The Richards Institute: Susan Richards’ Trailblazing Legacy in Northern Kentucky Music Education

Women faced huge hurdles to become business owners at the turn of the twentieth century. Those hurdles didn’t stop Susan Richards from making her dream a reality. It was an era when most music was enjoyed by live performances. Although recorded sound technology was emerging and, within a decade, would be universally available, families still encouraged their children to learn to play an instrument.  Music instructors were numerous and valued in Covington. Susan Richards was one of many instructors listed in the city directory.

Susan made a bold move in 1903, transitioning from her home-based instruction to founding the Richards Institute on West Eleventh Street. The school would be a family-run, women-owned school of the performing arts - instrumental music, voice and oratory that would run for nearly fifty years.

Susan (called Susie) was born about 1854 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Welsh-born William Richards and Irish-American Mary Catherine Loughran. The Richards family migrated from Pittsburgh to Covington in the late 1850s. Besides Susan, William and Mary Richards had three other children when they settled in Covington; John, Anna, and Josephine. In 1860 they added another son, William V., to the family. Susan’s father was a “roller” in a rolling mill.  “Rolling” is a process in which metal is passed through one or more pairs of rolls to reduce the thickness, make the thickness uniform, or give it a desired shape. Metalworking was a valued skill in Covington. The Roebling Suspension bridge was under construction, and the city’s infrastructure was expanding.

Susan was educated at Notre Dame Academy in Cincinnati and graduated with honors. She remained single and taught music lessons from the family home at 1228 Scott Street (1882-1887), 1111 Garrard Street (1888-1897), then 1131 Scott Street (1898-1903). She also was the organist at Covington’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, then at St. Patrick’s Church for decades more where she also trained the choir.

In 1903 Susan, through her brother William, bought a large home located at 27 West Eleventh Street (changed to 25 in 1917), to operate a private school along with private music instruction. The house had been the home of Judge James J. O’Hara (1825-1900.) The house sat on a large double lot, situated on land originally owned by the Western Baptist Theological Institute. Upon Judge O’Hara’s death, his grand home was sold at auction on June 16th, 1903. It was advertised as having the following:

“12 rooms, two baths, two toilets, hot water, furnace, large front hall, laundry, basement rooms, double parlors, reception hall, good cellar under all, gas and electric lights, and a large lot, 50 x 200 feet to alley, alley on the side”  When the Richards purchased the home, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, formerly the Western Baptist Theological Institute campus, was directly across the street.

Susan opened the school soon after taking ownership. Within a few years, Susan’s nieces, the Nolan sisters, joined the institute as teachers. The Nolans, Mary Ann, Susie, Anna

Regina, and Josephine, were the daughters of Susan Richards’ sister, Anna Mary (Mrs. Matthew) Nolan. Like their Aunt Susan, the Nolan sisters were all unmarried women. Once the Nolan women established themselves as teachers at the institute, Susan took on the title and role of “President and Principal.”

The institute first operated as a private day school and a music conservatory. Although an article in the Cincinnati Catholic Telegraph in 1915 commented that the Richards Institute was “the only Catholic Institute of the city in lay charge,” it operated independently and was not associated with the Covington Catholic Diocese. The institute had its own baseball team for a short time, competing with the other schools. Once, the school was reported to be participating in marbles tournaments. The institute would, at times, hold performances of plays or music. Recitals and graduation exercises were held each June. The number of graduates varied. Some years only one or two graduates were announced, but other classes were much larger.

Susan Richards died unexpectedly on April 3, 1914.  Following her death, her niece, Anna Regina Nolan, stepped in as the institute’s president and principal. As time passed, the institute appears to have narrowed its scope to music instruction only and ceased operating as a private day school. Josephine (Josie) Nolan, who graduated from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, taught violin. Susie Nolan taught piano. Susie was the first Nolan sister to pass away, dying in 1936. The other three sisters carried on. The Richards Institute was listed in the Covington directory until 1951. Anna Regina died in 1953. The two remaining Nolan sisters sold the property to Wadsworth Electric in November of that year. The home was listed as “vacant” in the 1954 directory and disappeared from city directories afterward. Mary Ann Nolan passed away in 1956, and Josephine in 1958. They were living at 1337 Garrard Street when they both passed. Susan Richards and the Nolan sisters rest in St. Mary’s Cemetery in, Fort Mitchell. The school at 25 West Eleventh Street has been demolished and is currently a parking lot.


Hundreds of students received instruction at the Richards Institute, and news articles mention some of them by name, mostly in the social news, some in obituaries. A list of Richards Institute student names has been compiled and is searchable in GenKY:

The list is not by graduation year, only when mentioned in the news. Some students are listed multiple times.

Written by Bobbye Winterberg, Library Associate in Local History and Genealogy Department at Covington. 

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