Above what today is Elsie's sandwich shop, 19 students are learning in a private school that has been teaching and tutoring students in Harvard Square for more than 100 years.
Elsie's is the unofficial dining hall of a tutoring school that used to help Harvard undergraduates cram for exams.
Established in 1884, the Manter Hall School is the vestige of a long and varied history of tutoring and college preparation.
Through the 1930s, founder William W. Nolen (Harvard, class of 1884) offered four-and eight-hour review sessions before every major midterm and final exam.
"For years the two [Nolen and his partner Hollis Webster] taught those in difficulties how to solve their problems, helping students through Harvard, saving them time and the discomfiture of failure," read a brochure from about 1902.
Nolen soon expanded the services to secondary school students who failed one or more Harvard entrance exams. After intense tutoring, these students could retake the exams for entrance for the following fall.
"The boy who has failed in his entrance examination, the boy who lacks one or two credits for college entrance, the boy who has fallen behind through slipshod methods of instruction, who needs better 'foundationing,' finds able tutors here, ready to give him special attention," reads a brochure 30 years later.
The school shifted its services to satisfy a new war-linked demand after World War II began. "In those years we did nothing but prepare for the entrance exam for aviation cadets," recalled current owner Robert Hall. Now in his 57th year managing the school, Hall, 83, said he will probably retire "sometime soon."
When the vets returned, Manter Hall swelled to the size of more than 250 students eager for college.
When the school settled down to a size of about 60 students in the 1950s, Manter Hall became a standard preparatory school, catering to students with special needs in grades nine through 12.
Tenley Halbright '58, an Olympic gold medalist in figure skating, was looking for a school which could accommodate her heavy practice schedule.
Although Manter Hall did not accept girls at that time, Halbright's persistent parents succeeded in convincing Hall to take their daughter. Halbright, who went on to the Medical School to become a surgeon, has operated on Hall four times. "There I was, telling my headmaster what to do," Halbright said.
"The professors were great," Halbrightremembered. "Even in surgery, their disciplinedthinking has come in very useful."
She also praised Hall and the presentheadmaster, Robert R. Sweeney. "They're mentorsand they keep in close touch with their students."
Manter Hall's commitment to individualizedattention continues today.
"If they [students] want to go to college andbeyond, we're glad to have them come and be withus as long as they need to be," Sweeney said."While we hold to college preparatory standards,we are relatively flexible with deficiencies."
About half the students come from Cambridge;the rest are from outlying towns. Althoughstudents could once live on the top floor of thebuilding on the corner of Mount Auburn and HolyokeStreets, those rooms are presently unoccupied.
Because of Hall's interest in dyslexia, ManterHall has required a diagnostic reading test sincethe 1950s, far before the disability was widelyknown. Hall has earned numerous awards andcurrently serves on the boards of several dyslexiaorganizations.
Motivated by teaching methods at the school,Hall also founded Educator's Publishing Services,a firm which publishes and distributes academicworkbooks throughout the country.
Despite its unique approach to secondaryeducation, enrollment has dropped off drasticallyin the past five or six years, from about 60 toonly 19 today.
"It's probably due to the fact that we werehappy with the small number, and don't make aneffort to expand," Hall explained.
Though the school formerly advertised througheducational channels, it relies exclusively onword of mouth today. With the tuition at $7,950,most of the students are the children of alumni.Halbright's daughters attended Manter Hall,profiting from the individualized attention to"study fast and move along fast," Halbright said.
However, Manter Hall administrators say thereare no plans to bolster student enrollment.
"The future? I wouldn't touch it," Sweeneysaid. "For now, the people we graduate aresuccessful, and the parents appreciate theservice."
Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.) is also agraduate of Manter Hall.
Hall was also unwilling to forecast theschool's future. "I don't have any predictions,"he said. "It serves a purpose: there's a need andwe're happy with that."
Alumni such as Halbright, however, areconcerned by the school's decreased enrollment. "Ihope [it doesn't die out], because there'scertainly a need for it," she said. "It's a uniqueplace and has a lot to offer."
"It's got my vote to continue," she added