This Was Then: The Tisbury School

Take a tour of the Island’s “newest” school building.


Welcome to the new Tisbury School!

It’s 1930. Students, staff, and teachers have moved into the new school on West William Street, to pomp and parades. The deteriorating old Tisbury School on Center Street, together with its overcrowded, two-classroom annex (known as the “portable building” or “portable school”) is abandoned, soon to face the wrecking crews after 75 years of continuous use.

The original plan was to build a new school on the site of the old, but the town changed course. After seven years of contentious planning, they ultimately purchased two abutting hilltop meadow lots on West William Street from Grace Foster, who had moved to Boston to find work giving facial skin treatments, and John Howland, a wealthy cranberry farmer. (Howland, who had been harvesting cranberries from his Tisbury bogs since the 1890s, was also a dealer in Pekin ducks, an avid birdwatcher and naturalist, a game warden, and a champion for the protection of the endangered heath hen. It was Howland who first proposed the establishment of the heath hen reservation, today the State Forest.)

Ten bids were received for the construction of the new Tisbury School, nine of them from off-Island. The contract went to the Lundberg Construction Co. of St. Louis, under the supervision of Thane Cottrell. Ground was broken in April 1929. Assisting his older brother was 21-year-old construction worker Herbert Cottrell, who fell to his death on the evening of July 17, 1929. (The young builder stepped backward from a girder on the third floor of the framework and lost his balance, plummeting more than 50 feet into the basement.) But construction soon continued, and the new school was opened in April 1930.

The architects of the new building were the firm of Haynes and Mason of Fitchburg, a partnership responsible for public building designs all over New England. Although they designed everything from downtown Falmouth’s brick fire station to a hospital in Ayer, they specialized in schools, and indeed dozens of similar-looking red brick schools sprang up all over New England in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The red brick Dennis Consolidated School, for instance, built in 1931 and now named the Ezra H. Baker Innovation School, was designed by the same architects and even built by the same construction company as Tisbury’s. (It is still in use today as an elementary school.)

The Tisbury School in 1930 consisted of the Tisbury Grammar School (grades 1-8) and the Tisbury High School (9-12). The high school also served, on a tuition basis, a few students from West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Gay Head. Grades 1 through 6 were mostly housed on the first floor of the new building, and grades 7 to 12 were mostly on the top floor.

In 1930, Dr. Wallace Mason, president of Keene Normal School in New Hampshire (today Keene State College), toured the new Tisbury School and wrote a glowing article for the January 1931 issue of the American School Board Journal — A Periodical of School Administration. He describes the Vineyard’s newest school as “one of the latest and most complete consolidated schools of New England.”

Dr. Mason describes the new building room by room, floor by floor, accompanying his article with the professional photos you see here, evidently commissioned by the architectural firm of Haynes and Mason. He describes the “easy-chairs and drapery curtains all in harmonious colors” in the nurses’ office, “evidently planned to take away from the student the fear caused by the typical hospital style of furniture.” He takes us on a tour of “the generous-size study hall” on the top floor adjacent to the library, “in the front of which hangs a colonial picture of the ‘beautiful isle’ painted and donated by a Vineyard artist.” He writes about the school’s underground coal bin, electrical appliances, easy-access plumbing, and drinking fountains. “Two outside drinking fountains in the yard will contribute much to the mechanical handling of ‘getting a drink’ at recess time,” he writes, gushing, “An interesting feature of all lavatories in the building is the mixing valve, which gives water of any temperature for washing hands and faces.”

The principal was Henry Ritter, who took the job in 1924. The late Basil Welch recalled in a 1981 interview, “Henry Ritter was a principal when I went to school. Henry had a booming bass voice, and when he hollered at somebody in school, you could hear him on all three floors, in every room. He hollered at me a few times. Henry was a good teacher; you’d learn from him because, boy, he sure made you pay attention. You didn’t forget.” The late Stan Lair added, “[Ritter] was a pretty stern schoolmaster, but he was a good teacher. You didn’t mess around much with Henry. He would just as soon throw a hammer at you, and in fact he did. Buddy Oliver told me that he was down in the shop one day, and Henry came in, and something was said, and Henry let a hammer fly right at him. Said he ducked, but [Ritter] was the boss.”

In 1930 the gymnasium and auditorium were still in the planning stages; another eight years would pass before that addition would finally be finished. The original design called for an elaborate and spacious building that separated the auditorium from the gym, creating elevated seating accessible from stairwells off the lobby. But even by 1930, the Island was already feeling the effects of what was being referred to as “the general business depression.” (President Herbert Hoover was by then actively popularizing the term “depression” in lieu of words like “panic,” which had been applied to previous economic downturns.)

So the gym and auditorium plans were eventually downsized. The new (but still auditorium-less) Tisbury High School’s first play in 1930 was “The Sunbonnet Girl,” a musical comic operetta in two acts. The titular character is described as an “orphaned child of musical parents, left in charge of a skinflint couple who have starved and stinted her.”

The Vineyard Gazette concluded in a 1929 article, “This building is adequate to care for the town’s school needs for the next two or three decades.”

Special thanks to Rachel Orr for recognizing the photos and providing Mason’s article.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.