Skull Talk: A Structure of Memories

photo 5This magnificent building overlooking the Hudson River in Peekskill, New York, was built by the prolific architect Ralph Adams Cram in 1911. For most of the twentieth century it was the home of St. Mary’s School, an Episcopal girl’s boarding and day school. Much of the school’s leadership and instruction came from the Convent of the Sisters of St. Mary, located on the same property, Mount Saint Gabriel. In the early 1970’s, due to dwindling enrollment numbers, the school decided to open its doors to boys and changed its name to St. Mary’s and St. John’s School. But still caught under an economic recession and inflation, maintenance costs became unsustainable for a non-profit organization. In 1976 the school closed its doors for good. The building was auctioned off to a condominium developer. Today, it operates as a rental luxury apartment building called “Chateau Rive.”

st mary's condo renovation st mary's costume roomIn 1973 my father was recruited as the school’s new headmaster and charged with the job of turning around enrollment numbers, then hovering at only about thirty students. I was seven years old when we moved to the headmaster’s house, adjacent to the convent. For the next three years the troubles the school faced were the furthest from my mind. To the half dozen other faculty children and me, the school building, gardens, terraces, and wooded campus were ours for the taking. The comings and goings of students (whose numbers rose to about 100) throughout the school vacation calendar only proved our reign of this little kingdom. Like Hilary Knight’s Eloise at the Plaza, we “fac-brats” knew every nook and cranny of the property from our own unsupervised escapades. 

Last week, I had the chance to visit and survey a couple of the apartments. Much more had changed on the inside than out, although the perennial gardens are now grassy and the courtyard, which had been paved for parking when I lived there forty years ago, is now filled with lush grass and a beautiful fountain. 

Mom, me, and my sisters Rebecca and Sarah in front of the Hudson River.

It was an odd experience to stand in what I knew to once have been the library, or the girl’s dorm wing, or the costume room, and be at the same time standing in some place quite different—with forty more years of history. One of the apartments is undergoing renovations, making it again, a space for new lives. The original arched doorways, built in bookcases and large lead paned windows overlooking the Hudson reminded me I was in a place of countless memories: several generations of a school community, my own, and all the subsequent apartment dwellers.

The plaque above the fireplace in the rental office drives home the mystery of memory and structural changes this building houses: “This fireplace given by the class of 1938 in memory of their beloved classmate Mary Sibley Lee.”

The following links provide further reading about the history of this solid, brick building that could very likely still be standing hundreds of years from now.


Hannah Albee
Associate Editor