory for his family. He was able to maintain the School’s mission and academic standards while improving its campus and instituting such financial and philanthropic supports such as the School’s Annual Fund, created in 1952, soon after he arrived.

The School Archives hold many letters between Mabel Van Norman, the third head of school, and Morgan and reveal a continued conversation about the School’s importance and standards. Miss Van Norman had prodded the Board of Trustees to seek a man to lead the school after her retirement, and she remained devoted to his – and the school’s – success.

Admired by many of his students for his white hair and fatherly manner, Morgan was often the one to organize other fathers for fall wood-cutting expeditions at the Farm. Wheeler’s Upper School building is named in his honor. After his retirement, he was an early proponent of wind-generated power and lived in Little Compton and Providence. He died at age 89 in 1995.

Hugh Madden became headmaster of the Mary C. Wheeler School on July 1, 1968, after serving as the Director of Admission at the Pembroke-Country Day School in Kansas City, Missouri. He had received an A.B. degree from Princeton in 1957 and was elected Phi Beta Kappa and selected a Woodrow Wilson National Fellow in Classics. In addition he received his J.D. degree from the University of Missouri School of Law. After leaving Wheeler in 1980, Mr. Madden joined the law firm of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP. During his tenure, coeducation was approved for the lower grades in 1973 and expanded to include the entire school in 1975. The name of the school officially changed to The Wheeler School. The boarding program phased out in 1979, with the last boarder, interestingly enough, being a male student.
Among his accomplishments as headmaster was the successful transition of the school to coeducation and the development of a million dollar capital fundraising campaign to construct a new gymnasium on Brook Street. Prior to this time, students competed in basketball inside Wheeler Hall. With the building of a true gymnasium, later named in his honor, Madden’s tenure also brought about a renovation of Wheeler Hall as a fine and performing arts center.

After leaving Wheeler, Madden entered the private practice of law. He died May 22, 2013.

William C. Prescott, Jr. succeeded Hugh Madden in 1980, and instituted a number of new programs for which the School of today is celebrated.
The Aerie Program was formally established to expand enrichment opportunities for students and celebrated its official 25th anniversary in the 2005-2006 school year. In 1986 an exterior renovation of the Columbine Hill House at the Farm began. Six new tennis courts and three new playing fields were added to the property as a resurgence of use began. Students in the Upper School’s Environmental Science program, used the Farm property to study the headwaters of the Runnins River, and the School created an award-winning Rivers Program from the curriculum.

The Hamilton School at Wheeler opened in 1988 to its first group of 35 students in grades 1-6. In 2006, the National Association of Independent Schools awarded Hamilton its Leading Edge Award for Curriculum Innovation. Schools from Thailand to Tennessee have visited the model “school-within-a-school.”

In 1989 Wheeler celebrated its Centennial Year. In 1990, from the proceeds of a $3 million centennial campaign, a new library was constructed at the heart of the campus, including Upper, Middle and Lower libraries, a professional art gallery known today as The Chazan Gallery at Wheeler and classrooms.

Wheeler became the Providence site of the National Summerbridge program in 1992, thus turning its campus over each summer to educate urban youth from public middle school grades and to encourage the profession of teaching among college and high school students. Wheeler and Summerbridge earned the prestigious Klingenstein Award in 2006.

WELH- FM (Wheeler’s radio station at FM 88.1) went on the air in 1994 at the end of a 10-year quest begun as an Aerie student project and at present broadcasts Spanish-language programming in the morning and “golden oldies” in the afternoons. Students use the facilities to record news programs and interviews and the station now streams via the internet.
In 1997-98, the first class of students in the Wheeler-Brown Master of Arts in Teaching program for elementary education enrolled. Included in the first class was a Wheeler alumnus. The Wheeler Alumni Association boasts a membership of 3,500 members. As a result of a $6 million Vision for Wheeler: Tradition & Change Capital Campaign, Hope Building was extensively renovated to create a new Middle School and new Student Union. As part of the expansion, Hamilton added a Middle School division. Other features of the campaign included an addition to the Madden Field House to create a new Health & Physical Education Center.

Also in 1997, the School began a summer program at the Farm. Due to the generosity of a number of Wheeler friends and family, an outdoor pool and pavilion were dedicated to the memory of former Wheeler student Eliza Mauran Blackwell ‘78. In 1999, ground was broken at The Wheeler Farm for the construction of a new athletic complex which opened in 2001 and was subsequently named for third headmistress Mabel Van Norman (who had suggested the building in a list of goals in 1940). Also in 1999, a restored and renovated Columbine Hill House at the Farm opened as a conference center. Both facilities are available for rental to off-campus groups.

In recognition of his 20th anniversary as Head of the School, the Wheeler Library was renamed the William C. Prescott Jr. Library by a resolution of the Board of Trustees in 2000. Prescott officially retired in June 2003 succeeded by Dan Miller, the seventh head of The Wheeler School.  In 2019, Prescott returned as a Trustee on the Wheeler School Board.

