More than a mecca to the aspiring woodworker, the North Bennet Street School– lying a few steps from Old North Church (“one if by land, two if by sea”) in Boston’s historic North End neighborhood–operates as a veritable university of innovative training programs across eight different craft disciplines. The school draws students from across the country and around the globe to study violin making and repair, bookbinding, piano technology, jewelry making and repair, preservation carpentry, carpentry and locksmithing. But the cabinet and furniture making program remains one of the school’s most renowned and popular offerings.
The main campus is housed in an early 19th century brick building that was once a church and then a sailor’s retirement home. A main building and three attached smaller buildings make up the school’s main facility. A secondary campus nine miles away houses the carpentry and preservation carpentry programs.
Applications to the school are perennially robust, and the admission process is selective. Low student-to-teacher ratios are the norm. From an average student body of just 170, the school graduates roughly 90 trained craftspeople per year from its full-time programs. North Bennet Street also offers 150 part-time workshops in the fall and spring that run from one to twelve weeks long.
The school’s approach to teaching relies on the apprenticeship system of learning. Practical projects are the main focus, and students take on increasingly difficult work as their training progresses. The approach is particularly effective with fine woodworking–each project builds on previous learning and requires the student to solve more complex problems. Certainly, there are lectures and suggested reading material, but the practical application of lessons at the bench is the program’s most important element. Lessons learned through experience are not easily forgotten.
This teaching approach has remained at the core of the school’s mission since its founding in 1885 by Boston philanthropist Josephine Agassiz Shaw. Opened during a time when waves of European immigrants were entering the U.S., the fledgling school sought to teach the arriving children specific employment skills. Industrial training, together with North Bennet Street’s related programs of English classes, lectures and reading clubs, offered ways to assimilate immigrants into the world of work and into America’s traditions, customs and behavior.
Today, the school continues to thrive as one of the country’s leading institutions devoted to the instruction and preservation of craftsmanship. The North Bennet Street School celebrates the 125th anniversary of its founding in 2010.