"Hillside Chapel" opened on July 12, 1880. Designed by A. Bronson Alcott, Dean of The School of Philosophy Faculty, this structure housed eight years of Summer school sessions, closing only after Mr. Alcott's passing in 1888. In 1976, Orchard House's "Summer Conversational Series" revived the original intent and spirit of The School, and continues to this day. July 12, 2020 signals the 140th anniversary of this unique structure, and we are pleased to offer a month-long celebration of the evocative building and its progressive scholars and students.
... Evening: The School [Founders] assemble at Anna's [his daughter's house on Main Street in Concord], and we discuss matters connected with organization and continuance. It is to be resumed next summer under more favorable conditions, and a four weeks' session is thought the better. All members are enthusiastic about it and anticipate the happiest fortunes for it. Its success has been beyond the expectation of all.
10 A.M. I call upon Elizabeth Thompson. She is attending our School and is the guest of the Lathrops [George Parsons and Rose Hawthorne] at "Wayside." She is deeply interested in the School and purposes to have the place purchased and dedicated to philosophic culture. She will contribute a thousand dollars toward its purchase, perhaps more if more be neceessary to secure it for the end. Nothing could please me more than this dispensation of the "Orchard" estate. It would fulfill the dream of these later years. I have not yet relinquished the hope of returning and occupying the place so associated with the busiest and happiest years of my family life.
... P.M. Dr. [Hiram K.] Jones accompanies me to the "Wayside" and we pass an hour with Mrs. [Elizabeth] Thompson. We invite her to sit with the Faculty on Sunday next at the "Orchard House" to discuss and arrange matters for our next summer session of the School. Without the counsel of a lady, our deliberations might fail of the wise arrangements.
... After School closes I take a charming ride with Mrs. [Elizabeth] Thompson from "Wayside" to Virginia road and Bedford street and home again. She entertains generous intentions about the "Orchard House" estate, and may purchase it herself for the foundation of our School of Philosophy and Literature. I leave with her a copy of my book Tablets, with a note.
Dear Mrs. Thompson
Permit me to hand you a little book of mine, (now out of print) for occupying any spare moment of yours while at "the Wayside." I shall feel happier in knowing that my Book may speak when I am not permitted that pleasure. Hoping to meet you soon again, (though in a crowd) this evening, allow me to subscribe myself,
A. Bronson Alcott
... [referencing his trip to Saratoga, New York] Among other persons I made a charming acquaintance with Mrs. Elisabeth [sic] Thompson of Philanthropic celebrity, a beautiful and lovely lady ...
... inform us if you are willing to give your name as one of the Incorporators of the School with Dr. [Hiram K.] Jones, Mrs Elisabeth [sic] Thompson, Mrs. [Sarah A.] Denman, Mr. [Samuel H.] Emery, Mr. [Franklin B.] Sanborn and my self—seven in all.—We think it well to get it Incorporated, particularly if, as we now comtemplate, having a Winter Session, of six months, and making the School a permanent Institution.—In order to make this assured, your residence here seems most important, certainly during a part of the year.—Now, to render this a feasible thing for you, I am authorised [sic] to say that Mrs Thompson, will pledge $500 towards your coming, and I offer you the occupancy of the Orchard, for any compensation that you may name—rather than miss your coming—free for the first year. Mrs. Thompson is disposed to help us, and will even add another $500, if that sum shall be found necessary. She wishes much to see you meanwhile should you come on to New York during the winter. ... The School is to be, and it seems as if you were essential to its existence.—I can add no more now, but wished to advize [sic] you of our plans in advance of my seeing you personally, and consulting further about them.
A. Bronson Alcott
My Dear Friend,
... You will not be surprised to learn that I am chiefly engaged in Promoting the success of the School, intending to plant it upon a solid foundation. We propose having it incorporated as "the Concord School of Philosophy." Mr. [William T.] Harris is expected to make his future residence here in Concord and issue his Journal [of Speculative Philsophy] as heretofore, but with Concord on its covers. He will probably occupy the Orchard House Mr. [Samuel H.] Emery has occupied during the Summer. ... A lady of wealth and philanthropy, Mrs Elisabeth [sic] Thompson, has passed the summer here and given the School a donation of $1,000. ...
