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The McKim Free School was built in 1833 through an endowment from Quaker cotton merchant John McKim (1742–1819), and is among the first and most archaeologically correct examples of the Greek Temple form in Baltimore. The design for the granite facade, with its six, seventeen-foot monolithic Doric columns, was derived by architects William F. Small and William K. Howard from the Temple of Athena and Hephaestus (also known as the Theseum) in Athens. Likewise, the prototype for the side elevations was probably the north wing of the Acropolis’s Propylaea. Also indicative of Greek architecture is the single-room interior space, which is comparable to the cella or inner chamber of a temple building. It is likely that Small and Howard became familiar with these classical models through a well-known pattern book of the period, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece. The book was published in London in 1762 and was influential in the spread of the Greek Revival style in Europe. It was readily adopted in this country during this period as symbolic of America’s newly achieved status as a nation founded on democratic principles.
William F. Small apprenticed with Benjamin Henry Latrobe in Washington for three years (1818–1820) before following him to Baltimore, where he remained to see Latrobe’s design for the Basilica of the Assumption to fruition. Small went on to design the adjoining Greek Revival style archbishop’s residence, among other structures. His partner in the design of the McKim Free School, William K. Howard, was trained as a civil engineer, and was the son of one-time Maryland governor and state senator John Eager Howard.
The McKim Free School is also significant as Baltimore’s first school directed toward free public education. It became the model for the city’s Public Schools No. 1 through No. 4 (no longer extant), also designed by William F. Small. According to local architectural historians, “as scholars published drawings of Athenian antiquities, the style associated with early Democratic Greece—the Doric [columned style]—seemed appropriate for the Jacksonian democratic government’s first experiments with free public education.” John McKim’s vision to educate indigent youth without respect for religious sect or denomination was realized by his sons Isaac and William, after his death in 1819. The school is located near the Aisquith Street Friends’ Meeting House, where the McKim family worshipped, and the school has maintained a close association with Friends since that time. Opening in 1835, the McKim Free School initially served underprivileged immigrant children, mostly of Jewish, Italian, and Polish descent. By the Civil War–era its operations were supplanted by the public school system and the McKim Free School became the first free kindergarten in the city. In 1945, in partnership with the Society of Friends, it was adapted for reuse as the McKim Community Center, with youth training and athletic programs and community outreach. Thus for over 180 years, the McKim Free School has been a valued resource for Baltimore’s underprivileged youth.
Alexander, Robert L. “William F. Small, ‘Architect of the City.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians20, no. 2 (May 1961): 63-77.
Dilts, James D., and John Dorsey. A Guide to Baltimore Architecture. 3rd ed. Centreville, MD: Tidewater Publishers, 1997.
Hayward, Mary Ellen, and Frank R. Shivers, Jr. The Architecture of Baltimore: An Illustrated History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
“McKim Free School,” HABS No. MD-305, Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, 1967. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Townsend, Arthur. “The McKim’s School,” Baltimore County, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1972. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.
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