St. Nicholas School (Seattle)

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 1/29/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10715

St. Nicholas School was a private nonsectarian girls' school founded in 1910 and located in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. The school was named to honor St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, but had no religious affiliation. Patronized by many of Seattle's leading families, St. Nicholas School strove to provide its students with an education that would both prepare them to pursue higher education and equip them to proceed comfortably into Seattle's upper class society. St. Nicholas School graduated its last class in 1971, and thereafter merged with the previously all-male Lakeside School (founded in 1919), making that school coeducational.

Early History

Eda Buddecke (1858-1926) was the school's first headmistress, assisted by her sister, Fanny Buddecke (1854-1938). The Buddeckes, who had been raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, and subsequently taught in Virginia and Maryland before moving to Seattle, founded the school at the behest of a group of Seattle parents who wanted their daughters to have the benefit of a first-class nonsectarian college-preparatory education. St. Nicholas was intended to offer Seattle girls an East Coast education, without the need to leave their homes to get it. The school's motto was "Nihil est virtute amabilus," or "Do noble things, not dream them all day long." The school's namesake, St. Nicholas, was a bishop in what is now Turkey during the fourth century. St. Nicholas was said to favor girls who lacked dowries and to help them arrange suitable marriages by leaving them bags of gold. 

A 1960 Seattle Times article about the school's 50th anniversary mentions in passing that a longtime secretary, Pauline Bolster (1887-1975), recalled that the school "actually began in the ballrooms of the George F. Fischer home, and then the R. D. Merrill home" before the Buddecke sisters became involved ("St. Nicholas Will Mark..."). 

In early January 1910, Eda Buddecke purchased the property at 712 Broadway N (now E) between E Roy and E Aloha streets in Seattle's tony North Capitol Hill neighborhood. She paid former owners George B. Cole (ca. 1861-1943), Lily A. Cole (ca. 1861-1944), and Mary C. Finch (ca. 1853-1936) $7,600. Seattle architect Charles Bebb (1856-1942) designed a two-story school building consisting of two floors of classrooms, later topped by a third floor gymnasium. The school's nine teachers welcomed its first pupils (83 of them) on September 29, 1910. Student government at the school was organized in 1914. 

In 1917, the Buddecke sisters sold St. Nicholas to a group of parents -- members of Seattle's leading families, including the Blethen, Bloedel, Henry, Merrill, Padelford, and Stimson families.  The school was incorporated at this time, and Edith Dabney (ca. 1882-1967), a teacher at the school since its inception, became headmistress. In 1919, the school became affiliated with a boarding facility at 520 Boylston Avenue N (now E), while remaining primarily a day school. The boarding option was discontinued after two years. 

St. Nicholas School was the first of several strongly female-centric institutions that would eventually define the two-block radius around the school. In 1921, Nellie Cornish (1876-1956) moved her Cornish School, which offered lessons in art, music, dance, and theater, into a new building at 710 E Roy.

In 1925, the Woman's Century Club constructed a brick clubhouse at 807 E Roy Street, and the Rainier Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution built their chapter house at 800 E Roy Street. Like St. Nicholas School, these organizations served and were supported by the wealthy families living nearby. 

St. Nicholas Girls

Emphasis at St. Nicholas was placed on academics, but also on proper behavior, and on giving back to the community. Lambda Theta Upsilon, a service sorority to which all students belonged, was founded in 1919 and provided a framework for charitable activities benefiting the Seattle community. St. Nicholas students were also trained to appreciate cultural activities and to organize and manage a gracious home environment. For St. Nicholas girls, rolling bandages for the Red Cross and raising funds for Children's Orthopedic Hospital went hand in hand with learning to host teas and formal dinner parties. These lessons were firmly reinforced at home. 

