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The Founding of Hackley School

By Walter L. Schneller

Hackley Historian

Walter Schneller, a veteran Hackley history teacher for over four decades, retired from teaching in 1998 to devote his time to researching and writing Hackley’s history.

The world stage surrounding Hackley’s creation in 1899 was indeed imposing. During that year, Queen Victoria passed the 60th anniversary of her reign, the Boxer Rebellion in China not only portended future revolutionary events in that country but also marked the heyday of European imperialism. In Vienna, Dr. Sigmund Freud published "The Interpretation of Dreams," and another Viennese intellectual, Theodore Herzl, gathered a group in Switzerland to launch modern Zionism. In 1899, as a result of the Spanish-American war, the United States would be propelled onto the world stage as a major power. The 20th century was at hand.

Link to a Chronology of Hackley's History

The Founders

During the 1890s, the American Unitarian leadership in Boston became increasingly concerned about the lack of Unitarian presence in secondary and college preparatory education. To be sure, Unitarians controlled Harvard University whose president, Charles Eliot, was the leading layperson in the Unitarian movement and whose faculty contained innumerable Unitarians. This situation may have made them complacent regarding secondary schools, but in time, it became clear that Unitarians would have to send their children to schools run by other Protestant sects if they wanted quality college preparatory education. An opportunity arose in New York when Mrs. Caleb Brewster Hackley, a wealthy widow and leading supporter of the Unitarian movement, decided to give to some charitable cause her summer mansion in Tarrytown, New York. She resided in New York City, and was a member of the Church of the Messiah, whose minister, Minot Savage, had arrived from Boston in the mid-1890s. He and Mrs. Hackley were friends, and it was Minot Savage who suggested that her mansion might be used to create a school for boys. In the winter of 1898-1899, she met with Dr. Samuel Eliot of Boston, who was shortly to become the President of the American Unitarian Association, and several other prominent Unitarians. Mrs. Hackley liked the idea of a college preparatory school that would serve the Unitarian community and any families interested in a liberal religious environment, and so she gave her home in Tarrytown for this purpose. She provided substantial funding for converting the mansion for school purposes and for operating the school for several years. In the spring of 1899, a Board of Trustees was formed, and very shortly thereafter a Headmaster and first master were selected. The first students arrived in the autumn of 1899 and resided in the Hackley home, shortly to be called Hackley Hall.

Making a School

It was very clear from the beginning that this home and grounds were inadequate for a serious college preparatory enterprise, and in the fall of 1899, there was a search for additional land. This search was undertaken by the first Headmaster, Theodore Chickering Williams, and the first master hired, Mr. Seaver Buck. Not very far form Mrs. Hackley’s home, which was located on the current grounds of Marymount College; they found a large estate for sale. Mrs. Hackley provided the funds for the purchase of this beautiful estate, which provided the grounds for the Hackley School that we know today. The buildings on the estate were torn down immediately, and within a short period, construction began on the magnificent buildings that would eventually join to form the Hackley quadrangle. The first buildings to be constructed were Goodhue Hall, now the Kaskell library, and the Minot Savage building, which is seen on the right as one faces the quad. They were in use for the first time in 1902-1903. The remaining buildings, including the Sarah Goodhue King Chapel and the Headmaster’s house, were completed by 1908.

These Boston Brahmins who created Hackley wanted the very best, and so they employed the firm of Wheelwright and Haven from Boston to design the new school buildings, and Downing Vaux to provide contouring and plans for the first playing field and track. Theodore Chickering Williams played a major role in the planning of the school buildings as well as in determining the curriculum and style of education. He had been a Unitarian minister in New York and was recognized as an important classical scholar. From the beginning Hackley, although conducted under Unitarian auspices, was a non-sectarian school and welcomed students from all faiths. The curriculum from the beginning was rigorous and prepared students for the outstanding colleges of the nation. The majority of Hackley’s early graduates went to Harvard University. In addition to rigorous academic preparation, the school was to provide a humane setting for its students, and a family environment would be created with masters and their wives residing in the residence halls. A vigorous interscholastic sports program began during the first years with football already at the center of action in 1900-1901. Hackley Hall, Mrs. Hackley's mansion, became the lower school and was eventually sold. It no longer exists, although one can find on the Marymount campus old stone gates which provided the entrance to the Hackley home. There have been many changes and developments in Hackley’s history; there have been 11 headmasters and three acting headmasters, and the school has grown in size since its opening in the autumn of 1899, but it has never deviated from its mission of offering quality college preparatory education to those students admitted, and although it is no longer run under Unitarian auspices, it has also maintained its non-sectarian character throughout the century of its existence.


The School's main entrance, with its inscription: "Enter here to be and find a friend." In an earlier era, Hackley boys entered in dapper style, fulfilling the old "coat and tie" dress code requirement.


Sledding down near the football field in 1914. The field also served as the hockey rink, when winters were cold enough to freeze the flooded field.