This brick house on Hartford's Main Street was once home to one of the most influential educational reformers in American history. Henry Barnard was born in this home in 1811 and died here 89 years later in 1900. In between, he revamped the public education systems of Connecticut and Rhode Island, served as the country’s first Commissioner of Education, and also edited the American Journal of Education. After Barnard's death, this home became the property of the Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic charitable organization, and used it as a relief shelter for the indigent. The home was greatly expanded early in the 20th century when dormitory-style housing was attached to the rear. The expanded complex is currently owned by the Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation and utilized as a homeless shelter. The building was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
In 1807, a rather plain brick structure, five bays wide and three bays deep, was built on Main Street. The house Chauncey Barnard built is a three-story structure with a gable roof, a small portico with Ionic columns that frames its main entrance and a simple cornice just below the roofline. Inside, it has a central hall plan with parlors on either side and nine bedrooms on its upper two floors. Into this home, Henry Barnard was born in 1811.
The young Barnard attended public school for a few years but disliked the experience where he considered his teachers more jailors than educators. He was then enrolled in the Monson Academy, a private school in Massachusetts, where he witnessed the potential and realized the value of education. In 1826, Barnard entered Yale at the age of 15 where he became a member of Phi Betta Kappa and discovered the educational philosophy of Johann Pestalozzi which espoused a more harmonious educational environment within public schools.
Barnard graduated from Yale in 1830 and taught public school in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania for a year to test his educational theories. He found that he was severely restricted by the district as he fought for uniform standards, varied subjects and better trained teachers. He returned to Yale to study law and was admitted to the bar in 1835. Next, he traveled throughout Europe, studying their educational systems.
When he returned to Connecticut, he was elected to the state’s general assembly where he promoted public libraries and lobbied for better treatment of the mentally ill. In 1838 he became the state’s first Secretary of the Board of Commissioners of Common Schools. During his tenure, he sought to distinguish between primary and secondary schools and between schools designed for college-bound students (preparatory schools) and those bound for the labor market (vocational schools). He also promoted segregated schools, night school for working children and school districts headed by superintendents, elected boards, and annual taxation for funding.
From 1843 until 1849 Barnard surveyed the common school system of Rhode Island and served as the State Superintendent of Schools, a position he took with Connecticut when he left Rhode Island. He then served as the Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin and as the first United States Commissioner of Education, the forerunner of the Secretary of Education, until 1870 when he retired from public life. He then devoted most of his time to publishing the American Journal of Education and as president and vice president of the Connecticut Historical Society. In 1900, Henry Barnard died in the same house he was born and was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery. His contributions to the American educational system cannot be overstated and stand second in prominence only to those of Horace Mann.
After his death, his home was purchased by the Sisters of Mercy and two large additions were added to it. It has served as a homeless shelter, in one capacity or another, for over a century and serves that purpose today. The original house is currently known as the Friendship Center at St. Elizabeth House, a day shelter that serves breakfast and lunch to Hartford’s homeless population. It also offers showers, laundry facilities, health care, and case management and homeless prevention services.