The 1922 St. Nicholas Pen Points, a combination yearbook and literary publication, includes a page addressed "To Mothers of Girls" that sums up the school's objectives: "It is the ideal and purpose of the St. Nicholas School for Girls to develop the inherent possibilities for growth in the girls whom the school is privileged to guide through their impressionable years.  To develop strength and sincerity of character, to prepare girls to acquire through the later years of college an understanding of life and its responsibilities that they may become capable home makers and mothers, and intelligent citizens -- these are our objectives" (p. 3).

Especially in the school's early decades, St. Nicholas students were the daughters of the men who led Seattle's business community and the women who led, funded, and facilitated the city's cultural and benevolent aspects. Young women educated at St. Nicholas were encouraged to actively give back to their community, to use their wealth for good rather than rely on it for privilege. Over the school's 61-year history, St. Nicholas graduates consistently distinguished themselves as leaders, both in the professional world and as tireless community volunteers. 

A New Location

On March 15, 1926, St. Nicholas moved into a newly built and much larger facility at 1501 10th Avenue E. The new school was designed by Charles Bebb and his architectural partner, Carl Gould (1873-1939). (The original school building became an apartment house, and was later demolished. The site now [2014] houses a mixed-use business and residential complex whose tenants include Roy Street Coffee & Tea and FedEx Office.) The new facility allowed the school to expand to 200 students, with 16 full-time and four part-time teachers. 

Course catalogs in the 1920s stress the location's accessibility via streetcar, as well as the building's gracious appointments: "The school is modern and beautiful in every detail.  From its large west windows there is an unobstructed view of Lake Union, Puget Sound, the Canal, and the Olympic Mountains. On the first floor are the offices, kindergarten, library, reception and conference rooms, dining room and kitchen, and class rooms for the Lower School. The study and class rooms for the Junior and Senior High School are on the second floor. These include a room for Household Arts, and three unusually large and well-arranged science laboratories" (Saint Nicholas School Course Catalog 1926-1927, p. 14).

Parlez-vous?

St. Nicholas initially served grades K-12. Male students were accepted for Kindergarten only (at some periods during the school's early years, until fourth grade). French was taught beginning in First Grade. Latin studies commenced in Eighth Grade. During High School, girls chose to follow either the General Course (not designed to prepare the student for college) or the College Preparatory Course. The University of Washington accepted graduates of this course of studies who also had St. Nicholas's recommendation without examination. Many St. Nicholas graduates were accepted into women's colleges such as Wellesley, Vassar, Smith, and Bryn Mawr, and the school's curriculum supported studies designed to prepare St. Nick's girls for the college entrance board examinations these schools required. 

Beginning about 1914, St. Nicholas students were required to wear a uniform consisting of a white middy blouse, black tie, navy blue skirt, and navy blue sweater, all available for purchase at Frederick & Nelson. Some period photographs of St. Nick's students during the school's early decades document that the girls also sometimes wore white skirts, probably during warmer weather or for formal occasions. Low-heeled shoes and plain woolen, cotton, or lisle (tightly-woven polished cotton) stockings completed the look. Colored hair bands and elaborate hair ribbons were prohibited, and jewelry was restricted to a watch. For gym classes, black serge bloomers, a plain white middy blouse, black tie and stockings, and high white tennis or gymnasium shoes were de rigueur. In addition to their physical training at school, the 1925-1926 course catalog specified, "the girls are encouraged to take advantage of the opportunity for swimming at the Y.W.C.A. pool and riding at one of Seattle's riding academies" (p. 23). 

The name of the school's yearbook varied during the school's early years, finally settling as Cantoria from 1926 onward. Sports were compulsory, with basketball a particular favorite.  Dancing was added to the physical education program in the 1930s. Some gym classes were also devoted to practicing poise: walking smoothly, maintaining sufficiently straight posture to balance a book on one's head, sinking gracefully into chairs, sitting with ankles crossed neatly and knees together. 

1930s and 1940s

In 1930, St. Nicholas gained a major neighbor when St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral was constructed just southwest of the school. Over time St. Mark's facilities would be pressed into service for formal St. Nicholas including graduation, but no formal relationship existed between the two entities, and the school remained nonsectarian.  

