Ashley Hall Celebrates 113 Years of Educating Women
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 113 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.
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.”
Miss McBee Beyond the Gates
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.
- 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