Constructed in 1821 at a cost of $1,200, Lee's Academy was Madison's first high school. It was established for the education of young people preparing to continue their studies at college. Originally situated on a knoll at the corner of the Boston Post Road and Neck Road, the schoolhouse was then directly across the street from the home of Captain Frederick Lee, the chief proponent of the project.
Other supporters of the college preparatory school were such pillars of the community as Dr. Reynold Webb, Reverend David Baldwin, Reverend S. N. Shepard, and William Todd, and Professor Samuel Robinson, Jr., who became the school's first principal. Professor Robinson built a fine home in 1820 on the Boston Post Road, across from the town green, to serve as his own residence as well as a boardinghouse for students at the Academy.
Named for Captain Lee, the Academy opened its doors to students in November of 1821. Eighty-two students enrolled in classes. Of these first students, eighty percent of them were male and twenty percent were female. Half were children from Madison, a quarter were from nearby Guilford, and the remainder were children from as far afield as Wethersfield, New York City, New Orleans, North Carolina, and Georgia. By its third year, the school included students from Cuba, Spain, and the West Indies.
The students studied mathematics, English studies, Greek, and Latin. Small fees were charged for each semester, for special classes and supplies, and for boarding at area homes. Tuition for each student was $3 for English studies and another $5 for the mathematics and classics courses.
Lee's Academy in Its First Hundred Years
Built of native timber and topped with a bell tower that held a bell Captain Lee had salvaged from a sunken revenue cutter, the building was constructed with a proviso that it never be moved. Just ten years after its completion, however, Lee's Academy was relocated to the triangle at the western end of the present town green, more central to the village district. In 1839, it was moved again, to a plot opposite the northeast corner of the green, not far from where it now stands, but facing toward the south. In that year, the Center School District purchased the lower floor for use as a district school for pupils in the lower grades. The Academy held its classes on the upper floor. Upon the construction of the Daniel Hand Academy in 1884, the preparatory school closed its doors; Miss Gertrude Nash was its last teacher. By 1889 Lee's Academy was repaired and incorporated into the public school system. When the town's schools were consolidated in 1892, the Academy became town property.
Although it was beloved as one of the town’s most charming and well-known structures, Lee's Academy was never quite settled, it seems. It was moved yet again in 1896, when Memorial Hall was constructed. Its new site was at the back of Daniel Hand Academy, in the vicinity of the gymnasium that presently is at the back of the former Academy Elementary School. In that spot, its lower floor was continually used for the education of young pupils until 1922, when Hand Consolidated School opened in the former Daniel Hand Academy building.
Lee's Academy in the Twentieth Century
In 1923 the Madison Historical Society assumed responsibility for the building, which, by that era, was much honored for its one hundred-year history as an institution for the education of Madison children. In that year the building was moved for the fifth--and presumably final--time, to its present location. Now at the eastern edge of Meetinghouse Lane, facing westerly toward the green, the building was deeded by the Town of Madison to the Madison Historical Society, which purchased the building for $700. The land beneath the schoolhouse was leased to the society for a period of 99 years.
Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, Lee's Academy served the community in a great many ways. Madison's Temple Beth Tikvah, the Lutheran Church, and other religious groups in need of a home held worship services and religious education classes here. The Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and other clubs and community organizations used it for meetings. During World War II, the Red Cross had office space here, and for some time Lee's Academy served as the headquarters of the Madison Public Health Nursing Association and later as the offices of the Connecticut Society for the Prevention of Blindness.
Lee's Academy in the Twenty-First Century
Shortly after the turn of the twenty-first century, Lee's Academy gradually became the center for the Madison's Historical Society's exhibitions and educational events. Its upper level now houses the MHS administrative offices and library; it is open year-round from 9 am to 1 pm on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Its lower level is an exhibition hall open from April through November, on Saturdays only, from 11 am to 4 pm.
During the second decade of the twenty-first century, Lee's Academy has undergone a thorough exterior restoration. This endeavor has preserved for future generations one of Madison's most iconic and beloved historic buildings. Through the generous efforts of donors and the support of grants, the building has a new roof, a restored cupola, restored windows with new sashes, restored sills and corner posts, new insulation, new sheathing, new clapboard siding, fresh paint, new doors, and much more.
Our Thanks are Due
The Madison Historical Society is grateful for all donations, large and small, that ensure that the schoolhouse on the green remains at the heart of Madison. All donations are tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law. We are especially grateful for the guidance, assistance, and donations of funds, time, labor, and materials from the following generous donors:
Delta Environmental Services
Erwin C. Bauer Charitable Trust
Keith Howard Roofing
Joshua Weiss Professional Painting
New Alliance Foundation
Summer Hill Foundation
Think Green Waste Removal
Wm. Plunkett & Associates
Members and Friends of the Madison Historical Society
Madison’s Heritage: Historical Sketches of Madison, Connecticut. Edited by Philip S. Platt. Madison, CT: Madison Historical Society, 1964
Madison: Three Hundred Years by the Sea: Farmers and Fisherman; Sailors and Summer Folk. Edited by Stephen P. Elliott. Madison, CT: Madison Bicentennial Committee, 1976
The Green People: A Walking Tour of the Green, Madison, Connecticut. By Warner P. Lord. Madison, CT: Charlotte L. Evarts Memorial Archives, Inc., 2003
"Lee's Academy: Madison's First High School," a publication of the Madison Historical Society; editor and exhibition curator, Paulette C. Kaufmann, 2010