Dire economic conditions took their toll on St. Nicholas's enrollment numbers during the late 1930s and early 1940s. During World War II, St. Mark's Cathedral (which had been foreclosed upon in 1941, and was closed for worship until 1944) was occupied by a United States Army military instillation. Windows at St. Nicholas were taped to prevent flying glass in the event of a bomb explosion, bomb drills were held, and school lunch supplies were purchased using ration books. The 1943 Cantoria (which was shorter than usual due to wartime paper shortages) detailed student war effort activities: 

"The first weeks of school found the Seniors resuming their Tuesday War Stamp Sales of last year.  The Juniors contributed a service to the war effort by completing on hundred hand knitted squares for a Red Cross Afghan. They also collected over two hundred recent phonograph records which were turned over to the committee distributing records to the soldiers throughout the nation. The Sophomores sponsored a book drive for the servicemen. ... Cookie drives were held once a month to help make U.S.O's and similar organizations seem more like home to servicemen" (1943 Cantoria, np).

Mid-Century Misses

In 1955, a west wing was added to the existing building.  Maximum enrollment rose to 260. St. Nick's girls still wore essentially the same uniform that had been used since the 1920s, albeit with a slightly less voluminous gym ensemble. 

After much student pressure, St. Nicholas began occasionally hosting an exchange luncheon with students from the all-male Lakeside School, and in 1956, St. Nicholas and Lakeside held a joint mixer (an informal party). This was a coup: Lakeside and the all-girl Bush School had already been mixing on weekends while St. Nick's girls sought school permission to do the same. 

During the late 1950s, St. Nicholas students continued to push boundaries. The site of women smoking in public had lost its previous social taboo, and students began lighting up on campus.  Headmistress Edith T. Rowe (1923-2009) and the St. Nicholas board banned the practice on campus, making it cause for suspension. Students responded by stepping off campus and onto Cathedral grounds for their smoke breaks, forcing Rowe to extend the ban and recommend that girls suspended twice for smoking face expulsion. 

Changing Times

Enrollment at St. Nicholas fell during the 1960s as the school struggled to reconcile its history and traditions with the educational and social desires of modern young women. By 1965, enrollment had dropped to 229. The school hired a public relations consultant, increased teacher salaries, and beefed up science laboratories. But St. Nicholas -- like other single-sex educational facilities, and many prep schools in general -- was increasingly out of step with the rapidly changing times. 

St. Nicholas students continued to push for a school that felt more relevant, chipping away at old traditions. Students tussled with faculty over issues such as chapel assemblies vs. comparative religions studies, rules governing the wearing of jewelry, and updating the school uniform.  Seniors eventually gained permission to smoke in the dining room during the last lunch period of the day, and students who secured permission from their parents and the administration were allowed to leave campus for lunch. These changes -- welcomed by students -- disturbed many of their parents and some of the school's alumnae.

In 1967, St. Nicholas student Karin Williams was permitted to enroll in an advanced physics class at the all-male Lakeside School. St. Nicholas offered only three years of science, and Williams wanted four.

In 1968, Headmistress Rowe -- to many, a symbol of the old conservative order -- resigned, and was replaced by Frank MacKeith, the school's first male faculty member. MacKeith expanded the school's language program and added more advanced science courses. By his second year in the headmaster's position, the student uniform had been updated: skirts were shorter and had several style options, and a more fitted white blouse replaced the old middy blouse. MacKeith told The Seattle Times, "It is one thing to be a finishing school and something else to be academically aware. We will try to follow a course somewhere between" ("The Male Influence…"). The school also expanded opportunities for independent studies and enhanced the scholarship program.

Merger With Lakeside School

MacKeith resigned in 1970, as did five of the school's 24 teachers. Low enrollment meant budget shortfalls, despite a recent tuition hike. St. Nicholas's board of directors struggled to find a way to keep the school afloat, hiring former Lakeside School Director of Admissions and Scholarship David Davis as headmaster. Davis immediately instituted radical change.  His first act as headmaster was to make wearing the school uniform optional.

