Ashley Hall Founder: Mary Vardrine McBee
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 112 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.
The Life of Miss McBee
Born on September 24, 1879
Mary Vardrine McBee was born on September 24, 1879 in Lincolnton, North Carolina. She was the daughter of Silas and Mary Estelle McBee. Her father was a well-known layman of the Episcopal church, architect, and editor of The Churchman. Mary was named after her mother and grandfather Vardry Alexander McBee. Her great grandfather was Vardry McBee who was one of the founders of the city of Greenville. After the death of their mother, Mary along with her older sister Estelle and younger brother Silas Jr. were sent to live with their aunt in Philadelphia. Her father married again, and her sister and brother were then reunited back with Mary in North Carolina.
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.”
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.
- 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
History of Ashley Hall
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.
Ashley Hall’s first commencement ceremony is moved into the gym due to rain.
Ashley Hall’s first graduate, Mary Stewart Howden, was admitted to Smith College.
The Ashley Hall Alumnae Association is organized.
Ashley Hall is accredited by Association of colleges and Secondary schools of the Southern States.
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.
A swimming pool is added to campus.
Ashley Hall performed its first Christmas Play. Throughout the years, this cherished tradition has been performed at Memminger Auditorium, Rivera Theatre and the Gaillard.
Due to the polio outbreak, Mayor Henry W. Lockwood banned all public gatherings in Charleston which resulted in canceling the commencement ceremony.
The Class of 1943 decides to forgo publishing the annual Cerberus, donating the money used to print the publication to the war efforts.
The Ashley Hall Foundation is formed.
Mary Vardrine McBee retires as headmistress after 40 years.
Middle School is organized, including grades 7 and 8.
In April of 1959, Ashley Hall celebrates 50 years since its founding in 1909.
Various buildings on campus are officially dedicated: Pardue Hall (Lower School), Jenkins Hall (Upper School), Davies Auditorium and Lane Hall (Intermediate Program).
McBee House is recognized by the National Registry of Historic Buildings.
Barbara Pierce Bush ’43, wife of then Vice President George H.W. Bush speaks at Commencement.