Constructed as a schoolhouse in 1821, at a cost of $1,200, Lee's Academy, Madison's first high school, 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, it was then directly across the street from the home of Captain Frederick Lee, who was the chief proponent of the project to construct a college preparatory school.
Other supporters were such pillars of the community as Dr. Reynold Webb, Reverend David Baldwin, Reverend S. N. Shepard, and William Todd, as well as the school's first principal, Professor Samuel Robinson, Jr., who, in 1820, built a fine home 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 (eighty percent of them male and twenty percent of them female) enrolled in classes. Of these first students, 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. They 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.
By its third year, the school included students from Cuba, Spain, and the West Indies.
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. A mere ten years after its completion, however, Lee's Academy was indeed 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.
Never quite settled, it seems, however much beloved as one of the town’s most charming and well-known structures, Lee's Academy was moved yet again in 1896, when Memorial Hall was constructed. Its new site was at the back of Hand Academy, in the vicinity of the present gymnasium of the former Academy Elementary School. There 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.
In 1923 the Madison Historical Society assumed responsibility for the venerable building, much honored for its one hundred-year history as an institution for the education of Madison youngsters. In that year the building was moved for the fifth time, to its present location at the eastern edge of Meetinghouse Lane, facing westerly toward the green. The town deeded the building to the Madison Historical Society and leased the land beneath it to the society for a period of 99 years.
In recent decades, Lee's Academy has served the community in a great many ways. Madison's Temple Beth Tikvah and other religious groups in need of a home have held worship services and religious education classes here. The Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and other clubs and community organizations have 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.
Today Lee's Academy houses the administrative offices and library of the Madison Historical Society on its upper level, and its lower-level exhibition hall is used primarily for special exhibitions. From mid-June through late August, the MHS's annual summer exhibition is open on Saturdays only from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Please see our Calendar for these listings.
A Biography of Frederick Lee (1766-1831)
Mariner, Civic Leader, Entrepreneur
Born and raised in the Neck River area of East Guilford, Frederick Lee spent much of his life aboard ships and far from home. He was a master of sloops, schooners, and brigs, many of which were built in Madison for use in the coastal trade. In 1797, while he was still a private merchantman, he carried aboard his vessel, the Adriana, the brilliant Polish military hero and engineer Thaddeus Kosciusko, who was returning from London to the United States for a post-Revolutionary tour.
In 1809, Lee, then 43 years old, was commissioned by President James Madison to serve as a master in the US Revenue Cutter Service, a predecessor to the US Coast Guard. Lee's newly inaugurated 130-ton schooner Eagle II was fitted with a crew of twenty-five men and six cannon. Organized under President Washington to collect taxes on goods that were carried into United States ports, the Revenue Cutter Service was also responsible for defending American vessels against the piracy of foreign interests.
Two years into the War of 1812, while most of the East Coast was under a British Navy blockade, Captain Lee and his crew went to the rescue of an American merchant ship sailing out of New Haven. The opposing British brig forced Lee and his crew to beach their cutter. Lee and his men took a position at the top of a bluff on Long Island and exchanged musket and cannon fire with the British throughout the day and night. Unable to force Lee and his men off the bluff, the British took the Eagle. Nevertheless, the unstinting efforts of Captain Lee and his crew were applauded, and the story was reported in newspapers around the country, bringing fame to the Eagle's crew.
After the war ended, Lee served in the cutter service for another fifteen years as the master of a newly built Eagle. He resigned in 1829 at the age of sixty-three. Within one year, he was serving in the Connecticut State legislature as one of New Haven County's representatives.
Lee was affiliated with many civic projects that were of benefit to the town. Among these were the development of the Durham-East Guilford Turnpike and the West Wharf. Perhaps the grandest of his achievements on behalf of his fellow citizens was the establishment, in 1826, of Madison as an independent town. Lee died in 1831 at the age of sixty-five. He left behind a rich legacy of ideals and projects that contributed to the betterment of the town of Madison.
Lee's Academy Restoration
Lee's Academy has, early in the second decade of the twenty-first century, undergone a thorough exterior restoration, an endeavor that 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, and much more. The Madison Historical Society is 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
We are grateful for all donations, large and small, that ensured that the schoolhouse on the green remains at the heart of Madison. All donations are tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law.
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