The Bryn Mawr School for Girls of Baltimore City was founded in 1885 by five young Baltimore women, M. Carey Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Mamie Gwinn, Bessie King, and Julia Rogers, who sought to provide an education for girls equal to that available to boys. Their families were involved in the creation of the Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, of which M. Carey Thomas was to be first Dean and later President. In her 1883 letter to James E. Rhoads (the first President of the College), M. Carey Thomas shared her concern for how they would find young women prepared for the unprecedented rigorous standards of the new college: "The absence of the regularly organized preparatory schools that exist for boys greatly embarrasses a girl who means to enter college." The school that these young women created in Baltimore was the first to offer only a college preparatory program. They set their standards high, insisting upon a well educated faculty which was predominantly female and a curriculum that required Latin and French, German and Greek, laboratory sciences, history, literature, advanced mathematics, elocution, and art. The students underwent examinations by professors from leading universities including Johns Hopkins and Cornell, and to graduate had to pass the exceedingly difficult entrance exam for the Bryn Mawr College.
Mary Elizabeth Garrett, who became the wealthiest “spinster woman” in the country with the death of her father John Work Garrett, was the benefactress of this experiment in education. She was often onsite during the construction of a unique school building in downtown Baltimore from 1888 to 1890, which cost her the immense sum of $400,000. It featured an indoor swimming pool complete with cold “needle baths”, a gymnasium with suspended track and outfitted with the most modern gymnasium equipment from Sweden and the Sargent School of Boston, as well as a full time physician to oversee the athletic and posture programs. Up the many flights of stairs were complete scientific laboratories, an art room flooded with natural light by skylights, and a library stocked with classics and modern literature as well as scientific and mathematical volumes. The large study hall bore a complete copy of the Parthenon Frieze and there were copies of European and American statuary and artwork throughout the building for the girls to study and draw. The building was so intriguing that a model of it was made for the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago and numerous articles about it appeared in newspapers across the country. Women who had reached the highest levels of academic achievement wrote to the founders offering their support and enthusiasm, as well as recommendations for faculty from among their own students. The school was seen as a move forward for women's education reaching far beyond Baltimore and Pennsylvania.
After a series of Secretaries who managed the daily running of the school, the Board of Managers brought Edith Hamilton from her doctoral studies in Europe to be the first Headmistress. A gifted graduate of the Bryn Mawr College and winner of the European Scholarship, Edith Hamilton guided the school for 26 years, from 1896–1922. Her love of learning was infectious and the girls worked hard to earn her praise; many later quoted her favorite from Plato, "Hard is the good". The school still bears the stamp of humanism and intellectual curiosity that she instilled.
As the city became more congested and families moved out to the country, there was an urgent need to move the school as well. The 26-acre (110,000 m2) property known as The Orchards was purchased in 1928 from the Gordon family north of the city line, and the school spent several years acquiring the funds to gradually move out of its home downtown and into renovated and new buildings in the country. The Depression and then the Second World War made it difficult to sell the former school building to the eventual buyers, the German Singing Societies, but the Alumnae and the Parents Associations worked dutifully to raise funds for the needs of modern education. Over the years buildings have been added as needed. The same stone that had been used to build the Gatehouse in the 19th century was found at the Butler quarry in Baltimore County and was used in the construction of Garrett (1931), Hamilton (1953), and the North Building (2007). Other structures built of complementary materials include Howell (1969) which houses the Upper School and the Edith Hamilton Library, Hardy (1969) for science and math, the Cafeteria (1948), Katherine Van Bibber Gymnasium (1959), the Lower School complex designed by Marcel Breuer (1972), Centennial Hall (1987), the Barbara Landis Chase Dance Studio (1992), the Lower School Science building (1996), the Admissions Cottage (1997), and a variety of small outbuildings and additions. Many of these structures have been recognized for excellence in design.
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