Harpeth Hall School opened in 1951 in Nashville on a twenty-six-acre campus that had previously been the Estes estate. While new in name and location, the school continued in spirit and manner the education of girls and young women that had been Ward-Belmont’s mission from 1913 to 1951. The earlier high school and junior college situated on Adelicia Acklen’s estate had developed from two nineteenth-century female educational institutions: Ward Seminary and Belmont College.
From its opening, Ward-Belmont attracted to its junior college students from across the country. As the first junior college in the South to be fully accredited, it was always a popular choice of young southern women; however, as much as 40 percent of the number of students matriculating in a given class often came from outside the South. Day students from Nashville and the surrounding area also enrolled in the college and in the college preparatory school that shared the campus, but the boarding department dominated the school. In its early years and at the end of its existence, the student population included 550 boarding students along with 300-400 day students.
Until the Great Depression, Ward-Belmont prospered, and enrollment reached 1,200. The college achieved national recognition, particularly in music and speech, and the customs established at the school’s founding became venerated traditions. The depression broke the school’s momentum, and Ward-Belmont fell deeply into debt. Though successive administrations reduced the amount owed, the school never recovered. In 1951 Ward-Belmont’s governing board sold the campus and its buildings for the remaining debt to the Tennessee Baptist Convention, which opened Belmont College (now University) on the site.
This sudden action surprised and shocked alumnae, faculty, students, and the Nashville community. Efforts to reopen negotiations with the Tennessee Baptist Convention or to propose an alternative failed. The junior college and preparatory school known as Ward-Belmont ceased to exist. A small group of determined Nashvillians, however, took steps to open a girls’ college preparatory school. Some faculty from Ward-Belmont became the first teachers and first headmistress, and some of Ward-Belmont’s most loved traditions carried over to Harpeth Hall.
As the twenty-first century begins, Harpeth Hall has a life and history of its own and a proud memory of its forebears’ past. Enrollment stands at more than 525 girls in grades five through twelve, with 100 percent of each year’s senior class entering colleges across the country. Ward-Belmont had been led by upstanding men–J. D. Blanton, John Barton, A. B. Benedict, Joseph H. Burk, and Robert Calhoun Provine–but Head of School David Wood (1980-91) has been the only man to administer Harpeth Hall. Instead, Harpeth Hall has been indelibly marked and shaped by its headmistresses: Susan S. Souby (1951-63), Idanelle McMurry (1963-79), Polly Fessey (Interim Headmistress, 1979-80), Leah S. Rhys (1991-98), and the current head of school, Ann Teaff. Recent developments in the arts curriculum, including the addition of acting, chorus, and four levels each of studio art and photography, might seem reminiscent of Ward-Belmont, but they are actually part of the energetic and forward-looking thrust of the school. Harpeth Hall excels equally in the traditional core curriculum areas and in athletics, while the annual three-week winterim provides life experiences, independent study, and service opportunities for every student. The physical plant has expanded to seven buildings equipped with modern facilities and current technology. But the faculty has always been crucial to the school’s success. Generations of girls and young women have benefited from the instruction they received and their association with adults who value the idea of quality single-sex education for adolescent girls.