Academy School: Can This Building Be Saved?

Part 3 of a Series on the Work of the Academy Investigation Committee; “Are we there yet?!?”


By Emily Eisenlohr

Part 3 of a Series on the Work of the Academy Investigation Committee

“Are we there yet?!?”

That common question annoys many a parent. But it’s one that really is the issue before the Academy Investigation Committee, a question that no adult really wants to ask. Does the Academy building itself have a future? The most valuable work of this committee may be to help Madison grapple with this loaded question.

“Land use is hard. And it’s hard to describe.” Selectman Joe MacDougald should know. He teaches land use law at the University of Connecticut and Yale University and is a former Chair of Madison’s Planning & Zoning Commission.

Describing the Academy investigation is especially hard given its location. But each person at Madison’s eateries and coffee shops, when asked what they’d wish for the Academy building, pointed to uses, visual appearance or the character of the area – feel and function. Nobody demanded saving an historic building. Nice, but maybe not feasible. (“But try to save the façade!”)

The Building – M.C. Escher Meets Hogwarts

For someone in a wheelchair or for a less-mobile senior, the inside of Academy School is a little like an M. C. Escher engraving or the moving stairways to the dorms at Hogwarts.

A 2007 JCJ Architecture study described the accessibility challenges. “No floor level is on grade. The main floor is raised above grade by a half-story.” The report notes the absence of an elevator. The basement in the 1936 addition is not connected to and is slightly higher than the 1921 basement. The enclosed courtyard between the 1921 and 1936 parts is accessible only by an “awkward service tunnel” on the west side.

JCJ Architecture, formerly Jeter, Cook & Jepson Architects, also prepared a 2004 study as part of the decision to take the school off-line. That study’s target was the minimum needed to keep it functional. The 2007 study was a more detailed examination of the possibilities of reopening the building as a school. At the time, construction prices were rising so quickly that the study assumed a 10% per year construction price increase. The building’s many challenges and cost hurdles led the Board of Education to turn the school over to the town.

Assessing the magnitude of needed investment is one of the main tasks of the committee. Can any developer recover the cost of using the existing building through sales or rental of units? Would taxpayers approve a costly renovation? One Selectman related that the town engineer and fire marshall will require the building to be up to code. Building code requirements are vastly different now from decades ago.

The 2007 JCJ Architecture study estimated the costs that might be encountered were it a school. The estimates illustrate the magnitudes involved. Minimal renovations would require $6.9 million. The much higher “renovating as new” approach was estimated to total $15.3 million. A new school of similar size, 43,400 square feet, was expected to cost $22.9 million. If housing presenting similar amounts of space were built, could those units be sold under near-term market conditions to recoup a developer’s investment?

Assessing Market Potential

In January 2010 the Board of Selectmen initiated a reality check on economic potential. Its Joint Facilities Review Committee commissioned a “market reconnaissance” study by Harrall-Michalowski Associates (HMA) of Branford. The objective was to assess the market potential for residential, office and retail uses of the building.

The HMA study noted the building’s excellent location, accessible by multiple modes of transportation and by ample sidewalks. Areas beyond a 10-minute drive involve overlap in densely-settled southern Connecticut. Drawing residents from neighboring towns beyond that limit was deemed less likely.

The study concluded that Madison “has become one of the most desirable residential communities along Connecticut’s coastline.” Further, Madison “will continue to support additional development into the near future.”

It also made specific recommendations. Office use was not supported in the current economic climate. The design of the building creates challenges for retail use. The most economically-supportable use was as residential space. It contains about 44,000 square feet of space on 4.21 acres. Possibilities include condominiums, age-restricted condominiums and subsidized rental units.

An Unwelcome Answer?

The 2007 JCJ Architecture study revealed the impact of time and vacancy. The masonry exterior walls are in generally good condition. However it observed water infiltration into the boiler room and substantial leakage around the skylight. Because destructive exploration was not used, the firm could not assess potential damage to the wood portions of the old building’s frame.

The building lacks a sprinkler system for fire suppression. Existing plumbing fixtures are in poor condition and should be replaced along with the sanitary waste piping, boiler and its piping, the inadequate ventilation system, the old lighting fixtures and the inadequate and deteriorated electrical system.

Septic tanks are in the enclosed courtyard with limited access for maintenance. The septic system to date had served just daytime school use, with leaching fields located under a playing field.

Conversations among those familiar with these reports tended to assume the building was likely to be gutted. Fillmore McPherson acknowledged, “The committee can make the recommendation that renovating the building isn’t economically feasible. They could then recommend either to take it down or to preserve the façade.” Don Mullen, having coffee downtown, prefers the latter. “I think you shouldn’t destroy the history. It’s what you drive by, what creates the character.”

