• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Margaret Hall’s history as a private school


People who haven’t lived in Versailles their entire lives or didn’t move here until after 1979 don’t have any memories of Margaret Hall Manor during its 80-year history as a school. Now an apartment building and home to older and disabled residents, Margaret Hall was primarily a private school for girls. Notable exceptions during its history include longtime Commonwealth’s Attorney Gentry “Sonny” McCauley Jr., local attorney Jim Rouse, Jim Owen Range and former Woodford Sun publisher Ben Chandler. The school, which had operated in Versailles as Ashland Seminary for Girls beginning in 1892, was renamed in honor of Margaret Voorhies Haggin. She and her husband had contributed $20,000 (equivalent to more than $500,000 in today’s dollars) to construct a new three-story brick building, which commenced seven months after a March 20, 1902 fire nearly destroyed the home that had housed the predecessor of what became Margaret Hall. The history of Margaret Hall was shared with residents of the three-story, 50-unit apartment complex at 117 Elm Street when Woodford County Historical Society volunteer Judy (Wiglesworth) Phillips recently made a visit there. She said a new Margaret Hall school was ready for students on Sept. 17, 1903 – just 18 months after construction began. Phillips, who grew up in Versailles, said she was a student at Margaret Hall for six years, from 1957 to 1963. Eight of her relatives were also students there. Her grandmother and three great-aunts were graduates of Margaret Hall when it operated as a junior college, from 1907 to 1920. Her mother and her dad’s sister were students at Margaret Hall in the 1930s. Two cousins were students at Margaret Hall when Phillips was also attending classes there. “I used to tell people,” said Phillips jokingly, “I was doomed to go here … but I have a lot of good memories...” As she reflected on those memories and the history of this private school on Elm Street, she said, “Two things have remained constant about Margaret Hall over its 80 years of existence … It was always a private school. And it was always affiliated with the Episcopal Church, (but) that didn’t mean you had to be an Episcopalian to come to school there.” Classes were offered to kindergarten through 12th grade students in Margaret Hall’s early history, with boys (grades 1 through 7) attending classes in an on-campus Lower School. During her presentation in Margaret Hall’s community room, Phillips took residents on a virtual tour of the school when she was a student there. “The first floor of this building has 11-foot ceilings and the second- and third-(floors) have 10-foot ceilings. So if you add that up, you almost have the equivalent (height) of a four-story house – based on the eight-foot standard ceilings in many homes today,” said Phillips. She talked about how laundry services were handled in the basement and said a dining room was large enough for 100 students – 10 students at each of the 10 tables. A gymnasium and elevated stage were located above a swimming pool, installed in the basement in 1927. “And it was one of the very first indoor pools in the whole state of the Kentucky,” said Phillips. “So it was there 27 years.” Margaret Hall was a boarding school for some of its students, with many others attending classes there in the daytime. Non-married faculty members lived on the third-floor in an area called the “reservation,” which later became a temporary home for nuns. During its history, Margaret Hall faced financial challenges, including the stock market crash in October 1929. The Order of St. Anne (later the order of St. Helena) purchased the school in 1931, kept its doors open, “and the last of the nuns left here by 1970,” said Phillips. She has many recollections of the nuns (who were also teachers) during her years at Margaret Hall. “Sister Frances was the liveliest nun I have ever met in my life,” she explained. One example of this liveliness happened during an eighth-grade class party. “She got down lower – doing the limbo – than anybody had all night long. So we thought she was a pretty good teacher,” said Phillips. “She taught Latin and she taught ancient history.” And with limited educational resources covering the ancient world, “She really made it come alive,” said Phillips. Only 21 students were enrolled at Margaret Hall when the school closed its doors in the fall of 1979. Five years later, Landmark Enterprises purchased the six-acre site and three-story brick building – repurposing the former school as an apartment building for elderly and disabled residents. “We are very pleased that they ended up with this property,” said Phillips, speaking on behalf of the Margaret Hall Alumni Association. Landmark Enterprises spent $250,000 to preserve the front entrance hall of Margaret Hall, which “make the memories come back for those of us who come up here. And we’ve had some reunions over the years,” added Phillips. Today, the manager of Margaret Hall Manor works out of the office once occupied by longtime principal Sister Rachel. “They don’t like coming into my office no more than they did Sister Rachel’s,” said Lena Taylor, causing laughter among the residents attending Phillips’ recent presentation on the history of Margaret Manor. Phillips, who has been a member of the Woodford County Historical Society since it was organized in 1966, will give another presentation on Margaret Hall at the Woodford County Library’s “Friday Coffee Club for Seniors” on Nov. 3. Call 873-5191 to sign up for this free program.

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