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Academy School: Is History Repeating Itself?

Part 2 of a Series on the Work of the Academy Investigation Committee

Academy School: Is History Repeating Itself?

This is part two of a series on the work of the Academy Investigation Committee. The first article is Academy At A Crossroads.


By Emily Eisenlohr

“I know nothing about the history of that building.”

One regular at a local Madison coffee shop expressed what must describe most residents’ familiarity with Academy School. History may be repeating itself though. The narrative of education in Madison predates the current Academy building and has many parallels with more recent events.

The issue is not just a single building with education history however. Academy Investigation Committee member Matt Callahan captured what is on the mind of so many. “You can’t divorce the building from the area and its other historic buildings. It’s very visible. The sum is greater than the individual parts.”

Madison has two organizations which capture the town’s history for posterity. One preserves documents, and the other protects buildings and provides education.

The Biography of a Building

The Charlotte L. Evarts Memorial Archives, nick-named CLEMA, is located in the basement of Memorial Town Hall. Volunteers have collected and catalogued over 10,000 photos, letters, school records and other historic records into a searchable database. Archivist Nancy Bastian quickly found an old postcard image of Daniel Hand Academy with the Lee Academy in the background.

Gus Horvath, former First Selectman and town history buff, works with CLEMA to share Academy’s story. He starts with the deed through which Daniel Hand conveyed the tuition-based academy he’d established to the town. “Daniel Hand of the Town of Guilford, County of New Haven, State of Connecticut…”

The handwriting was elegantly slanted with occasional flourishes. The Sholes & Glidden Type Writer had just appeared on the American market in 1874, but hadn’t made its way to Madison’s Annual or Special Town Meeting minutes or to the 1884 deed of conveyance. The deed’s boilerplate was set in typeface. The many specifics were all in cursive that would make a teacher proud.

Hand sold Madison his academy for “one dollar and other considerations.” It was to serve as the first consolidated high school. Careful, handwritten town meeting minutes recorded the appointment of the first school board to oversee the new academy and a property tax assessment in the following year to support it. Soon Madison’s citizens voted to create a tuition-free school for all town children.

First of the “other considerations” in Hand’s deed was the requirement that the academy always be known as the Hand Academy of Madison. The second required the town to own and maintain the academy. The third consideration required hiring a teacher and providing instruction for at least eight months of the year.

By 1920 not only were the town meeting minutes typed, but the town’s school population had also outgrown the small Hand Academy building. A five-member committee was appointed to study school facilities needs and to make recommendations in March of the following year.

After five public hearings in varied locations, on March 1st the committee reported “that the best interest of the schools and the community will be far better served by the construction of a new school with proper modern equipment, large enough to accommodate all the pupils in town and located on the site of the Hand Academy.” They excluded two district schools in north Madison from consolidation. The estimated cost of the new school was $151,187.

At a subsequent March 28th meeting attendees voted for the new school, 246 to 89, and to issue 20- to 30-year bonds to pay for construction. The town purchased neighboring property for a playground in 1922.

The Hand Consolidated High School of 1921 expanded to its current size in 1935 with the addition of four classrooms and the gymnasium. The town appropriated $100,000 for the addition. The First Selectman was authorized to accept “an offer of $45,000 to be submitted by the United States of America, through the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, to aid in financing the construction of said four rooms and gymnasium.” This small grant was part of the $6 billion National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933.

Those familiar with the Old School House Deli at the corner of Neck Road and Route 1 might wonder how it got its name. It was the first site of the 1821 Lee Academy, Madison’s first high school, which the town moved next to the Daniel Hand Academy. Rather than tear down Lee Academy, the town moved it again to its current site to make room for the 1936 addition. “That building should have had wheels,” quipped Gus Horvath.

The final historical event in the life of the Academy building was the 1958 construction of a new high school on Green Hill Road, now Polson Middle School. Daniel Hand had willed control over his three “conditions” to The American Missionary Association, which he also made trustee of the Daniel Hand Educational Fund for Colored People. The AMA released its claims on the Hand Academy property, again for one dollar of consideration and Madison’s stated intention of naming its new high school “The Daniel Hand High School.” Nancy Bastion noted, “Some members of the first graduating class – the class of 1961 – are still around!”

On an Education Mission

Will history repeat itself? These earlier residents tore down a school building to meet pressing town needs. The process involved committees, public hearings, town meetings and votes.

Madison Historical Society traces these narratives and has been active in filling Madison’s local history knowledge gap. “Our mission is education,” declared MHS President Lynn Friedman. The MHS sponsored exhibits in its Lee Academy building on the construction of the turnpike through town and on the experiences of Madison residents during the Civil War.

Unlike Guilford, Madison has no preservation society. Lynn noted that artifacts are hard to preserve and present. It’s the buildings that capture history best. “The Academy building may not be old, but it is historically and culturally significant. Buildings are the only things left standing that we can look at.”

History Influences Zoning Issues

The Academy building is located in the Downtown Village District. “Village Districts” and “Historic Districts” are similar in that they arise out of state enabling legislation giving towns authority to protect historic areas under developmental pressure that otherwise would not have been protected by traditional zoning regulations. Historic District legislation dates from 1959.

The state legislature created Village Districts in 1998 to refine a municipality’s authorities. The impetus of that legislation was the encroachment of Connecticut’s Department of Transportation on two small, historic towns in the northeastern corner. Other towns that have established Village Districts include Kent, Farmington, Old Lyme, Ridgefield, Ledyard, Middletown, Woodbridge and New Canaan.

Madison’s Planning & Zoning Commission established the Downtown Village District and set regulations to protect the distinctive character, landscape and historic structures within the area. The enabling statute requires use by the P&Z of a designated Village District Consultant with professional architectural credentials, either a firm or a review board. The town has both official and advisory committees to address historic preservation considerations.

Untangling Two Separate Considerations

The Academy committee’s work will be complex enough despite the elimination of school and senior center considerations. The close association between the building and its history may seem to complicate the Academy Investigation Committee’s work. History may serve as their guide. The 1921 citizens’ committee recommended that the first Hand Academy building be torn down. It was inadequate for the needs of that day. The building committee didn’t ignore the physical history however. The left-hand cornerstone is from the original building.

Separating consideration of the future use of Academy from preservation of the history may reduce the complexity of this committee’s work. One thing is certain. By the end of the process, citizens will be much more familiar with this slice of town history.

The Academy Investigation Committee meets the second Friday of the month, posted on the town calendar ( http://www.madisonct.org/Calendar/calendar.htm ). They will have a place on the town website, www.madisonct.org/academy  – still being fleshed out. That site will soon contain the many reports, photos and other useful and historical information relating to Academy. CLEMA’s website can be found at http://www.evartsarchives.org/. Madison Historical Society’s website is http://www.madisoncthistorical.org/. The committee plans a public meeting to share its progress and strategy in mid-February. When set, the date and details will be posted on the town calendar.

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