Dear Mrs. Denman
... We are already designing the new structure and the scite [sic] on the Orchard Hillside for this Philosophical Institute ... So ideas are in the bud awaiting for the spring time to put forth into blossom—sometime bear their fruits. ...
... The Orchard House is all ready for your occupancy, and the Chapel is to be completed before your arrival. ... This whole Idea of the School has suddenly budded and promises fruits, that not even the most extravagant fancy had dared ...
... Our Chapel, the foundations of which are already laid, is to be completed in May seating 200 persons, and we shall have means at hand for future uses beside. ...
... Our Chapel is to be finished early in June. ...
... A new Chapel is to be completed for the School on the grounds in May, and we are anticipating a full attendance. ...
At the "Orchard House," preparing the premises for the erection of our Chapel. Gladly shall I see the spot dedicated to liberal learning, sound philosophy, and the theistic faith. My associations with the place are of the happiest and holiest kind. Twenty years of toil have shaped and hallowed it; and now, if it can be dedicated to high uses and ends, my labours will be consummated as I could have wished.
I enclose to you a corrected copy of our Circular.
The carpenters have begun work on "The Chapel," and promise to complete it without delay. I am having the grounds put in order for their occupant, the house itself is, I believe, in good repaire.
Applications for attending the School reach us almost daily. We may reasonably expect a full attendance. We are fortunate in our benefactor, Mrs [Elizabeth] Thompson, who is to be the guest of the Lothrops [sic] again and arrive here soon. ...
... Our Chapel is now finished, and Mr. [William T.] Harris has just arrived with family and goods and taken possession of Orchard House. ...
... Prospects are most encouraging for the Summer Session of the School. Our Chapel is not completed, and adds to the attractions of spot [sic]. Mr. [William T.] Harris has taken his residence at the Orchard House; with intention of becoming a permanent occupant. ...
Yes, the school is a delight, and a realized dream of happy hours in days of sunshine. Life has been a surprise to me during these latter years, and I allow myself to anticipate yet happier suprises in the future still to be mine.
Our School of Philosophy we hope has something of the mediatorial and reconciling tendency, bringing the extremes into sympathy, and deposing the Individualism that has been so current in times past. ...
[Daniel Chester] French sends the bust [of Mr. Alcott] finely finished, and I accompany his assistant to the Chapel to see it set upon its brackets facing the platform, Emerson's standing on the right and mine on the left. By whose generosity the work was ordered and paid for I have not been informed. It flatters my pride as I find it accepted and placed in good company. The heads of Dr. [Hiram K.] Jones, Mrs. [Elizabeth] Thompson, Harris and Sanborn may in time be added to grace the walls.
The first year’s sessions were held in the house of A. Bronson Alcott, in Concord, Mass. Since then, Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson, of New York, has given sufficient means to erect a plain but tasteful structure upon ground immediately adjoining the old homestead, where two daily sessions are held during four consecutive weeks in the heart of the summer.
The object of the school seems to be, primarily, the interchange of thought among its originators. They seek truth by questioning the attractions and intuitions of the soul, as well as by experience and revelation among all races. These thinkers endeavor to reach fundamental ideas … They desire to help their fellows from … falling into the slough of materialism …
The visitor to the Hillside Chapel, in Concord, wends his way … to the brown cottage at the left, where the veteran Alcott, the dean of the faculty, the most transcendent of the transcendentalists, has lived for thirty years. … One looks vainly in three volumes from his pen for the secret of his leadership among his circle of admirers. That is to be found in the perfect sincerity of his life which seeks to find and obey only spiritual laws, and to make practical ideal truth. He is eminently a teacher … He aims to unite noble simplicity and true culture.
