Western New York Heritage

From Johnson Park to Bidwell Parkway and Beyond: A Short History of Buffalo Seminary

The main entrance to Buffalo Seminary at 205 Bidwell Parkway. The dates above the door refer to the school’s founding in 1851 and the construction of the current location in 1908.

Credit - K.C. Kratt photograph, 2011

On the evening of January 8, 1973, the trustees of Buffalo Seminary, joined by Head of School Robert A. Foster, met in the school’s elegant library at 205 Bidwell Parkway. 

Their agenda focused on a single, crucial matter: to decide whether the 122-year-old girls’ high school should merge with Nichols School, a boys’ school that had recently embraced the coeducational trend. 

In some ways, a union seemed natural. Nichols and Buffalo Seminary, members of the National Association of Independent Schools, enjoyed a close relationship. 

They held joint glee club concerts and holiday dances; their students regularly dated and often married. Nonetheless, Buffalo Seminary stalwarts feared that merging with Nichols, a larger school, would be a huge mistake. 

The Buffalo Female Academy was first located in the former cottage of Ebenezer Johnson at Johnson Park. A larger academic building, Goodell Hall, was soon constructed immediately behind the cottage, as can be seen in this lithograph.

Credit – Western New York Heritage Press collection

Administrators from the two private schools had tried in vain to hammer out a mutually agreeable plan for a combined institution. After a year of high-stakes negotiating, the January 8 board meeting became the emotional climax. 

Four hours of heated discussion culminated in a final vote: eight in favor of a merger, eleven against. And with that, Buffalo Seminary, affectionately known as “Sem,” would stay true to its mission of educating young women. 

The decision was not without risk. Head of School Foster and the trustees braced themselves for a drop in enrollment for the foreseeable future, especially since many Sem fathers who were also Nichols alumni preferred their daughters to attend their newly coed alma mater. 

Indeed, it would take the all-girls school four decades to achieve a capacity enrollment again. Reflecting on the vote and its aftermath, Bob Foster, now retired, remarked: “In spite of many tough years, it was the right decision.”

To tell the story of how Buffalo Seminary began and how it has evolved is to trace the rich and colorful history of Buffalo’s first school for girls.

The Early Years

The 1907 school yearbook staff.

Credit – Courtesy Buffalo Seminary archives

“On a wistful autumn evening, in September, 1850, Buffalo Seminary had its beginning. A dozen leading citizens of Buffalo, gentlemen and fathers, attired themselves in their best – black satin stock, frock coat, top hat and gloves – and went forth to foregather at the home of another gentleman and father. In the spacious drawing room of Stephen G. Austin’s home in the aristocratic neighborhood of Niagara Square, they sat and discussed the educational facilities which the city offered, or failed to offer, their daughters.”

So read the description penned by Sem’s fifth head of school, L. Gertrude Angell, as reported in a November 23, 1932 article in the Buffalo Courier-Express

Originally named the Buffalo Female Academy, Buffalo Seminary was founded by a group of doctors, lawyers, businessmen and clergy who insisted on a premier education for their daughters. 

It was Dr. M. LaRue Thompson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church and one of the concerned fathers, who, in the autumn of 1850, had suggested the meeting at Mr. Austin’s home. 

Soon after, a public meeting was held, followed by a fundraising campaign that, according to archival records, secured $40,000 from the city’s wealthiest families. 

Dr. Charles West, the Buffalo Female Academy’s first principal, poses with the Class of 1854. Early students at the Academy received instruction in penmanship, needlework, painting, drawing, music, English literature and composition, Latin, French, German, mathematics, geography and history.

Credit – Courtesy Buffalo Seminary archives

The board of trustees invited Dr. Charles E. West, regarded as a pioneer in women’s education, to serve as the first headmaster, and in the autumn of 1851, the newly incorporated Buffalo Female Academy opened its doors. 

