HARTFORD PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL:   A HISTORIC SCHOOL

     Steadfast in their belief that the settlement at Hartford would be an inspiration for all, a place for all humanity to look up to in their search for the Infinite, the English settlers under the leadership of Thomas Hooker established a school that would prepare their young men for the Puritan ministry.

            This first school was most likely in the home of the Rev. Hooker, a scholarly man and noted theologian of his time.  His home was somewhere along the present Prospect Street, which in the 1630's was a dirt lane between houses and farms.  As Hartford grew from a simple farming community into a village, then a town, and finally a capital city, there would be many buildings and locations given to the school which today we call the Hartford Public High School.

            Hartford was, in the 17th Century Puritan idea, a theocracy like Boston, a "city on a hill." It would be a model Christian community.  Education was a strong part of that concept.  A pupil at the school was called a "scholar," and he would have to know Scripture, be well-trained in Latin, and have a good command of the English language in order to be prepared for the ministry. This is evident in the various names given to the school in the first century of its existence:  Free School, Latin School, Free Grammar School, and finally Hartford Grammar School.  It was a free school in the sense that it operated through endowments, the largest of which was provided for in the will of Edward Hopkins, dated March 7, 1657.  The school also was supported by the rental of lands, for example that of Pennywise in Wethersfield, and also of lands purchased through the Hopkins will and located along stretches of the River from East Hartford to Haddam.

            By the early 1800's, changes in the country brought about the need for different types of schools.  Academies, for example, became popular, and schools such as the Hartford Female Seminary finally made the education of women a reality. Henry Barnard, a graduate of the Hartford Grammar School and the first U.S. Commissioner of Education, led a movement in Hartford for a "high school."  This dream was finally realized by adding an English Course of Study to the Classical Course of the former Hartford Grammar School and naming the resulting institution the Hartford Public High School.  Henry Barnard gave the opening address at the dedication ceremony on December 1, 1847.  Women were admitted for the first time, but the school functioned with almost total separation of the sexes.

            Hartford was proud of this school building.  It represented the latest in school design with one spacious classroom on each floor.  But this compact, modest wood frame building was quickly outgrown.  A larger Neo-gothic brick building was built on the Asylum Hill site in 1869 and was   enlarged in 1877.  By this time, the Hartford Public High School enjoyed a national reputation for excellence; it was one of the top secondary schools in the country.

This lovely building was destroyed by a spectacular fire in January, 1882.  Very little was salvaged from the fire, but some records had been kept by the city and they are now in the archives of the Connecticut State Library.  A few items were in the school safe, which survived the fire.  But in spite of this setback, secondary education in Hartford continued. The students received classes in the Batterson Building on Asylum Avenue, and soon work started on designing a new school.

            Architect George Keller's greatest building was the school erected on the Asylum Hill site in 1883 at 39 Hopkins Street.  Its façade on Hopkins Street faced downtown on the east; to the south was the hill where the State Capitol building was erected in 1879.  This imposing building was a school of the future in a sense, because it was a forerunner in terms of science facilities.  It contained the famous Alvan Clark telescope and observatory, state-of-the art laboratories, and the remarkable gift of fossil collections, notably that of the famous dinosaur tracks which were donated by James Goodwin Batterson.  His daughter was a student in the new school at that time. The Hopkins Street building was enlarged in 1897 and quickly became a famous landmark with its two tall, elegant, steepled towers.  A manual training building was added, and in 1914 the complex doubled in size with the erection of the Broad Street building where business and industrial courses were given. This immense educational complex, the pride of the city of Hartford, was demolished to make way for the new Interstate 84, the East-West Highway of the 1960's.

            The Forest Street building opened in 1963 amid century-old trees on Forest Street in the former Nook Farm literary neighborhood.  Thanks to the effort of loyal alumni, the observatory and telescope, statuary, and architectural fragments of the Hopkins St. building were transported to the new site.  Forest St. was thoughtfully lined with two rows of English columnar oaks to enhance the institutional flavor of the neighborhood.  The Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Day houses received a new neighbor, but it was really an old friend whose history was intertwined with the history of their own families.

As the 1990's came to a close, the Forest St. building showed many signs of wear and a need for upgrading.  Plans for a renovated building with a large addition were drawn up after the citizens of Hartford voted to fund the project in conjunction with additional state funds.  The new plans called for a design that would bring back the feeling of the cherished Hopkins St. building.  When the first architect filed bankruptcy, the design had to be downsized. 

The firm of Jeter, Cook & Jepson was chosen as the architects for the renovations and additions. The 1963 building was gutted, but this was done piece by piece in order for the school to remain open during the school year.  The renovations were finally completed in 2008.  These included a new main entrance arcade with its two cornerstones:  1638 and 2006.  The street end of the arcade has a clock and a gable surmounted by an owl statue which is a replica of the original 1883 HPHS Owl.  There are two other gables which display owls as well. 

The renovations gave the school an additional classroom wing and a new field house.  The Lewis Fox Memorial Library Media Center is a large high-ceilinged space which has been compared to a college library, and around the corner from it the HPHS Museum & Archive is a showcase of the school’s history.

                                                                                                                       

R. J. Luke Williams