BRANFORD - Of the host of shoreline events sidelined by the pandemic in 2020 — the Branford Festival, the Guilford and Durham Fairs, as well as graduations, sports competitions, and concerts, to name a few — the 200th anniversary of the Academy on the Green might not, at first blush, make the list.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the stately two-story structure, which now stands on the corner of Branford’s Montowese and South Main Streets, possesses, it seems, a resilience and sturdy constitution worthy of celebration for all of us who have weathered this tumultuous year.
“It might have been torn down several times in its history but it wasn’t,” said Branford town historian Jane Bouley, of the oldest building on the Green. “They just kept moving it.”
It all began in 1820, when Rev. Timothy Phelps Gillett engineered the construction of the Academy as a “select school.” There, he molded the minds of Branford youth for two decades, charging $2 per pupil per semester.
Fast forward to 1856. Branford officials determined that the central location of the Academy on the Green was better suited for a town hall. Instead of having it torn down, they allowed the Academy’s owners to relocate the building across the Green behind the Congregational Church.
That wasn’t an anomaly. “In the 1850s, buildings were often moved,” Bouley said. “It was easier before electricity and indoor plumbing plus it didn’t have to go very far.”
That wasn’t the case the next time the structure found itself dislodged over a century later. The Masons had been in possession of the Academy since 1866, holding meetings on the second floor and often renting the first floor to the town for overflow school space, Bouley said.
Having built new headquarters, the Masons deeded the Academy to the town in 1971. The building had aged. It was decrepit. It had endured the Hurricane of 1938, as well as the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. It could easily have been scheduled for demolition. It wasn’t.
“The late John Sliney was selectman and he loved the history of the town,” Bouley said. A town-wide initiative funded repairs to the Academy. An Academy on the Green Commission was established to restore the building and facilitate the move to its current location.
There it stood until 2015, when Matt Reale of M.N. Reale Construction and his crew painstakingly replaced five of the eight rotting wooden pillars supporting the 195-year-old bell tower for restoration.
Since then, it’s been the site of small-party rentals for gatherings and meetings, as well as readings and exhibits presented by the Branford Arts and Cultural Alliance.
“From our initial exhibit of Bill O’Brien’s photography, to art shows and literary events, it’s just an extraordinary space,” said BACA board member MaryAnn Beatty Cook. “Visitors to the Green want to see a historic landmark, and then there’s the added bonus of the artwork of our members on exhibition.”
She said there’s a distinctive way sunlight filters through the first floor that lends a richness to the experience of a visit.
“It’s a gift,” she said. “I’m so glad it’s still standing and I can’t wait until it starts getting used again.”