… Like a growth out of the ground or a nest burrowed in the hill, [Hillside Chapel] invites to reposeful quiet. The sunshine sifts through the vine-draped windows with a mellow radiance …
… Within, nothing disturbs the eye or the mind. Severely plain, the only decorations are plaster busts of older and later lovers of wisdom, with that of John Brown in the place of honor.
In the centre of the platform sits the lecturer, reading from notes or speaking in conversational tones. At the right of the teacher sites Miss Peabody, ever ready to say a pertinent or suggestive word, and F. B. Sanborn, reformer editor, and author, or Dr. [Cyrus] Bartol, the gentle preacher. At the left is always seen the Dean of the Faculty, Mr. Alcott, upon whose brow the blossoms of … years have lightly faded into autumns of wreaths.
… Woman was most worthily represented upon this ethical platform by Julia Ward Howe, brilliant leader of society, preachers, reformer, essayist, poet, the tocsin of whose “Battle Hymn of the Republic” resounded above the din or war; by Miss Elizabeth Peabody, the venerable pioneer of American kindergartens, the friend and biographer of [William Ellery] Channing, who, with Mrs. Horace Mann and Mrs. [Nathaniel] Hawthorne, formed a triune sisterhood of conspicuous ability; and Ednah D. Cheney, art-critic, author and philanthropist, as well as by many who followed the discourses with unflagging interest. Some of these acute listeners and questioners were from the West, and have traveled a thousand miles to be here summer after summer.
… Time only can record the influence upon thinkers at large of these who here have congregated. Laymen may question the wisdom of all the weary weight of abstruse learning which they seek to formulate; but none can doubt their refined and hospitable courtesy, their devotion to intrinsic truth, their rejection of extrinsic gaud and greed, their fraternal and unworldly motives, their devotion to true goodness …
… early in 1880, Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson of New York gave us $1000, on condition that Professor W. T. Harris should emigrate from St. Louis to Concord, which he gladly did. I then, for the first and last time, speculated in railway securities, and increased this thousand to $1185 in three months. Out of this was paid the cost of the Hillside Chapel, just built upon land and by plans of Mr. Alcott, for a cost of $512. The Thompson fund-balance of $673 served, from 1880 to 1888, to keep the Chapel in repairs and furniture, pay a small ground-rent to Mr. Alcott, and meet any deficit that might occur. The receipts of the second year were $680, the expenses $650; but in the following years, the rate of payment for each lecture (originally $10, with an occasional addition for travel) was raised to $15, which gradually consumes both the annual receipts and the fund-balance. But this would not have happened if we had not given away many admission and course tickets each year, to the value of one or two hundred dollars. It was not our purpose to make money from the enterprise, and we closed in July, 1888, with a balance of 31 cents. This I pocketed as my treasurer’s salary for ten years. I fancy no similar widely-known school was ever so economically managed …
… The reporters came from far and near, and more or less of [the School’s] discourse and debate was published in the newspapers and magazine of American and Europe, and in three or four languages. Even now I occasionally get an inquiry, after twenty years, “Is the Concord School of Philosophy to open next summer? If so, when?”
. . . The attendance at the first session of the Concord School  was larger than expected and hopes of a permanent organization rose high. We began to hear that a certain Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson would build a chapel for the School. As I had never met anyone who could tell me anything about this lady, I was glad to obtain, recently, some facts concerning her which should be recorded here. . . .
The building cost $512 and the rest of the $1000 which was her contribution was used for furniture and upkeep. It was here that the school sojourned after its first year. . . .
The little chapel needs no description to Concord people. Simplicity was its keynote, as might be expected when in one of his addresses of welcome, Mr. Alcott informed his audience that the chapel had few ornaments since a holy life was the only true beauty, and also that the eye itself and not what it sees, is Beautiful. Nevertheless, there were always a few flowers, and we were able to gaze on the busts of Plato, Pestalozzi, Emerson, Alcott, and also at an engraving of Raphael’s School of Athens.
