THE RIVERS SCHOOL, WESTON, MASSACHUSETTS 1960-65

Rem was born in Holland in 1932.  He came to the United States in the mid 1950’s to work with Marcel Breuer, whom he met when Breuer was designing the American Embassy in The Hague. This meeting led to a job offer in Breuer’s New York office where he would meet Alan Chapman- his business partner.  Chapman would later be responsible for connecting Rem with his second partner, Tony Tappé in 1962.

The following story, courtesy of the Weston Historical Society and Pamela Fox, is Chapman’s account of how, as a newly-minted architect, both he and Rem secured the commission for classroom buildings and a gym at the new Weston campus of The Rivers Country Day School, then a school for boys located on Heath Street in Chestnut Hill.

Above: This early photograph of the new Rivers classroom buildings appeared a 1960’s school brochure. Constructed of rough, buff-colored brick with gray asphalt shingled roofs, the buildings were designed to fit casually into the unspoiled rural site.The repetitive pattern of pitched roofs suggested a group of informal farm buildings. (Courtesy of Allan Chapman)

Site plan for the Rivers Country Day School, designed by Huygens and Chapman and built in the early 1960s.The plan shows the four separate buildings around a central courtyard bordered by a walkway canopy. School officials requested the open plan, which provided students with healthy air as they walked between classes. (Courtesy of Allan Chapman)

Above right: Three of the original maples around which the quad was planned still survive. (Courtesy of The Rivers School)

“My partner at that time was Rem Huygens. We had built one residence on Long Island, and Rivers was our first major project. Rem was from Holland, where he had met the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer when Breuer was building the American Embassy there. Breuer had offered him a job in his office in New York City, where I was working at that time.

Interior Imagess
Rivers School interiors. In the photo to the right, the brick mural above the fireplace in the Rivers School library was designed by his wife, artist Amy Chapman, who also designed wall murals in schools throughout New England. This photograph appeared in an article entitled “Four Buildings on an Open Court,” which appeared in a 1960’s issue of Architectural Forum. (Courtesy of Allan Chapman)

Marcel Breuer had come to the US to teach at Harvard with Walter Gropius (Director of the Bauhaus in Germany.) I had worked in the office of Gropius while I was at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. I met my wife, Amy, at Gropius’s office, where she designed murals and selected colors for the firm. Amy had studied at Yale with another of the Bauhaus faculty, Josef Albers. Amy designed the three dimensional wall mural over the fireplace at Rivers.

Rem met Ethel Blackwell, wife of the Rivers headmaster, George Blackwell, on the boat coming to the US. The school had just purchased the Weston property and the Blackwells lived in the old farmhouse on the site. The school itself was still in Newton. I suggested to Rem that we send some ideas for a new school to the Blackwells in the unlikely chance that they would select a couple of young architects, particularly from NYC. I was right. The Blackwells were encouraging, but the trustees were difficult. I believe they would have preferred a more traditional style. Without being officially hired, we designed five buildings: four detached classroom buildings (about fifteen classrooms, a large study hall, offices, and a library) along with a separate gymnasium. They liked our designs and this presented another problem. What would be the effect of NY architects on fund raising? We agreed to move to Boston. Rem built a house in Wayland and I built in Weston. I had three children (all now architects) and the reputation of the Weston schools influenced our decision.

Site Aerial
This detail from a 1960s aerial photo of the Rivers School campus shows the original Loker farmhouse, now Rivers Music School, and the Loker barn, which was later destroyed by fire. (Courtesy of Allan Chapman)

“They were still building the gym (in 1960), so we had to take showers where the music school is now. There was a barn there and the shower consisted of a horse stall with a hose that only had cold water. That was our locker room, if you will.”

– 50 Years in Weston: Memories from the Move – Rivers Student 1960 (Courtesy of The Rivers School)

The old barn on the Rivers property was yellow at that time. It later burned down. We thought a brick building would not be right in what was then an open meadow. The concept of detached buildings, connected by an open covered walk, had been a tradition when the school was in Chestnut Hill. It was then a boys’ school, and the theory was that a little cold would be healthy. The two classroom buildings housing the offices and library, along with the gym, were built first and dedicated in 1960. Two other classroom buildings were constructed some years later. The cost worked out to $18.50 per square foot. We also designed a music building that was never built.”

THE RIVERS SCHOOL TODAY

Times have changed, but the structure remains mostly the same.  I became reacquainted with these buildings when my son’s high school soccer team played at Rivers.  I remembered the name from the project files and wandered back in the campus to find the buildings that resembled the photos I recalled of vertical mullions seemingly supporting a gable roof.  They are in good shape and seem well maintained given their 55 year old age. Many of them are still being used for their intended functions of classrooms and a library.  Recent campus buildings have taken cues from the originals although their scale is much larger.  Below is an interior of a renovated classroom with modern technology and completely filled with daylight.  It is nice to see how the day-lit classrooms can benefit learning and still serve their original purpose.  It is rewarding to see buildings like these still having meaning and are still being loved.

Above: A view of the courtyard shows the later additions completed in 1965 following the master plan and original building details, maintaining the idea of going outside between classes.

A quick dig through the firm archives turned up this aerial perspective drawing dated 1957 and likely part of the set that Alan Chapman refers to above that they sent to try and secure the commission. It conveys the inspiration of informal farm buildings in the landscape that avoids the institutional look, characteristic of schools of the period. The proposed Gym is in the center foreground.

1957 Master plan drawing that Alan and Rem used to help secure the commission.

A lot of us had visited the campus while it was in progress. So, [the first day of school] wasn’t a pull-back-the-curtain-and-everybody-jump-up-and-down moment. [But the move] was certainly dramatic. I’d been at the old campus for 12 years, so going from that to the present campus was pretty exciting.”

– 50 Years in Weston: Memories from the Move- Rivers Student 1960 (Courtesy of The Rivers School)

“The campus was hard to describe, as it was a work in progress. We had one and a half buildings, a lot of dirt and mud, and an excuse for a playing field.  The campus in [Brookline] was somewhat limited. It was a former estate – the locker room was an old greenhouse. If [Rivers] wanted to go anywhere or move forward, it had to move.”

  – 50 Years in Weston: Memories from the Move- Rivers Student 1960 (Courtesy of The Rivers School)