Anna Head School for Girls Influenced Generations of Women—and American Architecture
Berkeley, home to several universities, is known worldwide as an educational hub. However, many tourists and California natives alike have forgotten the influential history of one institution: The Anna Head School for Girls. The original campus for the Anna Head School, now owned by the University of California, was built from 1892 to 1927, and during that period the school broke barriers in American architecture and girls' education.
Anna Head was born in 1857, the daughter of a lawyer and a school headmistress. After Anna’s mother retired, Anna created her own school run from a private home in 1888. A news report from the Berkeley Daily Herald featured Head’s school on August 4, 1892:
“Four years ago, Miss Anna Head opened in Berkeley a small school located at Channing Way and Dana Streets in Berkeley for girls. The work was begun under difficulties, because the aim of its founders was to conduct it on principles that were in advance of the methods then in common use, and parents were shy of new experiments. The effort was to establish a school that would do away with the useless routine work that cumbers so much of the ordinary teaching and replace it with what was best in the German and Eastern systems.”
Anna Head’s approach to teaching and building was anything but ordinary. One particularly remarkable aspect of her curriculum was its connection to nature. The campus was built in a rural, sprawling environment to offer students everyday interactions with countryside flora and fauna—unusual for an era when girls most often learned domestic skills and scripture in school.
The young women at the academy studied natural science and engaged in physical activities such as horseback riding. In the same Daily Herald news report referenced above, journalists describe the main school building, Channing Hall, as “rather a quaint old English county house or private mansion” than a typical schoolhouse. The article notes that the entire third floor was devoted to the most complete “gymnasium of any other girls school on the [West] Coast.” Channing Hall’s interior had a natural wooden finish, and classrooms faced the south to receive plentiful sunlight.
Nearly as old as Berkeley itself, the first campus building was finished a mere fourteen years after the town was incorporated, and while the school began as a private institution for wealthy white women, it has evolved over time to serve all students. To this day, this institution remains a valuable landmark for the Bay Area’s history and culture, even as several of the buildings face an uncertain future.
The Original Campus
For architects and history buffs, the Anna Head School is a time capsule into early Bay Area style. If Miss Head prioritized teaching the best from the American and German school systems, her buildings also meshed these cultural influences.
The Anna Head School incorporated the Queen Anne style, yet each building was covered in unfinished redwood shingles to create the illusion that the structures blended into the landscape. Known as Shingle style, this uniquely American architecture was built completely from wood, which creates a sense that the building was carved from a tree or belongs in nature. Channing Hall was the very first shingle structure in Berkeley.
To execute this impressive school complex, Miss Head hired her second cousin, Soule Edgar Fisher. Fisher died of tuberculosis after working for five years as an architect, but Channing Hall established him as a prodigy. After Fisher’s death, the famous architect Walter H. Ratcliff Jr. took over designing the Anna Head School for Girls. He approached the school with his signature style—eclectic, comfortable, and an appreciation for the outdoors. The campus became one of the largest collections of Shingle-style architecture in the area, and the school marked the end of Victorian design in Berkeley as Bay Area architects adopted other styles.
Paul Chapman, a local historian and a previous principal of what is now known as the Head-Royce school, says that the architecture “helped start the arts and crafts movement in the Bay Area. The campus is beautiful. The shingles evoke the redwood groves that were common here.”
Over the years, as the campus grew from one to fourteen buildings, word of the school spread and cemented the Anna Head School for Girls in national history. Parents across the country sent their daughters to study at the Berkeley school. Anna Head also paved the way for young women like Margaret Wentworth Owings , an artist and environmentalist, to appreciate and protect America’s diverse land and animals.
Six buildings survive from the original campus: Channing Hall, the Gables, Alumnae Hall, the Pool, and Study Hall. The University of California obtained the property through eminent domain in the 1950s, forcing the Anna Head School off its original site. In 1964, the Anna Head School for Girls moved to its current location, with a new campus six miles from town. Then, in 1979, the all-girls school became the co-ed Head-Royce School.
While the buildings hold historical significance because of their role in girl’s education and shingle architecture, the Anna Head complex still serves as a home to students. Today, the original Anna Head complex houses the University of California, Berkeley's Institute for the Study of Societal Issues. For these students, restoring the Anna Head School is about more than preserving the history of these buildings; it’s about imagining a future in which students can continue pursuing their own education within these same walls.
Out of these six buildings, three have been recently renovated, but some community members are pushing for rehabilitation of Channing Hall, the Gables, and Study Hall. A group of university students is advocating for all six of the surviving Anna Head buildings to be protected. Overall, the school’s long history supports the fact that preserving historic sites is a community effort and, in the case of the Anna Head complex, an ongoing battle.
The school’s impressive preservation and social development demonstrates how schools play an important role in their community’s history. This Shingle-style campus blended into the landscape and encouraged Bay Area architects to move from a Victorian to the American, nature-influenced buildings now iconic in California. The Anna Head School for Girls influenced thousands of female scholars and designers to question the norm. These Berkeley buildings, forgotten by many, still stand as a testament to the shifting history of girl’s education and architecture in the United States. And behind this campus, Anna Head reminds us that one woman can have a resounding impact on history.
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Photographs provided by Stephen Schäfer. See more of his work at www.habsphoto.com.
This piece was updated January 26, 2021.
The writer extends her sincere gratitude to Paul Chapman, head of school emeritus of Head-Royce, and Naniette H. Coleman, Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, for their generous insights and guidance in revising this piece to best reflect the site’s current preservation status. Readers can find updates about the Anna Head preservation effort at https://www.socialjusticefutures.org/.