Dr. West had selected the cottage in Johnson Park, built by Buffalo’s first mayor, Ebenezer Johnson, as the site of the new school. The following year, thanks to a generous donation through the estate of Jabez Goodell, a separate academic building, Goodell Hall, was constructed just to the rear of the cottage. 

The founding patriarchs were united in their belief that “the honor and welfare of a great city depended more on its institutions of learning and religion than upon its commerce, manufactures and wealth.” 

Although the school was nonsectarian, students were expected to follow the teachings of Christianity, as stated in the 1852 handbook: “While it will be no part of our intention to encourage sectarianism in any of its forms, it will be our desire to inculcate the great principles of the Christian religion…”

In those early years, the Buffalo Female Academy, commonly called the Academy, had three divisions: Primary, for girls younger than eight; Academic, for girls eight to 13; and Collegiate, designed for girls 14 and older. 

Regardless of age, each student was expected to think critically, not simply subscribe to rote memorization. The approach to discipline emphasized community and decorum as befitted a young woman of the 19th century.

One of the classrooms in Goodell Hall, the Academy’s academic building, in the late 1800s.

Credit – Courtesy Buffalo Seminary archives

Although established for the daughters of Buffalo’s elite, during its first 50 years the Academy also welcomed boarders from other affluent families. 

These girls lived in the Cottage with the headmaster and his staff; alternatively, parents could request homestays with local families. 

Although many of the students were from other cities in New York and the Northeast, some hailed from the Midwest and the South. The Class of 1859, for instance, included one girl from Memphis, Tennessee, and another from Fort Jefferson, Florida. 

At the first commencement, Dr. West concluded his address to the Class of 1852 – consisting of three students, two of whom were from Massachusetts – with these words: “Thus is closed the first year of this Institution. May it be an honor and blessing to this community, and subserve the great interest for which it was established, the elevation and refinement of American women.” 

Miss Lucy C. Lynde Hartt was an 1863 graduate of the Buffalo Female Academy and the school’s first female head of school.

Credit – Courtesy Buffalo Seminary archives

In the ensuing years, enrollment steadily increased, and the Buffalo Female Academy became a fixture in the region’s educational landscape. 

In addition to the trustees, a board of visitors, comprising clergy and businessmen who gave occasional lectures, helped shape the educational program. Two prominent members were attorney Orsamus H. Marshall and Rev. Albert T. Chester, who succeeded Dr. West in 1860 to become the school’s second headmaster. 

A well-respected Presbyterian minister, Rev. Chester presided over the Academy for nearly three decades, including the tumultuous years of the U.S. Civil War, when students kept themselves busy by sewing, knitting and rolling bandages for Union soldiers. 

According to a 2009 presentation by former Sem history instructor Harry B. Schooley, Charlotte Mulligan, a member of the Class of 1863, was convinced that the Confederates might invade Buffalo. She secured permission to organize a drill team of classmates, ready to defend their city in the event of an attack.

The Academy’s 25th anniversary inspired a request from Rev. Chester and the board of trustees: they wanted graduates to organize a commemorative celebration. 

On March 7, 1876, a group of alumnae answered the call and founded the Graduates Association. Its members quickly set about planning a June reunion gala, the invitation to which read: “It is believed that every one who has enjoyed the advantages here offered and received the highest honors of the Academy, whose name is recorded in the register of graduates and whose countenance adorns its walls, will take an interest in this Silver Wedding of alma mater.”

In his 1876 commencement address, Headmaster Chester congratulated the newest graduates by emphasizing education and traditional feminine virtues. 

“You are to begin your new life, no longer as school girls, but as educated women. You are bound to make your presence felt wherever your lot may be cast, not by overstepping the line of feminine delicacy and reserve, which so properly encloses your sex, but in every appropriate way convincing those with whom you are to be associated, that while a thorough education adds greatly to the power and influence of a woman, it does not diminish in the least her gentleness and grace.”

