History

May Margaret Fine
May Margaret Fine
Miss Fine's School Painting

For over a century, Princeton Day School has been shaped by people with vision, intellect, commitment and courage. Its innovative spirit was first apparent in 1899 when a 30-year-old teacher named May Margaret Fine opened a school for 40 students at 42 Mercer Street. At a time when less than 10 percent of the nation’s children attended school, and educational opportunities for girls were almost non-existent, Miss Fine’s School boldly prepared girls for college. The school flourished and finally settled in the former Princeton Inn building on the corner of Nassau Street and Bayard Lane. A rigorous curriculum was complemented with dramatic, musical, artistic and athletic offerings. Girls were enrolled from kindergarten through twelfth grade, while boys attended only through third grade.

In 1924, seeking to bridge the gap between the time their sons left Miss Fine’s and entered boarding school, a group of Princeton University professors and local parents founded Princeton Junior School. The new venture was housed at 10 Bayard Lane and was led by James Howard Murch.

Six years later, the school moved to a newly constructed building across town on Broadmead. Renamed Princeton Country Day School, it offered a classical education and grew to include fourth through ninth grades, or first through sixth forms as they were called.

The boys enjoyed access to the University’s adjoining playing fields and Baker Rink. The availability of excellent facilities and talented coaches helped produce a long line of outstanding athletes. Other extracurricular activities included woodworking, printing, photography, and dramatics.

Miss Fine passed away in 1933 and although her school struggled financially through the Great Depression, it maintained a reputation for excellence. In 1943, Shirley Davis became headmistress. During her tenure, enrollment and faculty salaries increased and a faculty retirement plan was instituted. A cafeteria was built in 1945, classrooms were added, the library was expanded and a librarian was hired. The school marked its 50th anniversary with the completion of a large addition that included a gymnasium/auditorium and a theater.

PCD

Princeton Country Day also implemented an impressive array of capital improvements as enrollment increased. Henry Ross succeeded Mr. Murch in 1947 and oversaw an expansion that included classrooms, locker rooms with showers, a library, offices, a gymnasium/auditorium and theater. In 1958, Peter F. Rothermel was named headmaster.

The post-World War II population boom, coupled with the growth of Princeton as a major research and educational center, directly impacted the area’s schools. At Miss Fine’s and Princeton Country Day, enrollment surged and the need for more space became acute. In January 1958, trustees from both schools met and began to explore ways to combine their operations.

At this juncture, Miss Fine’s trustees became interested in an 18-acre property on the Great Road that included Colross, an elegant Georgian house. The Matheys, who owned the adjoining land and who had a long and active involvement with both schools, offered to give each school 20 acres from their holdings to combine with the Colross parcel for a new school. They later donated an additional 10 acres and continued as benefactors throughout their lives.

Colross

Colross

Such an offer was irresistible. The hilltop site, dotted with pristine woodland, meadows, streams and ponds was located just two miles from the center of town and could accommodate a large campus. The schools accepted the Matheys’ offer and over the next six years, set about the monumental task of creating an entirely new physical plant, as well as new academic and administrative structures.

While many of the country’s independent schools also faced rising costs and inadequate space, merging two schools into one was still an audacious and challenging undertaking. Many schools considered it, but few did it successfully. Princeton Day School became one of the first.

Bunny Dilworth with Cornerstone, 1964
Board Chair Elizabeth C. (Bunny) Dilworth
puts the finishing touches on the cornerstone.

The schools incorporated in 1960 under the name Princeton Day Schools (plural) and Harold W. Dodds, president emeritus of Princeton University, was elected its first board chair. The original plan was to provide coeducation from kindergarten through fourth grade in a separate Lower School building. With the exception of science classes, the Middle and Upper School building was designed with separate classrooms for boys and girls. In 1963, the trustees appointed Thomas B. Hartmann as the new school’s first principal. The heads of the two founding schools were to serve as assistant principals.

In time, it became apparent that it was not feasible for the schools to operate as separate entities and that coeducation through all the grades was the fairest and most efficient solution. And so, the final “s” was dropped from its name and Princeton Day School was born.

Groundbreaking ceremonies took place on April 24, 1964. Revised architectural plans called for all grades to be contained in one building. Elizabeth C. Dilworth took over as chair of the Princeton Day School Board of Trustees and guided the fledgling venture through its initial growing pains, which included the resignations of Ms. Davis, Mr. Rothermel, and Mr. Hartmann.

PDS Campus

Illustration of the Campus

The 1967 administrative team

Princeton Day School opened its doors to students on September 17, 1965. While trustees searched for a new head, they created a faculty committee on operations to lead the school through its first year. It consisted of Herbert S. McAneny, Beverly A. Williams, Fowler (Mike) Merle-Smith, and Winifred Vogt. Their knowledge of the founding schools and their innate sensitivity helped smooth the transition for faculty, students, and parents.

In the fall of 1966, Douglas O. McClure became the school’s first headmaster and began a 16-year tenure that set the tone and established the values that still define the school. In spite of the country’s societal turbulence during that period, he created a climate of optimism, academic innovation, and growth.

Princeton Day School has been fortunate to have leaders who are committed to maintaining and enhancing its mission. Paul J. Stellato became head of school in 2008 and continues to nurture its legacy.


History by Linda maxwell Stefanelli ’62

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