Dan Miller, the seventh head of The Wheeler School, began his tenure upon Prescott’s retirement in June, 2003, leaving in June, 2017 after 14 years.  Over the course of his tenure, the school enjoyed both a physical campus transformation as well as increases in program offerings and an impressive improvement in financial aid and faculty salaries due to tremendous endowment growth.

With the beginning of the 2004 school year, a new Farm Program began for sixth graders, which incorporates experiential learning during seven-week periods on the Farm campus of the School. In the summer of 2004, Wheeler purchased the historic Lyman Klapp House at 217 Hope Street, a previously-private residence built during the same year Miss Wheeler officially founded the School. The building is home to the current Head of School and is used for school functions. It was named Baker House in honor of longtime Wheeler trustee Ben Baker in 2008.

In 2006, Wheeler announced receipt of its largest individual donation in the history of the School, a $2 million gift for capital projects and financial aid directed to The Hamilton School at Wheeler. This gift was the catalyst for an increase in philanthropic support of the School. As of June, 2008, the School had raised more than $21 million — the largest amount of a capital campaign in its history — for student financial aid, faculty salary endowment and capital building projects in its Campaign for Wheeler: Be Exceptional.

The Nulman Lewis Student Center ribbon-cutting was held March 31, 2009. The new building by Ann Beha Architects connects the historic Clark Alumni House to Hope Building and features a green roof, two new science classrooms and an expanded dining area in the Pelson Student Union. New play spaces and courtyards on the East and Main campus provide improved gathering and recreation areas for students and adults alike. A new addition to The Hamilton School, the Wharton P. Whitaker Building, opened on August 31, 2010. Now the Hamilton School’s Lower School program (Grs. 1-5) has new classroom, tutoring, assembly and teaching spaces equal to the national quality of this exceptional ‘school-within-a-school.

A campus-wide Green Initiative begun in 2008 brought environmental awareness to the forefront and resulted in a 2009 Narragansett Bay Commission award for water runoff conservation, the vegetative roof on the Nulman Lewis Student Center, and a solar panel array at the Farm’s Van Norman Field House, which at the time of its installation in late 2009 was the largest such array in Southeastern Massachusetts.

Wheeler’s endowment also enjoyed growth during challenging national economic times, hitting the $30 million mark in June 2014 during the School’s celebration of its Quasquicentennial (125 years). As of May 31, 2017, the endowment had grown from $5 million at the beginning of Miller’s tenure to $37.3 million.

The final piece in a 10-year Campus Master Plan was successfully completed with the opening of the Gilder Center for the Arts in October, 2014. The building faces Angell Street its connective glass lobby leads to a completely renovated Wheeler Memorial Hall with its black box theater, art studios and classrooms.

In 2015, Mr. Miller led the renovation of the Lower School, adding colorful murals, new lighting, carpeting, updated wireless access and a welcoming new lobby. Also in 2015 was the opening of the Hirsch-Alperin Design-Innovate-Build Lab, a place for new ideas and designs in the heart of historic Hope Building.

The 2016-17 school year included the replacement of crumb rubber turf play areas with organic “corkonut” infill, the first such installation in Rhode Island, as well as a new “Learning Commons,” aka Middle School library, situated on the first floor of Hope Building within the Middle School division.

With the graduation of his second child in 2017, Mr. Miller and his wife Joanna, announced their final year at Wheeler would conclude June 30, 2017.  In honor of their tenure, the Board of Trustees and School created the Dan and Joanna Miller Endowment for Educational Leadership and designated the outdoor spaces on the Providence Campus as the Dan Miller Quadrangle. The Miller Quad encompasses the playground, turf field, mural and new landscape within the shelter of Wheeler Memorial Hall, the Health & Physical Education Center, Clark Alumni House, Nulman Lewis Student Center and Hope Building.

Miller is currently the Head of The Urban School in San Francisco, CA.

History of the Wheeler School Seal

The official Wheeler School seal that is used today was created in 1945-46 by noted artist John Howard Benson of Newport, RI, described at the time as the ‘greatest calligrapher in the world.” (Benson also did the lettering on the tablet marking Wheeler Memorial Hall.) Writing in a school newsletter about the “new” seal, Headmistress Mabel Van Norman, who commissioned the artist, said: “Throughout the ages, in the art both of the East and the West, a flame has symbolized the spirit. In Oriental (sic) art, it is seen in the haloes of Buddhas and in the aura within which the Hindu sun god Siva dances…In western art, it is used frequently to symbolize the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The flame fittingly symbolizes the spirit because it has no substance, it has a shining quality, it penetrates darkness, it gives warmth and it is necessary for life. Plato refers to the flame as a symbol of light, of intelligibility, of clarity. May our school motto and its symbol inspire us to even higher attainment of these qualities of the spirit which will bring an ever better life to our school and its members.”