From Academy to Seminary

Buffalo Seminary moved to its current location on Bidwell Parkway in 1909. After leaving Johnson Park and prior to the completion of this Collegiate Gothic structure, the school found temporary quarters at the Heathcote School for Boys and The Twentieth Century Club. Author Lauren Belfer, a 1971 graduate, used Sem as the inspiration for the Macaulay School for Girls in her novel City of Light

Credit – Courtesy Buffalo Seminary archives

“When Dr. A.T. Chester retired in 1887, waiting in the ranks was a teacher of tremendous energy and insight,” wrote Susan Rubenstein Schapiro in her essay, Thy Sheltering Arms

A 1948 Sem graduate and former faculty member, Dr. Schapiro was referring to the work of Mrs. Lucy Lynde Hartt, the only alumna to serve as head of school. A classmate of Charlotte Mulligan’s, Mrs. Hartt was deeply inspired by the pedagogical trends of the late 19th century. 

After studying reports from the National Education Association, she championed an overhaul of the curriculum, and helped transform the Academy into a serious college-preparatory institution for young women. 

Graduates were now encouraged to continue their post-secondary academic careers at four-year liberal arts colleges such as Smith, Wellesley and Vassar.

Headmistress Hartt also convinced the trustees that it was time for a new name. Following the example of other secondary schools in the United States, she focused on the word seminary, which connoted more serious academic pursuits, and in 1889 the Buffalo Female Academy became the Buffalo Seminary. 

A reimagined school was Mrs. Hartt’s lasting contribution to her alma mater, and as Dr. Schapiro pointed out, “It was she who paved the way for her much more famous successor, L. Gertrude Angell.” 

Sem's Guardian "Angell"

Gertrude Angell, ca. 1905. Known for her aphorisms, she was fond of saying, “I have got to make whatever happens to me good for me.”

Credit – Courtesy Buffalo Seminary archives

The portrait of the patrician woman wearing a long, fur-trimmed cape still hangs above the fireplace in the school library, more than a century after its subject took the reins as Sem’s fifth head of school. 

Although a lifelong advocate for private and public education – she had been instrumental in establishing Lafayette High School – Lisbeth Gertrude Angell began her career out of necessity, not by choice. 

In his essay, The Angels Keep Their Ancient Places, Bob Foster explained how the economic crash of 1893 had decimated her father’s fortune; after graduating from Wellesley College in 1894, she returned home to Buffalo and enrolled in a school of pedagogy to earn her keep. 

The young instructor had been teaching Latin and mathematics at West High, one of the city’s public schools, when Jessica Beers, Sem’s headmistress at the time, wooed her away. The year was 1899 – Buffalo Seminary, by then located in temporary quarters at The Twentieth Century Club, had just combined with the Elmwood School. 

Miss Angell was hired to teach three math classes and a course in poetry, as well as supervise the senior department. The experimental union between Sem and the Elmwood School ended rather abruptly, and Miss Beers, exhausted from overseeing two schools, resigned as Buffalo Seminary’s head. 

L. Gertrude Angell found herself thrust into the spotlight when, in 1903, she was asked to take over as headmistress.

The Class of 1931 gathers for a group photo in the Margaret L. Wendt Gallery. Wendt was a 1903 Sem graduate.

Credit - Courtesy Buffalo Seminary Archives

Whether she was an unyielding autocrat or a doting matriarch depends upon whom you ask. No doubt Miss Angell was a curious blend of both extremes, a gifted administrator whose vision, charisma and powers of intimidation earned her the respect of Buffalo’s business leaders and allowed her to guide the all-girls high school in a new phase of growth. 

Under her leadership, enrollment tripled and the school moved from temporary quarters to its present location. A June 23, 1928 Buffalo Evening News article reported how, in 1907, Miss Angell had invited inspectors from the Board of Regents to spend a day at Sem. 

Following the visit, trustees received a report stating that the all-girls school was “one of the very best schools in the state academically and one of the worst in housing and equipment.” 

The push was on to find a new permanent home. Responding to the need, the Graduates Association donated a plot of land on Bidwell Parkway, and in 1909, construction of the new academic building was complete. 

