Ashley Hall: An Innovator and Leader in Girls' Education for 110 Years

Ashley Hall Celebrates 110 Years of Educating Women

Ashley Hall School | Charleston, SC

The founding of Ashley Hall is the story of a dream. Determined and ambitious, Mary Vardrine McBee envisioned a place of learning that would produce educated women who are independent, ethically responsible, and prepared to meet the challenges of society with confidence. Within themselves, their community, and the entire world, Ashley Hall girls know who they are and fearlessly pursue their dreams wholeheartedly.

The legacy of a worthy cause lies in the lives it transforms and the goodwill it cultivates, and for 110 years, Ashley Hall has established its place within history by empowering girls to use their voices for good. Spanning the last century, the School is rich with worthy traditions and forward-thinking innovations, and Ashley Hall endures and thrives because its values are timeless.

As every Ashley Hall girl knows, one dream can change the world, and the ability to change the world is limitless when one dreams.

Vardrine's Vision

Ashley Hall lore has it that on a rainy, August afternoon in Northampton, Massachusetts, after a grueling, albeit successful, three days of entrance exams for Smith College, Mary Vardrine McBee declared her intention to found a school for Southern girls that would afford them the same advantages for college preparation as certified Northern schools.

The Patrick Duncan House on Rutledge Avenue, owned by the C.O. Witte estate was for sale and Vardrine thought it very suitable, but its asking price was far higher than the $16,000 she could put together at the time. Witte added many of the house’s unusual features including the grotto with a bear cave and the now iconic Shell House. 

McBee was pleasantly surprised when Charles Sloan, a neighbor of the Guerry’s and son-in-law to the late Mr. Witte, personally requested that she submit a bid for the house. The Witte family favored its becoming a girls’ school as Mr. Witte had raised six daughters of his own and had thought the property a fit setting for just such an enterprise. Eventually a deal was struck for $25,000 and Vardrine had her schoolhouse. After some consideration, she chose to name the new school Ashley Hall for the river that coursed to the west and because she felt the house was grand enough to be called a “hall.” She was 29.

Vardrine immediately faced four primary challenges: developing a comprehensive curriculum; employing faculty and staff; fitting out the Witte property for classes and boarders; and recruiting students.

Speaking before a Kiwanis Luncheon at the Francis Marion Hotel in 1943, McBee told the audience, “Ashley Hall began on the day I was admitted to Smith College. The school I attended – although a good one – did not have certification privileges and the courses were not laid out to make college entrance easy. After I was accepted and registered at Smith, I went to send a telegram to my father and along the way I decided I would one day return to the South and establish a school that would give the same privileges to Southern girls as Northern girls had. I went through college with this idea,” she said, “and everything was connected to it.”

History of Ashley Hall

Ashley Hall School in Charleston, South Carolina

Spring 1909

Mary Vardrine McBee purchases the estate of Charles Otto Witte for $25,000 to become a girls’ college preparatory school.

October 4, 1909

Ashley Hall opened with 14 boarders and 30 day students.

1911

Ashley Hall’s first commencement ceremony is moved into the gym due to rain.

1912

Ashley Hall’s first graduate, Mary Stewart Howden, was admitted to Smith College.

1914

The Ashley Hall Alumnae Association is organized.

1916

Ashley Hall is accredited by Association of colleges and Secondary schools of the Southern States.

1917

The School is divided into Purple and White teams. Points were earned for school spirit, promptness and good behavior. 10 years later, Purple and White team captains were chosen for the first time.

1918

A swimming pool is added to campus.

1923

Ashley Hall performed its first Christmas Play. Throughout the years, this cherished tradition has been performed at Memminger Auditorium, Rivera Theatre and the Gaillard.

1939

Due to the polio outbreak, Mayor Henry W. Lockwood banned all public gatherings in Charleston which resulted in canceling the commencement ceremony.

1943

The Class of 1943 decides to forgo publishing the annual Cerberus, donating the money used to print the publication to the war efforts.

1948

The Ashley Hall Foundation is formed.

1949

Mary Vardrine McBee retires as headmistress after 40 years.

1957

Middle School is organized, including grades 7 and 8.

1957

In April of 1959, Ashley Hall celebrates 50 years since its founding in 1909.

1965

Various buildings on campus are officially dedicated: Pardue Hall (Lower School), Jenkins Hall (Upper School), Davies Auditorium and Lane Hall (Intermediate Program).

1974

McBee House is recognized by the National Registry of Historic Buildings.

1984

Barbara Pierce Bush ’43, wife of then Vice President George H.W. Bush speaks at Commencement. 

Miss McBee Beyond the Gates

Mary Vardrine McBee, Ashley Hall Founder | Charleston, South Carolina

Outside of her roles as founder and head of Ashley Hall, Mary Vardrine McBee was an energetic community leader and social activist. She was instrumental in the creation and support of many valued organizations in the Charleston area. It was once said of her that “there was practically no cultural or civic movement in which she was not a part.” Her many accomplishments would constitute an enviable resumé for anyone: that she was a single woman, barely past the turn of the century in an iconic southern city, placed her in the vanguard of women leadership across the nation.

  • Established the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in 1919
  • Served on the Board of Directors for the Girl Scouts of Charleston
  • First woman commissioner to serve on the Charleston County School Board
  • Helped organize Charleston’s first free Kindergarten program for underprivileged children
  • Founder of The Carolina Art Association and the Charleston Free Library

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Ashley Hall is a private school for girls, serving kindergarten through twelfth grade students, with a coeducational preschool in Charleston, South Carolina.
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