We have just celebrated the bicentennial of our building, King’s Block, the oldest surviving Federalist style building in New Haven. We are located on the west bank of the Quinnipiac River, with just a lovely narrow park separating us from the tidal waters that flow into New Haven Harbor. In 1816, our neighborhood was known as Dragon, as the river was home to large numbers of sea lions, referred to as dragons by local sailors, perhaps because of their deep bellowing. The past seems so quaint.
King’s Block has evolved over time with numerous modifications to the interior as well as additions to the exterior. It has been a dry goods store, an inn, a pub, an abandoned derelict, and since the 1980s, a renovated and welcoming building now housing Cheney & Company and our architectural firm tenant.
In contemplating the landmark’s long history, it was natural to think back to King’s Block’s “origin story” and what was going on in 1816. As I browsed Wikipedia’s maze of entries, two things struck me immediately that connect to today.
In 1815, a massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia caused an extreme climate anomaly—in this case global cooling. The sulfur released into the stratosphere from the eruption of Mount Tambora caused worldwide temperature drops in 1816, catastrophic in some locations, including most of New England, and resulted in what was called “the year without a summer.” Extreme climate events still disrupt the normal weather patterns—the deadly effects of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti will be felt for decades. What will natural and manmade causes of climate change mean for the future? What is the new normal?
In 1816, James Monroe was elected fifth president of the United States, winning over 80 percent of the electoral vote and becoming the last president during the First Party System era of American politics (which featured the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party). Monroe downplayed old party lines in making appointments to government posts, which aimed to reduce political tensions and enabled the “Era of Good Feelings,” which persisted through his administration. It’s enough to say we desperately need an era of good feelings today.
Bridging the Past and the Future
NAIS records show three schools were established in 1814, two years before King’s Block—Emma Willard School (Troy, NY); North Yarmouth Academy (Yarmouth, ME); and The Linsly School (Wheeling, WV). Brewster Academy (Wolfeboro, NH) and St. John’s-Ravenscourt School (Winnipeg, BC) will celebrate bicentennials in 2020. And in 2021, New Hampton School (New Hampton, NH) will turn 200. Their world and ours intersected two centuries ago, but they could not foresee the realities of today and the future, and King’s Block stands sentinel.
And so I ask, is an independent school education preparing students to be leaders in scientific discovery and practical application in the years to come? Does the act of education prepare them to practice appreciative inquiry and problem solving in a global society of rapid and profound change? Are their imaginations and intellects piqued by the learning their schools encourage? I think so.
Just look at the websites of any of these long-established institutions to find their unique approaches to education. What they all have in common, besides their longevity, is what I call “keeping up with relevance,” and being active members in a vibrant community of independent schools for a changing nation and demanding world, to quote the NAIS vision statement. It is exciting to contemplate who will they be and what they will teach in two hundred more years. For now, it’s time to celebrate.