July 31, 2020

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 girl’s 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.”

View of the Anna Head School for Girls in 2009

photo by: Sanfranman59 on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Exterior view of Channing Hall, part of the former Anna Head School for Girls campus in 2009.

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.

Exterior view of the former Anna Head School For Girls, now the alumni hall at the University of California.

photo by: Stephen Schäfer

Now a part of the University of California at Berkeley, the building recently underwent rehabilitation by the Architectural Resource Group.

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.

Exterior view of the former Anna Head School for girls at Twilight.

photo by: Stephen Schäfer

Today, the building is used as the Anna Head Alumnae Hall and is located inside the University of California at Berkeley.

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.

In 1964, the Anna Head School for Girls moved to its current location. Then, in 1979, the all-girls school became the co-ed Head-Royce School. The original campus, including Channing Hall, survives under the ownership of the University of California after the University obtained the property through eminent domain in the 1950s. Channing Hall now serves as the University of California alumni hall.

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.

Laken Brooks is a current graduate student at the University of Florida. When Laken is not teaching or researching, she enjoys traveling, visiting free little libraries, and going to archives.


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