HomeMedals and TokensThe John S. White Medal and the Rise and Fall of Berkeley...

The John S. White Medal and the Rise and Fall of Berkeley School for Boys

By Jesse Kraft for American Numismatic Society (ANS) ……
Medals help tell a story, but they rarely tell the entire story. The medallic arts are often employed to portray a sense of achievement and celebration. Very few medals depict the negative realities of life. More often than not, a medal is bestowed upon an individual or organization at a zenith—when they are at the top of their game—not during a descent spiral of destruction.

A recent acquisition from Stefan Sonntag of Auktionen Münzhandlung Sonntag, of Stuttgart, Germany, helps exemplify this. The John S. White medal was created in 1897 to honor the impressive list of credentials already amassed by him at that time. Within a few short years, however, White’s standing and prospects were tarnished. The medal remains a testament to his successes, but a small amount of research exposes the other side of the story.

Figure 1. Dr. John S. White, educator and founder of the Berkeley School for Boys.
Figure 1. Dr. John S. White, educator and founder of the Berkeley School for Boys.

Dr. John Stuart White (Fig. 1) was born on February 3, 1847, in Wrentham, Massachusetts to John S. and Ama White. By 1872, he had married Georgie A. White (née Read) and the two of them welcomed their son, Eliot, into the family–a future minister.

Dr. White, however, was an educator and author. He himself was “of good old Puritan stock and a most excellent product of the Boston schools,” where he “passed through the Chapman grammar, English high, and Latin schools of Boston, winning first medals in each, and then entered Harvard University for the completion of his educational career.”[1] White graduated in 1870 with high honors before completing a Doctor of Laws from Trinity College in 1879. During that time, he taught at the Boston Latin School for four years and served as headmaster of the Brooks Academy in Cleveland, Ohio for another six years. When he resigned from the latter post, the school expressed their esteem for him in a series of flattering and lengthy resolutions, each lamenting his loss while celebrating the enhanced state he elevated the school that was to last for years to come—“for his loss are tempered by the constant sense of our permanent gain,” as they put it.

He knew that he had bigger things to accomplish, however.

On September 23, 1880, White founded the Berkeley School for Boys at 252 Madison Avenue, New York City. According to its prospectus, the school was “to prepare boys thoroughly for the best Colleges and Schools of Science in the United States,”[2] but taught everything from modern and classical history, modern languages, natural philosophy and natural history, military and athletic training, and so on. The students ranged in age from 10 to 20 years. The school was named after George Berkeley, the Bishop of Cloyne and “the greatest benefactor of early education in America.”[3] The idea for the name came from White’s friend, Daniel C. Gilman—the first president of Johns Hopkins University. The Berkeley School experienced quick success. Almost immediately, the school “conducted in accordance with the most advanced modern ideas of education” and, within four years of opening, had achieved its maximum enrollment number of 150 pupils in a given academic year.

Figure 2. The third location for the Berkeley School for Boys, at 18-24 West 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, opened in 1891. Image from the American Architect and Building News, February 1892.
Figure 2. The third location for the Berkeley School for Boys, at 18-24 West 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, opened in 1891. Image from the American Architect and Building News, February 1892.

Because of its early triumphs, the school moved to No. 6 East 44th Street in 1884, then again to 18­–24 West 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues (Fig. 2). Initially, this latter location was heavily questioned as, at the time, this stretch of road was known as “Stable Street” because of the two-story cottages that lined the roadway, as opposed to the mansions just down the block. Designed by architects Lamb & Rich, no special ceremonies were held when the cornerstone for the new building was laid on June 30, 1890. The commander of the school’s battalion, Col. Frederick R. Franklin, had recently passed away and celebrations seemed “unwise,” according to a New York Times article that outlined the event. The school was completed by the following year at a cost of $250,000—with five stories of space, a 9,000ft2 armory (larger than the 71st Regiment’s armory), the “most ingenious and efficient arrangements for heating and ventilation,” the best laboratories and scientific instruments available, and even a partial reproduction of the frieze of the Parthenon in Athens. The Berkeley became “the costliest and most perfectly equipped private school-building in the world.”[4] Annual tuition cost between $350 for day students to $1,000 for the “advanced resident student.”

