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The mission of the Raleigh Historic Development Commission is to identify, preserve, protect, and promote Raleigh’s historic resources.

St. Mary's College

Founded 1842

Saint Mary's is the oldest school for women in North Carolina and the oldest continuously operating school in Raleigh

Buildings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries populate Saint Mary's sylvan campus, including antebellum structures individually recognized as Local Historic Landmarks. A triptych of buildings from the 1830s is visible from Hillsborough Street from behind a wooded glade populated by mature oaks, hollies, and magnolias.

The school's oldest structures, East and West Rock, are matching buildings of stone discarded during construction of the second State Capitol in the 1830s. Within a few years, the brick Greek Revival building between them was erected; this building was remodeled in 1907 with the addition of the Neoclassical Revival front portico and dormitory wings and named Smedes Hall for the girls school's first president.

Two buildings erected in the later nineteenth century are Gothic in style: the 1855 Richard Upjohn Carpenter Gothic Chapel and the 1887 Gothic Revival Language Arts building, a brick structure with pointed-arch windows.

The early twentieth century saw a flurry of construction; virtually all the permanent brick buildings, which were rendered in the Colonial Revival style, survive. Later construction continued to complement earlier buildings, and the view of the campus from Hillsborough Street remains notable for its historic integrity.


The three oldest buildings on campus, East and West Rock buildings and Smedes Hall, were built for an Episcopal boy's school established in 1833. That school was short-lived: financial difficulties closed it in 1839. Saint Mary's School for Girls, also associated with the Episcopal Diocese, was established in 1842 and has continued operating ever since.

The physical campus grew gradually, first in the Gothic Revival and Carpenter Gothic styles and later, particularly in the early twentieth century, in the Colonial Revival style. The school focused on maintaining existing buildings rather than resorting to demolition and rebuilding. This policy has resulted in a remarkably intact record of the physical evolution of the school.

Unlike its predecessor, the girls' school was immediately successful, educating young women from all over the South as well as a few northern states. Day students attended as well and the student population averaged about ninety boarders and forty day students in the nineteenth century. A student entered the school as young as eight years of age and stayed as long as her parents wished her to be educated in basic academic subjects, music, art, and foreign languages.

In the antebellum period, Saint Mary's was also a cultural center of Raleigh, hosting musical recitals and dinners. The school remained in operation during the war, sometimes providing refuge to prominent Confederates. The family of Jefferson Davis spent several weeks in residence at the school and student enrollment included Robert E. Lee's youngest daughter. In April 1865, federal troops camped here without incident.

In the twentieth century, Saint Mary's began offering more of a structured collegiate experience. In the late twentieth century, the school offered the last two years of high school and first two of college. By the early twenty-first century, the school became a high-school only. It remains a girls' school.


St. Mary's in the 21st Century

Photo by Michael Zirkle PhotographyPhoto by Michael Zirkle Photography

St. Mary's School, CA. 1905

Photo courtesy of NC Division of Archives and HistoryPhoto courtesy of NC Division of Archives and History