More than 100 years later, in 2011, the impressive Collegiate Gothic structure would be named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Buffalo Seminary students in the school lunchroom, ca. 1940s.

Credit - Courtesy Buffalo Seminary Archives

An accomplished equestrian and star athlete during her years at Wellesley, Miss Angell inspired a new tradition in 1916. The student body was divided into two teams – Hornets and Jackets – and achievements in sports were rewarded. 

She encouraged impeccable posture in all students, and makeup during school hours was strictly prohibited. If a girl was caught wearing lipstick, Miss Angell swiftly wiped it off. 

Students weren’t the only ones bound by the headmistress’ rules. In a 2007 interview, faculty member Robin Simon Magavern, a 1952 alumna, described how her father had to seek permission to take her to a Kleinhans music concert on a school night.

Sem students from the 1950s gather for a photo beneath the portrait of L. Gertrude Angell that adorns the cover of this issue. Today, this portrait still hangs in its place of honor over the library fireplace.

Credit – Courtesy Buffalo Seminary archives

Wilma Buchman, a 1934 graduate, wrote in her essay I Remember Miss Angell: “She had original solutions for common problems. A girl who had fainted three times before impending Latin tests – about 1905 – had her feet plunged into a bucket of cold water on the fourth occasion, and enjoyed a complete cure.” 

In his essay The Angels Keep Their Ancient Places, Bob Foster wrote of innocuous slips of paper that nonetheless “struck fear into the capacious but undeveloped brains of generations of Seminary girls.” 

He was referring to yellow slips of paper prepared by Miss Angell and distributed to students. After being given a random quotation, a girl had three minutes to reflect and three minutes to write down its significance. 

Miss Angell explained the technique in her 1952 article, Reminiscences: “Sometime in the year 1910, I hit upon a device intended to train young minds to think to the point and express their thoughts concisely. It soon developed into a means of self-examination… It began with the interpretation of quotations. The first, as I recall it, was ‘The future comes not from before to meet us, but streams up over our heads from behind.’ The directions were: Explain: three minutes to think: three minutes to write!”

After leading Sem for 49 years, including through two world wars, L. Gertrude Angell retired in 1952 and was succeeded by Miss Marian W. Smith. 

At Miss Angell’s funeral in 1957, Dr. Ralph B. Hindman remarked: “Buffalo Seminary, which she led to high scholastic standing, is her lasting memorial.” 

The school received a significant part of her estate in order to maintain the scholarship program Miss Angell had established for girls whose families could not afford a private education.

Opening the doors: the 1960s and 1970s

Graduation 2014. Five years after its inception, Sem’s residential program has succeeded in attracting students from Asia, Europe and other areas of the globe, increasing enrollment and adding to the diversity of the student body.

Credit – Michele Goldfarb photograph 2014

In 1959, Richard Davis became the school’s first male head of school in more than 70 years. Dr. Davis explained, “It was hard to follow the giants who had become so identified with their schools.” 

Even so, the retired educator still considers his years at Sem the happiest of his career. He led during a period of great transition, when schools throughout the country were responding to the social and political changes of the 1960s. 

Dr. Davis oversaw a successful capital campaign that allowed the school to build a fully equipped science wing. And to promote academic integrity, the headmaster instituted a practice he had learned at his alma mater, Princeton. 

At the end of each test and graded assignment, every Sem student would be required to write out and sign a statement: I pledge my honor that I have neither given nor received assistance. 

“The honor code was an effort we made to solve a problem of cheating that was upsetting to some of the students but too casually accepted by many,” Dr. Davis explained. 

The code required that students be responsible not only for their own academic integrity, but also for that of their peers. If a girl witnessed a classmate cheating, she was bound by the code to report the violation. 

It was a risky endeavor, shifting the burden of discipline onto the teenagers themselves. Teachers were even free to leave the classroom during an exam if they so desired. The honor pledge prevailed, and to this day, remains a hallmark of school culture.

Even as the Civil Rights movement was making national headlines, Buffalo was becoming increasingly segregated. Options for a city student depended on the zone in which her family lived. 

