Filed Under Architecture

A Touch of Modernity at Classical High School

Have you ever imagined yourself juggling six children’s needs, housework, and professional career? It may sound like a bit of a challenge; yet, these two women, Sarah (“Sally”) Harkness, a mother of seven, and Jean B. Fletcher, a mother of six, were able to manage their professional lives while fulfilling their duties as mothers and wives. They both were graduates of Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture for Women, originally affiliated with Harvard University and Smith College after 1942. In 1945, the two talented women teamed up with six other architect friends and founded The Architects Collaborative (TAC), a leading architecture firm based in Boston, MA.

Thanks to the “permissive attitude of the office,” Sally and Jean did not have to work full-time. Instead, they worked in shifts--one in the morning and the other in the afternoon--and shared the same babysitter. Yet, their professional and domestic lives inevitably overlapped. Sally said she “learn(ed) [an] awful lot of things from domestic life” especially when she thought about her kids and envisioned an environment surrounding them, a school. The application of their real-life experience to architectural practice must have contributed to TAC’s projects for numerous school buildings including Classical and Central High Schools.

Classical and Central Education Center was the first project to which TAC applied the design of “a really urban school.” In 1963, TAC in collaboration with the local Providence architectural firm Harkness & Geddes won the first prize for the new design. However, it was not until 1970 that the buildings took the shape as we see today. Apart from the main building of Central School, everything that exists today was developed in the 1950s under “The Master Plan for Public School Sites.” The original Classical School building was proudly built in a mixed Italianate and Colonial style in 1878 as the first public high school at the City of Providence. It was a three-storied, massive structure with a basement with a high ceiling. TAC made a radical change to the design of the original masonry Italianate style by introducing raw, grey, concrete Brutalism. In addition, they changed the school's interiors by introducing novel concepts like multifunctional classrooms with movable walls which might have reflected the philosophy of TAC and experience of Sally and Jean's domestic lives.

This drastic alteration is probably the main reason why Classical High School is still subject to frequent negative comments about its appearance. Even the well-known architectural historian William McKenzie Woodward made harsh comments on the buildings in his book PPS/AIAri Guide to Providence Architecture: “The Modernist vision here, intended to challenge, now merely defeats. It’s no wonder Modernism has gotten such a bad reputation in Rhode Island.” Though not everyone agreed with its aesthetic, the majority of the public praised the working ethos and concept. John Ware Lincoln, chairman of the Division of Design at RISD recognized the new building as “exemplary of the new concept of the architect as an environmental planner, working with social and civic sciences, demography, transportation engineering, building technologies, and, in this case, education philosophy.” Both school buildings are celebrated as the first of their kind in Providence but they should also be understood as a rare vestige of the work of pioneering female architects.


A vintage postcard with an illustration of the original Classical High School This vintage postcard from the early 1990s showed the exterior view of Classical High School before the renovation in the 1960s. This Colonial Style building, which looks totally different from how it looks today, must have blended in well with neighboring buildings since it was the most popular style of the time. The building had four floors in total with the solid look typical of a masonry building. Source: Classical High School, A. C. Bosselman & Co., Providence Public Library, Rhode Island Collection. Date: 1909
A vintage postcard with an illustration of the original Classical High School This vintage postcard from the early 1900s shows the exterior of Classical High School before its renovation in the 1960s. The hipped roof, stripped neo-Renaissance building had four floors arranged on an H-shaped plan. Its exterior was yellow brick with limestone trimmings. Source: Classical High School, Blanchard Young & Co., Providence Public Library, Rhode Island Collection. Date: 1918
A group picture of The Architecture Collaborative Members of The Architects Collaborative pose on a stairway in Harkness Commons. Left to right: Sarah Harkness, Jean B. Fletcher, Robert S. McMillan, Norman C. Fletcher, Walter Gropius, John C. Harkness, Benjamin Thompson, and Louis A. McMillen. The photograph was released by Harvard University News Office on Friday, October 6, 1950. Source: Harvard University, Frances Loeb Library, Special Collection Creator: Fleisher, Walter R Date: 1950
The floor plan of Classical and Central Education Center This is the floor plan of Classical and Central Education Center presented by TAC. The E-shaped building is the original Central High School building and its gymnasium and cafeteria to the left which was going to be newly built by TAC. These additions were demolished in 2008 and turned into Providence Career & Technical Academy (PCTA). To the right, two schools were supposed to be connected to one another by a bridge which would have led to the auditorium of Classical High School but did not materialize at the end. Source: The Architects Collaborative: international. Cambridge, MA: Architects Collaborative, Inc. 1992 Date: 1963
A view of completed Classical High School building After three years of construction, the new Classical High School opened again in 1970 with a completely different look. The red-brown bricks in between raw concrete façade creates a ambience of diversity which also accords with the school’s philosophy. Overall, it epitomizes a typical Brutalist architecture. Source: The Architects Collaborative: international. Cambridge, MA: Architects Collaborative, Inc. 1992.


Providence Journal, March 6, 1973 issuepdf / 1.06 MBDownload


770 Westminster St, Providence, RI 02903


He Ri Kwon, “A Touch of Modernity at Classical High School,” Rhode Tour, accessed October 5, 2023,