Working in Simsbury and Avon, CT for almost twenty years combined, I learned many different routes to and from my home in West Hartford. The most direct route was over Avon Mountain which could be treacherous in the snow and ice, so my favorite way to get home on those days was via Old Farms Road. Longer and indirect, but flat.
Perks of that drive were the winding road, the scenic woods and fields along the way and best of all, a glimpse of Avon Old Farms School. With only a few of the medieval style Tudor buildings visible from the road, I was intrigued by the campus and its architecture, an unexpected style in this area.
Given my fascination with the school, I was thrilled when I was invited to photograph it recently for a book project focusing on historic architecture. Since it’s a private school and student security is paramount, I was accompanied by a staff member as I meandered through campus with camera in hand.
The school is larger than it appears from the road with five groupings of buildings, three of which contain the bulk of the buildings architected by school founder Theodate Pope Riddle. Over the years new buildings have been added for both academic and athletic purposes with a style complementary to the original.
Theodate Pope Riddle was the only child of Alfred Pope and Ada Brooks Pope. Born in Ohio in 1867, as a daughter from a wealthy family she was sent to Farmington, CT to attend Miss Porter’s School. Not interested in societal expectations of a young lady, and influenced by her historic surroundings in Farmington and trips to Europe with her family, she began to educate herself in architecture.
Remaining in Farmington after graduation and until her death, Theodate’s first major architectural project was ambitious: the design of a country estate in Farmington where her parents could retire from Ohio. The result of her design is Hill-Stead, a National Historic Landmark completed in 1901 which has since been converted to a historic house museum, featuring her father’s impressive collection of impressionist art.
In addition to her interest in architecture, Theodate was passionate about education. This interest led her to design two schools, Westover School in Middlebury, CT completed in 1909 and the Hop Brook School in Naugatuck, CT completed in 1915.
In 1915 Theodate survived the sinking of the Lusitania, a ship torpedoed by the Germans off the coast of Ireland. Pulled from the water unconscious and almost left for dead, Theodate was revived to find that both her maid and traveling companion had been lost to the sea.
The next few years in Theodate’s life were busy personally with her marriage to John Wallace Riddle, whom she met through President Theodore Roosevelt’s sister, a close friend of hers. She and John traveled extensively together and took in two orphaned boys Donald and Paul that they raised to adulthood.
Theodate never had children of her own and in 1914 prior to her marriage she had taken in Gordon, a two-year old orphan boy, who sadly died from polio in 1916. Her love for children and boys in particular led her to propose the creation of an “indestructible school for boys”.
Construction on the school began in 1921 and continued for the better part of ten years. Theodate’s vision was of a Tudor style village based on architecture she admired in the Cotswolds in England. Having visited the Cotswolds myself, I can attest that she captured the look and feel perfectly.
The school was constructed using traditional English tools and building methods with much of the material coming from the school property. Buildings are made of red sandstone and oak timbers and all metal work was crafted in the Forge, a current day classroom and meeting space.
Theodate had ideas for education that were considered quite radical at the time, and she was heavily involved in the creation of the school’s curriculum and staffing in addition to supervising construction.
The school opened with 48 students in 1927 with the school motto, “Aspirando et Perseverando” or “By Aspiring and Persevering” as the underlying theme. The school mascot was the winged beaver, a creature universally recognized as a hard worker.
As I walked through the campus, I was charmed by the quirky details and unique quality of each of the buildings. Although made with similar materials, each structure has its own personality with windows of all shapes and sizes, sloping and slightly crooked roof lines and heavy wooden doors.
The brilliant yellows, reds and oranges of fall perfectly framed the architecture and was visible in reflections of the windows in the fading afternoon sunlight. The campus covered in fresh fallen snow must also be a magical sight.
Although my tour was of the exterior, my guide graciously offered to show me the interior of the Refectory, which is the dining hall for the school. Meals are served family style with the entire school community coming together for most lunches and dinners. Flags line the walls, representing the nationalities of past and present students.
If you are a Harry Potter fan you can visualize the interior of the Refectory, with long dining tables filling the space and the Headmaster’s high table at one end. In fact, Avon Old Farms was scouted as a location of a well-known film, “Dead Poet’s Society”, which was ultimately filmed elsewhere to avoid disruption of school activities.
Avon Old Farms struggled for a period of time during World War II and its doors were closed temporarily to students. As a patriot Theodate volunteered the school to house blinded Army veterans. The Old Farms Convalescent Hospital gained national prominence, partially due to its stunning architecture.
The school reopened in 1948, two years after Theodate’s death. It is at its full capacity of 400 boys today after decades of growth under the guidance and dedication of its Headmasters. The school is the crown jewel of Theodate’s career as one of Connecticut’s first licensed female architects.
The strong-willed and industrious Theodate was inducted to the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994, pointing to her self-taught architectural success and her progressive educational philosophy.
While casual visits to the school are not encouraged, you can find a wealth of photography and much more detailed history within the school’s extensive collection of historical resources here. Or enjoy a video shot by one of the school’s students with a drone – an amazing perspective of a fascinating place designed by a fascinating woman.
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