Saving History from the Wrecking Ball

When the 1921 citizens razed the first Daniel Hand Academy building, they honored his legacy in a very public and visible way. The left-hand cornerstone as you face the building presents an inscription.


Exploring the preservation of memories and history may go beyond the mandate of the Academy Investigation Committee. How might the narrative of education history at that site be preserved even if the building can’t? We may not be ready to admit it, but we’ve arrived at this moment in the history of Hand Academy.

The Joint Facilities Review Committee posted the most recent facilities studies including the DRA and HMA reports. They can be found at http://www.madisonct.org/JFPRC/index.html ).



John on Warpas Road January 26, 2012 at 10:21 PM
It seems the discussion of Academy School is going on in your first article of this series. Which by the way, is excellent.
Cathy Marsh Photography January 26, 2012 at 10:41 PM
The last time I walked the school was for the Library book sale. I think the town should allow the public to tour the building. I would like to see Senior Housing --affordable-- with the front facade kept. The town can factor the adjacent playground out of the deal and retain that small space. The Seniors might Appreciate seeing that activity. They can walk to churches, town, the sidewalks are there, the Senior Center is a stones throw away and they can play chess in the Town Hall. This is a no brainer!! No not let the town consider it fir town offices, they missed that opportunity when they purchased the Hammonassett School. Stress with buyer that the old bricks should be incorporated into the design and call it Academy Court or Academy Village. As a youngster, I attended this facility. The stairs were scary!!
Matt January 27, 2012 at 03:14 AM
There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING municipal or otherwise public that the taxpayers need this building for. The ONLY reasonable outcome is selling the building to a developer who will turn it into whatever they want to turn it into. I don't really care what it becomes or if the preserve the exterior. They can bulldoze it to the ground for all I care. In fact, if we start putting all these ludicrous restrictions on what the property can be used for and what it must look like to preserve it, it will be difficult to sell. Where's the FOR SALE signs. I'll help hang them.
Cathy Marsh Photography January 27, 2012 at 12:19 PM
Wow, like I hear you all the way from downtown Matt! Quit the coffee-- and be bold enough to include your last NAME-- or real name! Nice well written article Emily!!
tom January 27, 2012 at 12:24 PM
While I do believe in preserving the character of Madison, and this school holds some great memories for my kids, lunch in the teapot dome and wall ball, we need to face facts - this building is not up to code and cannot be converted to any usable function. I think a few things should happen, and I will probably be lynched for saying it. First - Scranton Library should be re-located to this site - I would move the historic portion of the library to the site. You would pay for this in a deal with the Library to have the corner of Wall and BPR sold for commercial/apartment space and the sale of that should put a significant dent in the cost to move. This would dramatically improve parking for the Library and preserve a bit of history along the way. Second - I would preserve the facade and some architectural elements but get rid of the rest. I would build 55+ Rental Apartments on the property and connect this building with the Memorial Town hall. Look for these to produce a positive cash flow. These moves would enhance the downtown vibrancy and more efficiently use our downtown space.
Janet January 27, 2012 at 12:54 PM
Sell it to a developer who will raze it and put up upscale condos to attract younger people to town... "walk to train" is a very attractive proposition. could the town have some say in the exterior "look" to maintain the character of the town?
Matt January 27, 2012 at 03:16 PM
I do not drink coffee. Just lots of water. Not sure what my last name has to do with the facts surrounding the building. Would a new realistic need arise for the building by including my last name? Would bulldozers automatically start? No. Get over it. My opinion and my last name have nothing to do with one another. That debate has been had already and been put to rest a long time ago.
Matt January 27, 2012 at 03:18 PM
So you want to spend millions upon millions of dollars to renovate the existing building to make it a library... when we already have a library. That makes sense...
Jon January 27, 2012 at 03:44 PM
SELL THE BUILDING! This town is NOTORIOUS for throwing good money after bad. Nothing else should be built for the seniors. They never needed a center. They have a place to go, it's called FLORIDA. As it stands, VOTE NO on the budget. There should be ZERO increase, in fact, there should be a CUT in the budget. Westbrook did it, why not Madison. Matt you are right on, and you shouldn't be required to input your last name for retribution from some crazies. Look at the leftist who called in a bomb scare, James Byrne. Here is the link: http://blogs.courant.com/capitol_watch/2010/09/arrest-in-madison-bomb-scare-d.html Madison - Stop Spending Stupid
tom burland January 27, 2012 at 06:16 PM
Matt, you haven't got a creative bone in your body.
Richard January 27, 2012 at 06:38 PM
