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Harpeth Hall School

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History and Archives

The Harpeth Hall School was founded on the bold idea that girls deserve an excellent education filled with possibilities and purpose.

Our story

The school's story begins six months after the Civil War ended, and decades before women had the right to vote, when Ward Seminary — a school for young women — opened in Nashville. The year was 1865, and only a handful of institutions in the country existed to provide a comprehensive education to prepare women for college. Ward Seminary was established before the founding of both Montgomery Bell Academy and Vanderbilt University, making the women’s school a pace setter in education at a time when Nashville was just beginning to build its reputation as the Athens of the South. In 1913, Ward Seminary merged with Belmont College for Young Women and formed the Ward-Belmont School, a high school and junior college for women. In the spring of 1951, Ward-Belmont closed, and local community leaders organized to ensure that college preparatory, all-girls education continued in Nashville. This group purchased Estes Estate in Green Hills and renamed the school Harpeth Hall, inspired by the nearby Harpeth River Valley.

On Sept. 17, 1951, Harpeth Hall's campus opened with its two school buildings — Souby Hall and what is now the Senior House — 161 students in grades 9-12, most of whom transferred from Ward-Belmont. The first Head of School, Susan Souby, was the former high school principal at Ward-Belmont, and nearly all of Harpeth Hall's 15 founding faculty members previously taught at Ward-Belmont. The next year, Harpeth Hall received accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Several of the traditions established at Ward-Belmont carried over including Harpeth Hall's beloved Step Singing ceremony and Lady of the Hall honor, which evolved from the traditional May Day festival. Harpeth Hall also maintains four intramural clubs that were part of the club system at Ward-Belmont: Ariston, Eccowasin, Triad, and Angkor. 

In 1963, Idanelle “Sam” McMurry became Head of School and served until 1979. Under her leadership, Harpeth Hall celebrated the opening of the Daugh W. Smith Middle School in the fall of 1968. In 1973, Ms. McMurry introduced Winterim — one of Harpeth Hall’s premier programs. For three weeks each January, Winterim allows students to explore in-depth areas of interest through special coursework, internships, academic trips, and independent study.

Polly Fessey, director of the middle school, served as interim Head of School from 1979 to 1980. David Wood assumed the position as head of school in 1980 and led the school until 1991. Mr. Wood implemented an honor code, which students pledge to follow every year during a special school ceremony. He also established institutional membership in Cum Laude. Leah Rhys served as head of school from 1991 to 1998 with the charge to affirm the school’s mission as an all-girls school and to strengthen Harpeth Hall’s resources that included new technology, marketing, and fundraising. Ann Teaff was appointed in 1998, leading as head of school for 16 years. She transformed the campus through two major capital campaigns that led to the building of the Ann Scott Carell Library and the Dugan Davis Track and Soccer Complex, a new Daugh W. Smith Middle School building, the Patton Visual Arts building, renovation of the Hortense Bigelow Ingram Upper School, and an Athletic and Wellness Center.

Stephanie Balmer’s tenure as head of school began in 2014 with a focus on the social and emotional health of students and the creation of a school garden. With ties to Ward Seminary, founded in 1865, Harpeth Hall celebrated 150 years of educating young women in 2015. Following Dr. Balmer’s passing in 2018, the Board of Trustees appointed Jess Hill as Harpeth Hall's head of school. She began her teaching career at Harpeth Hall in 1985 and served as Director of the Upper School from 2005 to 2017. Ms. Hill’s collaborative leadership style, vision for leading-edge programs, and sense of community remains central to Harpeth Hall’s role as a national leader in girls education.

Today, the Harpeth Hall campus comprises nearly 44 acres with enrollment of 724 students projected for 2023-2024. The school has 96 full-time and five part-time teaching faculty and employs a total of 154 professionals. Harpeth Hall and its predecessor schools share a history of excellence in educating young women. 

150th Anniversary Video

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About the Archives

The mission of The Harpeth Hall School archive is to document and make available records that have enduring historical significance and interest to the school's students, faculty, staff, and alumnae. The archive promotes knowledge and understanding of the origins, programs, and goals of the school, and creates a permanent and useful resource to enrich teaching and learning. The archive acts as the final repository for historical records, student publications, notable alumnae, photographs, and other documents and artifacts.

The Harpeth Hall School archive collects, preserves, and provides access to records pertaining to the history of the school and welcomes additions of significance. If you have objects to donate to the Harpeth Hall archives please contact archivist Mary Ellen Pethel, Ph.D., for more information. If accepted by the school, all donations are final.

To view the archival collection, please make an appointment with Dr. Pethel. Harpeth Hall faculty interested in having students use materials from the school archives can arrange for class visits as well as individual research consultations. Other members of the Harpeth Hall community may submit requests for access through the archives staff. Recently, the archive has digitized annuals (1898-2012) and catalogs (1913-2017) as well as other periodicals. View documents online



Harpeth Hall School Archives Potentially Harmful Language and Content Statement
Adapted from Tenn-Share Digital Library of Tennessee Commitment

The Harpeth Hall School Archives, along with other institutions, weigh potential harm against considerations such as accurate preservation of the historical record, professional best practices, and allocation of scarce resources. The Harpeth Hall School Archives aims to share cultural heritage materials in a way that is respectful to all communities who use, create, and are represented in our collections. Our collection stems from primary sources and other materials from history, as well as artifacts from several time periods. We seek to preserve and make available the historical record. As a result, some of the materials presented may reflect outdated, biased, and offensive views. The nature of historical materials is such that some material may represent positions, language, values, and stereotypes that are not consistent with the current values and practices at Harpeth Hall. Please contact the archives with additional questions or concerns.