Classical School, Radical Politics:

The Nathaniel Allen House, 19th Century and Now


When I first began photographing the Allen House I didn't think much about its history —only that it had some. I was intrigued by its architectural details, its labyrinth of rooms, and the fact that it had lain undisturbed — in a bustling neighborhood — for so long. I was drawn more to its aura than its facts: I found the blue-greens of the bowling alley enticing and mysterious, the light streaming into the old science room lost and mournful of the past, the wallpaper a fashionable mirror to an earlier time.

I began to research the house. The Greek Revival home, built around 1844, had been owned by the same family for almost a century. Nathaniel Topliff Allen (1823-1903) bought the house in 1854 and moved his family into the home. The same year, he opened a private school nearby called the West Newton English and Classical School. He used several rooms in the house as classrooms and a boys' dormitory.

A protege of Horace Mann, Allen became a noted educator in his own right. His school emerged at the forefront of progressive education and included classes unusual for the time: physical education, science, social justice and kindergarten. The co-educational school admitted students of all racial backgrounds, a fact that displeased the father of at least one white student from the South. Allen led the school for almost 40 years.

In addition, Allen became a well-known abolitionist. His opponents called Allen and his neighbors “the radicals and incendiaries of West Newton.” He befriended and housed a former slave, Arthur Crumpler, who faced negative publicity in the Boston newspapers in 1863 when he cast his first vote. Crumpler married a student at the school named Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler, who became the first African-American woman physician in the United States.

The school attracted students from around the world. Some of these photos show students from Japan and Italy. Later, Allen’s daughters opened a school in the house called The Allen School for Girls. In 1978, the house earned an individual listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

This exhibit juxtaposes recent photographs of the Allen House with images from the past. Though the house was empty and largely neglected when I took the photos, it felt as if it had been well-used in its heyday and, certainly, well-loved.