When Stephen Manella became the head of Sayre School in July, he was surprised to learn that few students had ever been inside the 158-year-old school's most visible room: the cupola atop the central building known as Old Sayre.
The fifth-floor cupola on founder David Sayre's mansion on North Limestone is visible from much of downtown — and, from inside, it offers a commanding view of Lexington in all directions.
"It was just really dirty and full of cobwebs," Manella said of the cupola, which Sayre added to his circa 1846 home when he enlarged it in 1854 to start a girls' boarding school.
Manella had the cupola cleaned and painted, then he opened it for alumni receptions in October. Since then, teachers have brought classes up there for art and photography projects, and lectures about Lexington history.
Never miss a local story.
Sayre's downtown location is a big part of what attracted Manella to the independent co-educational school, which has students from pre- kindergarten through 12th grade.
"This is a school in the city that actually takes the kids off campus and utilizes the resources," he said. "When I interviewed, I saw that that was in place, but I also saw there was a tremendous potential to do even more."
A sixth-grade class recently walked to Shorty's Market for a math class on units and measures. A fourth-grade class walked to the courthouse for a mock trial. And while having lunch recently at a restaurant on Limestone, Manella noticed other diners staring at a group of Sayre first-graders walking single-file down the street carrying large banana leaves.
"It brought a smile to my face," he said. "I thought, they're probably either doing a science project or an art project, and they went off campus to get the material and they're bringing it into their classroom to work on it."
Manella, 46, came to Lexington after being a teacher and administrator at prep schools in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Greenwich, Conn. Before that, he worked in undergraduate admissions at New York University and earned a master's degree in English education.
Manella, who grew up near Chicago, first went to New York to work in publishing for Simon & Schuster after earning an undergraduate degree from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
His wife, Anne, also is an educator. When they lived in New York, she taught kindergarten and first grade. One of her kindergartners was Stefani Germanotta, now better known as the singer Lady Gaga.
The fact that Sayre is a downtown school "struck a chord with me because that's what I saw at NYU," Manella said. "The NYU experience was very much about taking advantage of what the city had to offer."
Manella now walks to work each morning from the late-1800s home he and Anne share with their three daughters. "We're enjoying life in the city," he said.
Sayre recently began a five-year strategic-planning process. Among other things, Manella said, the school hopes to increase enrollment by about 100 students from the current 506.
One challenge is that Sayre is expensive, with annual tuition and fees ranging from $13,000 for a kindergartner to nearly $20,000 for a high school student. But, Manella said, Sayre awarded $1.2 million in tuition grants during the past year.
"One of our goals is to make sure this experience is something that's accessible and affordable to a wide range of our population," he said, noting that 24 percent of Sayre students are people of color.
Manella is looking for partnership opportunities with nearby Transylvania University and the University of Kentucky, including ways to attract international students during regular terms or for summer programs.
He also wants to partner with more downtown businesses. Each Sayre senior does a business internship, and takes part in a mentoring and guest-speaker program focused on financial literacy and civic responsibility.
Manella also wants to raise Sayre's profile in the community. Next year, Old Sayre will become a regular Gallery Hop location.
This month, Sayre is partnering with Lighthouse Ministries to provide Thanksgiving dinner in the school's lunchroom Saturday for about 450 homeless and poor people. Students have brought in food items and socks to give as gifts. Alumni and parents' organizations are buying turkeys.
"We want to have a vibrant role in the downtown community," Manella said.