Filed Under Architecture

A Shell for Knowledge at Mary C. Wheeler School

Who could have imagined that Rhode's Island first female architect could design an athletic and hockey field for young women?

Frances Henley’s involvement in the construction of Wheeler School in Providence can be interpreted as a means of positioning herself in the collective memory of the city by linking her name with the values of education. Both Henley and Mary Colman Wheeler, the founder of the eponymous school, had artistic backgrounds, which made the association of the two women natural and interesting.

The idea to found a school for women exclusively came from Miss Wheeler’s practice of instructing girls in the art of painting. However, she turned to a more classical format of a holistic system of teaching. Wheeler founded her private school in 1889, after a rich experience in France and Germany. She was trained as an artist and studied in Paris for six years, before she returned to Providence in 1882. Henley, who graduated cum laude from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1897 was also interested in sharing the principles of architecture and interior design with young women. She disseminated her ideas about residential architecture not as a teacher, but as a professional, who was invited to give public speeches to the Clubs and association that she was also a member of.

To accommodate the increasing number of students, Miss Wheeler decided to build a new structure, commissioning Franklin J. Sawtelle (1846-1911), a renowned architect in Providence, in 1910 to make the project for a new building on Hope Street. Sawtelle died unexpectedly just one year later, while in the middle of the design of the school. As a result, Henley took over the entire project. She added an elevator to the main building of the school in 1913, and she signed the project alone.

Later she was asked to design a playground dedicated to hockey and athletic activities that would become part of Wheeler School, in Rumford, a project originally known as “Wheeler School Farm.” The project, even though apparently minor, shows her ability to appropriate the natural terrain in a successful landscape design, as the lot is still being used today for athletic scopes. Moreover, it shows Henley’s personal and professional knowledge of the sportive technical equipment, as she was herself teaching women how to play basketball. She remained the consulting architect for the school for about 25 years.


The Mary C. Wheeler School’s main building seen from Hope Street.
The Mary C. Wheeler School’s main building seen from Hope Street. In this photograph the detail of the main façade can be seen around the 1940s. Students can be seen talking in front of the building. Source: Wheeler School Private Archives.
The Mary C. Wheeler School in 1950's.
The Mary C. Wheeler School in 1950's. Seen from Hope Street, this photograph shows the Wheeler School’s main building in 1950s. Source: Wheeler School Private Archives.
Girl Reading
Girl Reading This turn of the century painting is an example of Mary C. Wheeler's work. Wheeler's practice of instructing women in painting provided the inspiration for the school, although the school would teach much more than painting. Source: Wheeler, Mary C. Girl Reading, El Paso Museum of Art,,_El_Paso_Museum_of_Art.JPG
Mary Colman Wheeler (1846-1920)
Mary Colman Wheeler (1846-1920) This photo from the 1860s shows a young Mary C. Wheeler, founder of the Wheeler School. Source: Wheeler School Private Archives 
Portrait of Frances E. Henley
Portrait of Frances E. Henley Frances E. Henley was the first female architect in Rhode Island. Source: The Frances E. Henley Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society, Providence RI.
"The Wheeler Farm School". The athletic fields.
"The Wheeler Farm School". The athletic fields. This illustration shows the athletic fields of the Wheeler School. Source: Dorothea Bults and Eleanor George, "The Wheeler Farm School" The Wheeler School Archives.


216 Hope St, Providence, RI 02906 | Private Property of the Wheeler School, Providence RI.


Ciprian Buzila, “A Shell for Knowledge at Mary C. Wheeler School,” Rhode Tour, accessed February 24, 2024,