Founded in 1854, Norwich Free Academy (NFA) is one of few remaining endowed academies in New England true to the original independent model. Originally established to remove education from political pressures and to serve every student regardless of social class or gender, NFA’s mission is as relevant today as it was over 160 years ago.
Norwich Free Academy’s founders represented the financial, political and social elite of Norwich, a 19th century industrial powerhouse and one of the wealthiest communities in the country. NFA alumni have become military heroes, artists, designers, musicians and writers of renown, scholars, scientists, inventors, political leaders and ambassadors. The beautiful campus resembles a small New England college, and the Academy’s architecture reflects 150 years of American collegiate style.
Originally conceived by the Rev. John Putnam Gulliver, the Academy required the financial support of city leadership and the assistance of city notables like publisher Russell Hubbard. The original NFA building, an eleven-room Italianate structure, designed by Norwich architect Evan Burdick, who also designed Norwich City Hall, was dedicated in 1856. In 1911, on the Academy’s 50th anniversary, it was replaced by the Tirrell building, still standing.
NFA’s first principal was Elbridge Smith, former principal of Deerfield Academy, a graduate of Brown University. In 150 years, only a dozen distinguished leaders have succeeded him, some, NFA alumni who served for decades in the post. Stability of leadership has contributed to institutional sustainability.
Slater Memorial Building, dedicated in 1886, a gift from William A. Slater (NFA 1875; 1857-1909), was the second structure built on campus. It included the Slater Memorial Museum. The Norwich Art School launched in 1890, because the Museum offered a World-class laboratory for art instruction. By 1906, the Art School, enjoying ever expanding success and popularity, moved into its own building, named for benefactor Charles A. Converse.
Beginning with the Manual Training Building in 1895, later named for Paul Bradlaw, a series of new structures have been built, expanding the campus on land often donated by alumni. In every era, NFA has responded to the changing needs of its community. For example, the Manual Training Department, offered fine printing, machining, drafting and woodworking. With Norwich at its industrial height in the late 19th century, city businessmen, many NFA Board members, wanted to ensure well-trained artisans, craftspeople, and tradesmen to improve manufacturing.
Ella M. Norton donated funds to the Academy in 1929 to honor her father, Henry B. Norton, for the construction of a health center/ gymnasium. Cranston House, named for former industrial arts teacher Frederick Cranston, (NFA 1891), was constructed in 1933 to provide classroom space for commercial courses. During the depths of the Depression, NFA faculty took a 20% pay cut to help finance construction of the Collegiate Gothic structure. With increased enrollment resulting from the baby boom, the Academy’s administration moved to the family home donated by Mrs. Wallace Allis (NFA 1880), one of three female Corporators during the school’s first one hundred years.
The Academy purchased the Lafayette Sabine Foster House in 1952 to house the Norton-Peck Library. Foster served as a U.S. Senator during the Civil War, judge in the Connecticut Supreme Court, in the Connecticut House of Representatives and as mayor of Norwich. In 1992 the Latham Science and Information Center was constructed, incorporating the Foster House into its design. Over $1 million came from Mr. and Mrs. Allen Latham Jr. (NFA 1926) and family for the new facility. The new science center was named in memory of Allen Latham Sr., an NFA teacher and chairman of the science department until 1919. In 1991 Helen M. Land provided funding for the Edwin H. Land Library in memory of her late husband, (NFA 1926) founder of Polaroid Corporation, and lately recognized as the father of the digital age of photography.
The Academy’s eighth Head of School Joseph Levanto '47, devised plans for an expanded gymnasium resulting in Alumni Hall. A private home at the northwest end of campus became Academy property in 1984 and was later named the Levanto Alumni House. Under Dr. Levanto’s leadership, NFA added a NFA TV station and observatory. The generosity of Dr. and Mrs. Eugene F. Mallove '65 made the latter possible. In 2014, observatory students launched a meteorological robot with a camera that soared and recorded for miles, ultimately to land in northern Vermont.
By 2003, NFA Alumnus Sidney E. Frank (NFA 1938) had come forward with a gift of $12 million to build a third home for the art school. The Frank Center now provides space for all visual and performing art programs, including the 117-year-old Saturday Morning Art Class. The Ensemble Room on the Frank Center’s first floor provides accessible program space for school and community.
After decades of study to determine a way to make the Slater Building accessible to all, DuBose Architects of Hartford devised an ingenious plan to build the Atrium, completed and dedicated in 2011. The new structure makes four separate buildings accessible to all and provides new, soaring, sunny exhibition and gathering space.
NFA’s excellence in in academics, the arts and athletics has been long recognized. In 2002, NFA was named a ‘Blue Ribbon School of Excellence’ by the United States Department of Education. This award, given after an exhaustive examination process, recognized the Academy’s outstanding academic and art programs, its focus on service to the community and its commitment to excellence. Blue Ribbon Schools are models of both excellence and equity. To be recognized, a school must demonstrate a strong commitment to educational excellence for all students.
NFA’s long-standing football rivalry with New London High School is of national significance and has been memorialized in a book by Brian Girasoli '94. The award-winning Wild Cat Marching travels regularly to the competitions, and the NFA Sports Hall of Fame, regularly inducts during the Homecoming Weekend.