The power-tool room at the North Bennet Street School is cramped, to say the least. Shaped like an uneven V, it’s jammed into a corner of the old red-brick building like an arrowhead. Every corner is stuffed with table saws, lathes, and electrical cords. “It’s small,” concedes Nancy Jenner, a school administrator and my guide for the day, “but it works.”
The school has learned to be practical with its space. Founded in 1881 as a trade school, it sits in the middle of Boston’s labyrinthine North End, hemmed in by pricey apartment buildings and restaurants. Over the years it’s absorbed a few neighboring townhouses, but its footprint is still only that of a large suburban home, and not all of that space is available to students. “We use this whole building to house our pianos,” Jenner says, guiding me into one of the annexes. “You’ll see that the pianos get smaller the farther up the stairs you go, for obvious reasons.” When asked how any piano makes it up the narrow, spiraling stairwell, she shrugs and replies, “Piano movers can do amazing things.”
A tangible air of pragmatism permeates the school. In an age of theory- based education, the North Bennet Street School keeps its students grounded in wood, metal, and sweat. Students never question when they might use the things they learn that day. Lessons are as pointed as a nail. The school offers programs in areas such as furniture making, carpentry, piano technology, and bookbinding. It offers one of only three full-time violin-building courses in the country, and admits only two students per semester to that program. The school is like a time capsule, preserving the living tradition of skills honed by generations of workers and ensuring that the phrase “American craftsmanship” continues to mean something in the digital age.
North Bennet discourages hobbyists from applying to its full-time programs, which are training grounds for professionals and gifted amateurs who are willing to devote their lives to careers as artisans. (Workshops and short-term courses for beginning and advanced crafters are also offered.) Most of its students fully appreciate what that means, having plenty of prior work experience. The vast majority come here after abandoning a previous career; in a world of cubicles, the idea of honing a true skill and working with one’s hands has a powerful allure–one that can be easily observed in the school’s cramped classrooms.
In one room, students are preparing the boards for their hand-bound books. In another, a student is halfway through restoring a piano, meticulously reassembling its 10,000 parts, one piece at a time. Instruction ends each day at 3:00 p.m., but the complex doesn’t close. It hums with activity well into the evening, as each student puts in extra hours at his or her workbench, tools in hand, fully absorbed in the solitary task of crafting a beautiful object.
Visit the school’s gallery to view and purchase works by current and former students.
North Bennet Street Schoool. 39 North Bennet St., Boston, MA. 617-227-0155; nbss.edu