Largely because of this school, the entire neighborhood was rejuvenated, the cottages were torn down one by one and replaced with elegant residential hotels—including the New York Yacht Club, the St. Nicholas Club, and the Harvard Club. The school further expanded beyond this building, securing a gymnasium, ten acres of playground, and a boathouse along the Harlem River in Morris Heights (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. An advertisement for the Berkeley School for Boys, highlighting the more rustic aspects of what it offered, notably those in Morris Heights, in the Bronx.
Figure 3. An advertisement for the Berkeley School for Boys, highlighting the more rustic aspects of what it offered, notably those in Morris Heights, in the Bronx.

The medal is a striking commemoration to both Dr. John S. White and the Berkeley School for Boys (Fig. 4). The obverse features a well-executed portrait of White in a turn-of-the-century suit featuring a bow tie and stand-up collar. Encircling White is the inscription, IOANNES • S • WHITE/ D • III • M • FEB • A • MDCCCXCVII/ AET • S •/ L—which translates to “John S. White/ 3 February 1897/ aged 50.” The reverse portrays Minerva—the Roman goddess of wisdom, justice, law, and victory—seated in the foreground, pointing to an open book as she instructs a young pupil who leans against a stone embankment. To the right, in the background, the school’s edifice is seen as it appeared at the time—all four buildings neatly stacked next to one another. In a cartouche at the top-left is another, smaller building, presumably their earlier location on Madison Avenue between 1880 and 1884. At the top is the phrase A/ MVLTIS/ AMICIS, “by many friends.” Toward the bottom, a second cartouche shows a lamp of knowledge and an olive branch, along with the phrase AMAT VICTORIA CURAM (“Victory likes careful preparation”), and the year of the school’s founding below.

Figure 4. The John S. White medal, executed by Anton Scharff in 1897. The medal was given to White during a 50th birthday celebration. Note that the rendering of the Berkeley School is nearly identical to the image in the American Architect and Building News (see Fig. 2). (American Numismatic Society 2023.15.1 and 2023.15.2, purchase from Stefan Sonntag, Auktionen Münzhandlung Sonntag.)
Figure 4. The John S. White medal, executed by Anton Scharff in 1897. The medal was given to White during a 50th birthday celebration. Note that the rendering of the Berkeley School is nearly identical to the image in the American Architect and Building News (see Fig. 2). (American Numismatic Society 2023.15.1 and 2023.15.2, purchase from Stefan Sonntag, Auktionen Münzhandlung Sonntag.)

The medal itself was awarded to Dr. White during a celebration held on February 3, 1897. An article in the New York Times noted that “a gold medal was presented to Dr. John S. White … by a number of his friends and admirers upon his fiftieth birthday last night.”[5] The ceremony was led by friend and lawyer Walter S. Logan. While the source for the idea for a medal to honor White is unknown, two individuals on the presentation committee for the party may help answer this: George F. Kunz and Prof. Sigmund Oettinger—both known for their patronage of the medallic arts, influential benefactors of the art world at large, and members of the American Numismatic Society (ANS).

Figure 5. The Anton Scharff plaquette by Franz Xaver Pawlik. Scharff was so prolific and admired that many medals of him were created by other sculptors. (American Numismatic Society, 1985.81.56; gift of Daniel M. Friedenberg.)
Figure 5. The Anton Scharff plaquette by Franz Xaver Pawlik. Scharff was so prolific and admired that many medals of him were created by other sculptors. (American Numismatic Society, 1985.81.56; gift of Daniel M. Friedenberg.)