In the fall of 1964, Joanne L. Seay-Byrd, a graduate of the three-year junior high program at Public School 91, entered Sem as the newest member of the Class of 1967 – and the first student of color in the school’s history. 

A resident of the East Side, she had never heard of Bidwell Parkway until the day she took the Sem entrance exam. Her experience at the all-girls school was entirely positive, thanks to nurturing teachers and a circle of close friends. After graduating, she flourished in an honors program at college and went on to enjoy a career as an educator.

In 1967, following the short-lived tenure of James Donnelly, the trustees tapped English teacher Robert Foster to be the next head of school. Mr. Foster had been hired in the late 1950s, when the faculty was dominated by female instructors handpicked by Miss Angell. 

“They were extraordinary women who worked for practically nothing,” he explained. “They had high standards with expectations to match. As a fledgling teacher and a young male, I was more or less taken under their collective wing.” 

The new headmaster continued the work of his other mentor, Dick Davis, by encouraging a more open school community. As the ‘60s drew to a close, academic standards remained high, with less and less emphasis on decorum and dress code. 

Through the student council and court of conduct, students were given more opportunities to govern their own school alongside the adults.

Linda Cornelius, a 1971 graduate, was elected president of the school government association her senior year. Today a successful advertising executive, she credits Sem for having been “a giant leap ahead of the feminist movement” and for teaching her how to write well, defend her views and be a leader. 

“Sem certainly sensitized us to the issues championed by the women’s movement, but in a way it made gender inequality a non-issue, because at Sem, women came first in everything.”

Challenges and resurgence

After more than a century and a half of evolution and challenges, Sem continues to educate and inspire young women from Western New York and around the world.

Credit – Jim Healy photograph 2012

In 1992, after 25 years as head of school, Bob Foster retired. Following the tenure of his successor, Sarah Briggs, math teacher Marjorie Barney became head of school in 1995. 

With enrollment hovering around 100, Sem was experiencing unprecedented financial challenges. But thanks to the efforts of Mrs. Barney, her staff and the board, by the turn of the 21st century, the school had again turned the corner. 

“When I retired, we had 160 students and balanced budgets,” Mrs. Barney noted. Sandra Gilmor served as the next head of school starting in 2001, and in 2007 Maine native Jody Douglass took the helm.

Sem’s 13th head of school had first found her niche as an administrator at Dana Hall, a prestigious day and boarding school for girls in Massachusetts. As head of school at George Stevens Academy in Maine, she had led a successful residential program. 

In 2009, with the enthusiastic support of the board and just two years after her arrival in Buffalo, Ms. Douglass oversaw the purchase and renovation of nearby single-family homes to accommodate international boarding students from Asia and Europe as well as their faculty chaperones. 

Now in its fifth year, the residential program has helped Sem exceed its enrollment goal of 200, while adding to the diversity of the student population.

No longer affiliated with any one religion, Buffalo Seminary – despite the modern connotation of its name – welcomes students of all faiths and follows a secular approach to character development. 

The honor code, expanded sometime in the 1990s to include a social honor component, stresses not only academic integrity and personal responsibility, but mutual respect for differing opinions and diverse backgrounds. 

And by using team rivalry to unite Sem students, the nearly century-old Hornet-Jacket tradition has become one of the most inclusive aspects of school culture. 

Indeed, what began as an incentive for greater athleticism is now a school-spirit phenomenon encompassing all manner of competition, including elaborate dance routines and silly skits, and involving every member of the school community – students and faculty alike.

Like the Buffalo Female Academy in the 19th century, Buffalo Seminary in the 21st century is a leader in girls’ education. But the private school’s 163-year evolution also offers an inspiring contrast. 

No longer an elite academy presided over by well-intentioned blue-blooded patriarchs, Sem strives to inspire young women from different walks to life – and different parts of the world – to pursue academic excellence and more fundamentally, to become advocates for their own destinies.

The full content is available in the Fall 2014 Issue.