100 Years of Mow Hall
The year 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of Riverdale’s William C.W. Mow building. Previously known as “the Main Building” before its renaming in 1999, Mow is the first building to be built by and for Riverdale. The building carries with it the school’s history from 1917 to today, even though it has undergone significant changes since its construction. A curious student can climb up to the corner of the building and find the 1917 cornerstone that was laid as the building began to rise.
Prior to 1917, the entirety of Riverdale was run from the headmaster’s residence, called “Tower House,” located directly across Fieldston Road from the main gate. Now inhabited by Mr. Dominic A.A. Randolph, Tower House not only housed the headmaster and his family, but also contained administrative offices, classroom spaces, and even a few “dorm rooms” to teach the school’s 10 to 12 male students. Ten years after the school’s founding in 1907, Mow was erected on the site of a newly-purchased plot of land in order to enable the school to grow. At that time, the school’s property only included what is now Jones Lawn, half of the sports field adjacent to Mow, and the plot on which Hackett Hall now stands. Three years after Mow’s construction, Hackett was built as a dormitory, containing 100 single rooms for students and faculty. Also in 1920, the houses near the tennis courts where members of the current administration live were constructed.
Interestingly, what is today the Jeslo-Harris Theater was originally a gym. There was no formal meeting place for the whole school, so folding chairs were set up for assemblies there. Because Frank Hackett, Riverdale’s founder, was a “muscular” Christian, Riverdale held chapel services every day, despite the fact that the school was never officially associated with any religion. These services took place in a newly-built multi-purpose gym/chapel that came along with the construction of the new building that we know as Mow Hall.
The building owes its name to Riverdale alumnus William Mow, the son of a Chinese diplomat in NYC who was a member of China’s ruling Nationalist Party. In 1949, the Communist Party won the civil war against the Nationalist Party, establishing the China of today. Members of the Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan, and Mow’s father was out of a job when, soon after the Nationalist loss, he was involved in a major embezzlement scandal. Now jobless, Mow’s father could no longer afford his tuition at Riverdale. Thankfully, the school kindly stepped in and offered to keep Mow and his brother as boarding students on a full scholarship.
William Mow went on to found a successful clothing company based in California called “Bugle Boy Blue Jeans.” Out of gratitude for Riverdale’s generosity during his youth, he gave a multi-million dollar donation to the school in 1999. At that time, it was the largest gift the school had ever received. To thank Mow, the school named the building after him.
Out of dislike for communist leader Mao Zedong, Mow and his family chose to anglicize their name, electing for “Mow” instead of “Mao,” even though their names are written and pronounced the same way in Mandarin.
Originally, Mow’s back hallway was lined with lockers, which have only been put back in the last few months. However, as former Head of Upper School and English teacher Mr. Kent Kildahl noted, these lockers were seldom used. “I’ve always liked that,” said Kildahl. “It says to me, we’re a school where we trust each other; we don’t have to lock everything up.”
After Mow’s construction, the headmaster’s office was placed where Head of Upper School Dr. Kelley Nicholson Flynn’s office is now. The office just beyond Ms. Jackie Perreira Skillman’s was a quiet study hall and then after that an art studio; the study hall has been recently moved into the basement of Hackett. What is referred to as the Language Lab was, until recently (the early 2000’s), a senior lounge, which Mr. Kildahl described as so messy and toxic that “no teacher ever wanted to go inside,” although seniors often used it.
A small lunchroom used to exist where today’s salad-bar, hot food, dish-washing space, and tech tables are. Like much of the rest of the building, it was built with wood flooring and a smaller number of tables and chairs. The dining room used to end where the salad-bar does today; only thirteen years ago was an extension added to Mow, allowing the lunchroom to be built out onto the roof of the athletic facilities.
Dr. Nicholson Flynn spoke to some of the changes in Mow’s classrooms over the course of her tenure at Riverdale, including the arrival of the colorful node desk-chairs and the repurposing of the Language Lab as classrooms due to the need for more space. The tech tables, too, have been a fairly recent addition, creating another informal gathering place for teachers and students. “We try to respond to what the teachers and students need,” she said.
Dr. Nicholson Flynn also noted how changes reflect the desires and needs of students. In 2013, student trailblazers requested a gender-neutral bathroom in the building, which, after a month-long pilot, proved successful and has remained.
Previously, inclusivity was not stressed by certain members of the community, leading to the courtyard being deemed a “Senior Courtyard” strictly for the use of seniors; this policy was enforced by teachers, who kept other students out of the courtyard. Now, though, it has been renovated and renamed the Silfen Courtyard in honor of another Riverdale family who donated funds to improve it, and it is open to all, even though it is still often populated by seniors.
Mow’s history reflects many of Riverdale’s changes over time, while still managing to retain its original character and warm charm. Its changes began almost from the time it was built, and we suspect it will continue to change according to the needs of the school.