THIS WEEK IN ALEXANDRIA HISTORY: THE LYCEUM COMES TOGETHER

Built as library and meeting hall in 1839, for two decades before the Civil War The Lyceum was the intellectual and cultural center of Alexandria, but the war interrupted its educational activities. Like most of the other large structures in town, the building was seized in the spring of 1861 for use by the Union Army.

On March 26, 1839, the Alexandria Lyceum Company and the Alexandria Library Company formally announced plans to join together in sharing a new Greek Revival-style building at 201 S. Washington Street. Alexandria’s Lyceum was modeled after the American lyceum (ly-SEE-um) movement which began in the 1820s with Josiah Holbrook, who admired various institutions in England that had been established for public education. While still a novel concept in the United States at that time, public education was rapidly gaining support through the efforts of men like Josiah Holbrook and Horace Mann.

In 1826, the first American lyceum opened in Milbury, Massachusetts, and the rocky soil of New England proved to be very fertile ground for this endeavor. Soon there were lyceums throughout the region, which benefited from numerous cities and towns as well as good transportation systems for both traveling lecturers and their listeners.

The situation was different in the South, however, where a more dispersed populace and a tradition of private schooling were among the obstacles to attracting audiences to the few early lyceums. Only in the cities did southern lyceum organizers meet with much success. In 1838, a Quaker teacher named Benjamin Hallowell and six other prominent Alexandrians formed The Alexandria Lyceum and began to offer a series of lectures and debates on a variety of topics. Typically held in Hallowell’s school, the lectures most often concerned biology and philosophy, subjects which never failed to engage Alexandrians at this period. Discussions of politics and religion were expressly barred, since they frequently led to heated arguments.