Both of my children attended Academy and I have very fond memories of the events that I attended over the years that they were there. However I hope that no more taxpayer dollars are spent on this building. There is such a need for 55+ MARKET RATE apartments...not senior housing, not subsidized housing, not low income housing. Every time I ride by the airport and see the sign that says "Madison's Newest Park" I marvel at how a small special interest group managed to force the town into buying this parcel for supposed conservation purposes and now we are having another recreation center (with a concession stand I might add). The town needs to add to its tax rolls and 55+ luxury condos would do just that without adding pressure to the school system budget. Many people in this town were robbed of what they thought would be an alternative to downsize into the very nice environment that Leyland proposed. Let's give these folks a second chance and let's not spend a dime of taxpayer money on this project. I note today that Sen Ed Meyer announced for re-election. He was a big proponent of saving the airport for conservation purposes. Let's send him a message in November that his support for this project in part should facilitate his retirement from the Senate by losing the election.
Charles January 27, 2012 at 06:42 PM
The only ones using the library are the spa ladies dumping their kids so they can have free childcare, old people who don't own computers and teenagers saying that they're going out with their friends to study but sneaking in alcohol. If you sell it to a developer and they try to build condos, which nobody will be able to afford, the tree huggers and the people already putting in the over priced condos on Wall Street will get the town to deny any application. The only thing left to do is donate the building to the two firehouses, let them burn the building down for training, (who cares about asbestos abatement anyway) and put the football and baseball fields that we were promised from McCullough's and Duo's land. Everybody's happy, the seniors can watch their precious grandchildren play from the senior center, the spa ladies can drop their kids off for practice and get the facials, the sprts Dads can puff out their chests and run to the new Starbucks.
Matt January 27, 2012 at 09:24 PM
I sure do. But you know what else I have? COMMON SENSE.
Janet January 27, 2012 at 11:26 PM
Richard, our officials duped the public into voting yes for that. They did not include the lost taxes that the Leyland project would have provided... yes, by people who would not strain the school system. Thanks for the reminder on Meyer, but also, don't forget, Republican McPherson also pushed the "park" purchase. There has to be something here that the public was not told.
Janet January 27, 2012 at 11:30 PM
I agree.. vote no for ANY budget increase. Why isn't anyone questioning why the largest town expense, the BOE, continues to ask for increases even with the vast declines in students? This budget should be declining!
Janet January 28, 2012 at 02:31 PM
May I ask why the word "subsidized" has to even come into the conversation? "Senior-friendly" housing does not mean subsidized. Any smart developer knows there is a need, and should build according to the market need. In fact, most seniors who I know have fared pretty well through the housing bust while us "younger" folk are left holding the bag. I know there are some in need, but Madison has room to build senior friendly housing that does not require any of our tax dollars.
Bill January 28, 2012 at 03:48 PM
Ouch - Charles, life isn't that bad is it? I grew up in a city which has seen several old schools turned into senior friendly housing. There are waiting lines to the apartments and they have maintained the historic look and the buildings are very well maintained. I would say, if the town is not going to own the building, let's try to work with a developer to provide great housing options for 55+ and bring $$ into the town through increasing the tax rolls.
tom January 28, 2012 at 11:47 PM
I agree with Janet, too many times senior housing is assumed to be subsidized. What they need is 1 floor, reasonable space, elevators, common rooms. It can be a reasonable rent and still be profitable
Laura January 30, 2012 at 02:50 PM
So glad this has been a Patch topic! I hope the building can be leased by the town to some industrious business leaders and used in a creative way. Ideas? Family condos (not for just 55+), antiques mall, indoor/year-round farmer's market a la Chelsea Market, town fitness center, children's museum. But most of all I hope it isn't torn down.
Jon January 30, 2012 at 04:22 PM
Ed Meyer? Really, that guy is a JOKE. He has done NOTHING. Don't Vote For HIM!
Jon January 30, 2012 at 04:25 PM
Duo is the biggest joke, he dupped everyone to thinking the land was worth more that it is. This town could have paid at LEAST 50% less years earlier, but like a typical run town government they paid the top price and when the market was at it's peak. McPhearson.....could be a democrat in disguise. Not another penny should be put in to the swamp land or Academy...........want fields, trails - FIND PRIVATE FUNDING! Why not put a brothel, this way the cops don't have to leave town.
Kitty McCathy June 28, 2012 at 03:34 AM
It would be a good place for a new dog pound. T current very old one is grandfathered so they don't have to be up to code with all the new state standards to protect and comfort the animals. Shame of Madison.


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