The medal was executed by famed Austrian sculptor Anton Scharff (Fig. 5). The son of famed medalist Johann Michael Scharff, he was seemingly born into the medium on June 10, 1845, in Vienna. Between 1860 and 1862, Scharff studied at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna under Carl Radnitzky, then at the Kaiserlich-königliche Münzgraveur-Akademie (the prestigious Academy of Engravers at the Vienna Mint) under its director, Joseph Daniel Böhm. By 1881, Scharff, himself, was key in the operation of the engraving academy, becoming its director in 1896—the year prior to the John S. White medal. According to numismatist Alex Krapf, Scharff’s medals “revitalized the sleepy Austrian medallic art scene that had been dominated by Böhm’s strict academic orientation.”[6] Although he never worked in the United States, his talents were recognized by contemporaries, helping to revitalize the United States medallic art scene in the process. However, perhaps because he is less associated with United States medals than other artists, his influence in America has largely gone unrecognized by numismatists and art historians today. The execution of this piece demonstrates a masterly understanding of form, design, and balance—a skill that Scharff was able to repeat throughout his career. Anton Scharff passed away on July 5, 1903, in Brunn am Gebirge, Austria, at 58 years of age.

The donated pieces, however, are very special. Unlike the finished medal, the donation was of separate uniface obverse and reverse strikes. Furthermore, according to the documentation acquired with them, these are “unique pieces from the studio estate of A. Scharff,” thus giving them the ultimate provenance that can only be paralleled, perhaps, by the gold medal awarded to White himself at the birthday celebration. Each piece measures roughly 65 mm and weighs 48.0 and 53.5 g, respectively. In addition to these new uniface additions, the ANS collection contains bronze and silver two-sided examples (ANS, 0000.999.15195 and 0000.999.15196, respectively).

In 1899, just eight years after moving into the famous location, the school moved to Madison Avenue and 49th Street. The building was traded for three other properties with the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen from Columbia University. They broadened the scope of the school to educate the widows and orphans of their tradesmen and dropped its tuition requirements (though eventually re-added them for other children). By May of 1908, Andrew Carnegie (who was earlier on the presentation committee for White’s birthday celebration in 1897) had donated $527,000 to the Mechanics to renovate the structure.

Why the Berkeley School left the site is unclear, but White is known to have suffered personal financial problems during this period and, on November 9, 1903, filed for bankruptcy because of $101,000 in unsecured liabilities—including $25,000 to the Berkeley School.[7] The following summer, White severed ties with the school to allow it to continue unencumbered by his faults, passing ownership to a corporation of New York businessmen. They later merged with the Columbia Institute (1908) and then with the Irving School for Boys in Tarrytown, New York (1917), which continued to operate through the late 1950s.

White passed away on October 5, 1922, in Bath, New York, never finding himself in the same glories as he had at his height in the 1890s. The medal, however, lives on to represent his successes in life.

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Sources

[1] Charles Morris, Editor. “John S. White, LL.D.”, Men of the Century: An Historical Work Giving Portraits and Sketches of Eminent Citizens of the United States (Philadelphia: L.R. Hamersley & Co., 1896), 268.

[2] Prospectus of the Berkeley School, New York City 1880–81 (Boston: Willis & White, 1880).

[3] Charles Morris, “John S. White, LL.D.,” 268.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Dr. John S. White’s Birthday: The Head Master of Berkeley School Receives a Medal from Admirers”, New York Times (February 4, 1897), 2.

[6 http://medallicartcollector.com/anton-scharff_biography.html

[7] “John S. White Bankrupt: President of Berkeley School Has Liabilities of About $143,000, of Which Over $42,000 Are Secured”, New York Times (November 10, 1903), 11.

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American Numismatic Society (ANS)

American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Societyhttps://numismatics.org
The American Numismatic Society (ANS), organized in 1858 and incorporated in 1865 in New York State, operates as a research museum and is recognized as a publicly supported organization. "The mission of The American Numismatic Society is to be the preeminent national institution advancing the study and appreciation of coins, medals and related objects of all cultures as historical and artistic documents, by maintaining the foremost numismatic collection and library, by supporting scholarly research and publications, and by sponsoring educational and interpretive programs for diverse audiences."

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