"I think it's hypocritical to talk to students about rights and then tell them they must dress alike," David told The Seattle Times. "Say three girls in a class show up barefoot, and their teacher tells me it's distracting. Then the teacher and I will discuss it with the girls. We'll listen to the girls' side -- they may have their serious reasons. And we'll listen" ("Rules for students..."). The all-female Bush School also abolished school uniforms in 1970. Lakeside School (all male) abolished dress code in 1968. By 1970, Lakeside students were permitted to grow beards. At St. Nicholas School Davis also planned to eliminate letter grades, hire new teachers, bring in community mentors to work with students, encourage students to be more involved with the life of the city, and make the school co-educational. 

Some parents supported these changes, but many parents objected to them vociferously. Strain and personal problems undermined Davis's ability to function as headmaster, and he was granted leave in November 1970. At the time, merger talks with Lakeside School, a formerly all-boys school founded in Seattle in 1919, were already underway. In December, both Lakeside and St. Nicholas boards of directors had approved the merger. Davis resigned, and Lakeside headmaster Arthur Delancey "Dan" Ayrault Jr. (1935-1990) was appointed acting head of St. Nicholas until the actual merger occurred in September 1971. 

St. Nicholas graduated its last class on June 10, 1971. The final Cantoria summed up a moment that was both hopeful and bittersweet: "Something new, Nothing old, Something true, Something bold. No spirit of the past can hold you back from the BRAVE NEW WORLD" (35). 

St. Nicholas School Headmistresses and Headmasters

Eda Buddecke, 1910-1917

Edith Dabney, 1917-1920

Marietta Abernathy, 1920-1921

Katharine Caley, 1921-1931

Fanny C. Steele, 1931-1952

Virginia E. Smith, 1952-1958

Edith T. Rowe, 1958-1968

Frank MacKeith, 1968-1970

David Davis, September-December 1970

A. D. "Dan" Ayrault, Acting head, December 1970-September 1971

Sources: HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Lakeside School (Seattle)" (by Mary T. Henry) and "Seattle's St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral opens in 1930" (by Priscilla Long)  http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed January 7, 2014); Phyllis Adams Herford, "History of St. Nicholas School," Lakeside School archives; "St. Nicholas School," Lakeside School website accessed January 7, 2014 (http://www.lakesideschool.org/podium/default.aspx?t=122170); Leslie Schuyler, "Girls In Class: The Story of Lakeside's Merger With St. Nicholas School," Lakeside School website accessed January 8, 2014 (http://www.lakesideschool.org/podium/tools/SlideShow.aspx?a=293649); Saint Nicholas School Course Catalog 1926-1927 (Seattle: St. Nicholas School, 1926); St. Nicholas School Yearbook, 1917-1918 (Seattle: St. Nicholas School, 1917); "The Saint Nicholas School," The Town Crier, March 16, 1912, p. 13; Real estate column (no headline), The Seattle Times, January 16, 1910, p. 34; "Mrs. Sherwood Ford," Ibid., March 17, 1967, p. 57; "St. Nicholas Will Mark 50th Year," Ibid., September 4, 1980; "St. Nicholas," Ibid., May 27, 1971, p. 41; June Anderson Almquist, "Rules for Students Are far from Uniform," Ibid., September 13, 1970; Tom Stockley, "The Male Influence at Saint Nicholas," Seattle Sunday Times Magazine, June 8, 1969, p. 4; "Who is St. Nicholas?" St. Nicholas Center website accessed January 12, 2014 (http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-is-st-nicholas/); Nicholas Pen Points (Seattle: St. Nicholas School, 1922); Cantoria (Seattle: St. Nicholas School, 1944); Cantoria (Seattle: St. Nicholas School, 1971). 
Note: Historical archives of St. Nicholas School are housed in the Jane Carlson Williams '60 Archives at Lakeside School in Seattle.

Related Topics:   Education | Women's History

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You