Bulfinch Hall Celebrates Bicentennial Anniversary

After its wooden predecessor burned to the ground in 1818, construction on Andover’s third schoolhouse began immediately and was completed in 1819. This year, Bulfinch Hall, previously referred to as the “Brick Academy,” celebrates its 200th anniversary.

While Bulfinch currently houses the English Department, the building has served as a schoolhouse, gymnasium, dining hall, and an academic building.

“I feel not quite worthy of its 200 year history, but at the same time I am excited that the department as it is now is not what people envisioned 200 years ago for [Andover]. We are a much more diverse Bulfinch and a much more diverse student body. That part is really exciting to me,” said Stephanie Curci, Chair of the English Department.

Charles Bulfinch was originally credited with the design of the “Brick Academy,” though it was later found to be Asher Benjamin’s design, according to Paige Roberts, Director of Archives and Special Collection.

“We have evidence that the school paid [Benjamin] 15 dollars for his work designing the exterior of the building. That’s important to mention because we think of Bulfinch as the architect of Bulfinch Hall, when in fact Charles Bulfinch designed Pearson Hall,” said Roberts. 

For the first 50 years, Bulfinch was used as an academic building. In the 1860s, it was transformed into a gymnasium, undergoing several changes such as the removal of the second floor and installing gymnastic equipment, according to Roberts.

In June of 1896, a fire burned down the interior of Bulfinch, ending its service as a gymnasium. Bulfinch was then rebuilt as a dining hall and named the Bancroft’s Beanery after the Head of School, Cecil Bancroft, at the time. Following the construction of Paresky Commons in 1930, Bulfinch underwent a renovation yet again, to refacilitate its use as an academic building.

“Bulfinch Hall embodies [Andover’s] ability to adapt to change. The fact that it served all these different functions is extraordinary. I think it’s a beautiful building. In some ways, it looks very simple. At least for me, that’s part of what I like about it; it’s almost kind of reassuring. There’s no overcomplicating features,” said Roberts.

According to Sherri Hallgren, Adjunct Instructor in English, Bulfinch is a prime example of Andover’s tradition of remaining true to original core values.

“We still have a traditional foot in our original core principles and you see it embodied physically in the rooms that we teach in. They’re here, the old walls, the old windows. Look at how thick these walls are, you can see how far back the windows are,” said Hallgren.

Hallegren continued, “and these floors. I don’t know when these floors were last paid attention to, so that when you try to scooch your chair in they can’t jump each board going forth.”

In 2012 to 2013, Bulfinch was renovated, once again adapting for the needs of its current students. The building was made handicapped accessible, the Tirana Room was built, and new technology was added to the building. A functional green roof with real plant life was placed above the Tirana Room, wall colors changed, and the historic debate room was turned into a faculty lounge, according to “Bulfinch Hall Reborn and Andover: The Official Magazine of Phillips Academy.”

Jeff Domina, Instructor in English, was a Committee Member during the renovation. The committee decided to use the trees that needed to be cut down for the renovation to create new furniture for the building.

The Committee elected furniture maker Strother Purdy ’85 to head the project. He created new seminar tables, as well as a few smaller tables. Domina later said that he liked that they were able to use everything at their disposal, as well as make a connection with an alum.

“You know we said we wanted it to be our trees, our wood, so you know there are a lot of knots and things like quirky marks in the wood, even though he did beautiful work on them. It feels kinda cool because it’s like a sacred [aspect] of the place,” said Domina.

When the knots provided trouble for Purdy, he had the idea to float a new 2012 penny into the resin every time that they had to fill a knot. Domina says that every large object he made has one hidden somewhere.

The architectural details that were added and restored in the 1930s renovation continue to be preserved today, according to Domina.

“The way that the building itself still has some of its architectural quirks and the interest of it on the exterior and the interior. You see traces of its history, you see the stains on the bricks on the outside, which are from the fires,” said Domina.

Although new technology has been added to Bulfinch, it has maintained many of its older aspects. Bulfinch still uses small classrooms suitable for discussion-based classes, according to Hallgren.

“The last school I taught at had smartboards in all the classrooms, but I love the emphasis here. The more I teach the more I think that what really matters is that the students can all look at each other, and listen to each other, and talk to each other. And that we all spend way too much time riveted into the little black mirror space of our screens,” said Hallgren.

Bulfinch has been a transformative part of students’ lives at Andover, as the opportunity to have peer discussions and interpret texts have stuck with many students, according to Domina.

Jack Fates ’22 said he enjoys the conversations that Bulfinch fosters and he appreciates the history of Andover students who took English in Bulfinch.

“It’s just cool to think about how I’m just one student out of thousands [who] have come here. Its just cool to think about how so many people have come and learned through Andover, and especially in Bulfinch, cause everyone goes to Bulfinch [because] they have to take English,” said Fates.

According to Patrick Rielly, Instructor in English, one of his favorite experiences in Bulfinch was teaching Frankenstein in the fall for English-100.

“Frankenstein was published in 1818 so it was also celebrating its 200th year [this academic year]. It’s kind of amazing imagining Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein as this building was being built. It just seems so far to where we are now. I think James Monroe was the president while it was being built. That kind of timeline is fun to imagine and being a little tiny part of that is really cool,” said Rielly.

Domina said he feels lucky to be a part of the community in Bulfinch.

Domina said, “I think when we’re at our best as learners, teachers, and students, we’re working together toward better thinking, towards truth. By thinking hard about literature, philosophy, the world around us, and the ways that we can treat each other better and live better lives and take the joy in what’s beautiful about literature.”

After a fire damaged the building in 1896, Bulfinch Hall was fixed and used as a storage and warm-up space for athletic programs. The Borden Gym opened in 1902, which lead Bulfinch to be enlarged and fitted as a school dining hall. It was later replaced by what is now Paresky Commons.