I saw the other day all that is left of the low platform where the lecturer sat and some of the wooden chairs and benches where the listeners were grouped. The seats were hard and the air was hot, but a company such as met there were soaring above all such minor discomforts. Those of use who were not yet freed from these physical limitations, kept very quiet about it, and who knows how much good just that may have done our youthful souls.
In 1880 . . . I remember it was a hot summer and I suppose the hottest place in Concord was that small wooden building under the hill on Lexington Road. How our brains must have sizzled in the July torridness! But as I have said, it was not correct to mention it. . . .
In 1888, the School closed with a Memorial meeting to its Dean and Founder, Mr. Alcott, who had died in the spring of that year. The little Chapel has been opened a few times since for centenary exercises in honor of Emerson and Hawthorne, for a memorial service for Sanborn, etc. Today it stands untenanted, and in partial ruin, under the sighing pines (having been moved a little from its first location) waiting quietly for some further pleasant using, and object of interest to the tourist—as a part of what we ought to see on the Blue Line Tour, but little known or card about by the present generation.
Since the last session [of the first year] a home has been built for the School by the munificence of Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson. “the philanthropist of New York,” as The Transcript called her. Her gift was a thousand dollars: the building cost $512, and the rest of the money served for furnishings and a reserve fund. The Hillside Chapel, as the little building which still stands in the rear of the Orchard House was called, was constructed of white spruce and hemlock—in dimensions, 36 [feet] x 25 [feet]. The seats were plain pine chairs, and the capacity of the room was 140. According to The Advertiser, it was originally planned that “should the chapel be used another year it will probably be plastered overhead …” but this plan was never carried out. Flowers—pond-lilies at the opening lecture—somewhat relieved the austerity of the hall; later, busts of Concord worthies and those of the world beyond Concord were added.
Nearly fifty persons were present at the opening. Throughout the School, the women students were in a large majority, perhaps four-fifths. The Boston Herald characterized the clientele as follows: “Many of them are ladies of culture from the West; some are teachers; others are the wives of professional men, of busy merchants; one or two [i.e., Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson] are female millionaires; a few are professional men of eminence.” Later in the session the same paper reported that “The women still outnumber the men,” but hastened to exonerate them from the suspicion of being blue-stockings or advance females, calling them a “remarkable company of thoughtful, cultivated, but not strong-minded persons.”
Mrs. Julia Ward Howe ... appears to have been almost or quite as much of a popular attraction as Emerson. Each year we read of crowds at her lecture, and the newspapers report it with great fullness. Her 1880 lecture, on “Modern Society,” created a sensation. The Concord Freeman printed five columns of it, “stenographically reported by Mr. F. A. Nichols.” “Hillside Chapel was crowded … Every seat was occupied, and the passage-ways were filled with chairs brought over from Newton … Nearly 1500 [sic – 150] persons were present.” The Freeman notes that “The Chinese professor at Harvard occupied a seat upon the platform.” As a finale to her admired lecture, Mrs. Howe, “recited, by request, her famous ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’” . . .
… The Concord School transcended time and space in the elevated subjects which engaged it: for a few weeks in the year the necessary daily empiricism and pragmatism gave way to high discourse on transcendental, if not transcendentalist, themes. … It did not fail because it came to an end. … it lives on in the delightful heaven reserved for things too good long to be true. …
Many, no doubt, attended the School who took no interest in either Hegel or Spencer, who neither were nor aspired to be metaphysicians. There was a dignity and elevation of spirit in the Concord lectures. As many who had heard Emerson in his heyday had caught the music rather than the words, the sentiment rather than the thought, so with the thirsting spirits at Hillside Chapel. … Mrs. Anagnos, daughter of Julia Ward Howe, described her days in Concord [as] “The most perfect courtesy, and a beautiful, sincere, ignoring of inequality, prevailed in the school. The Alpine summits kindly conversed with the little hills . . .”
A. Bronson Alcott