What is a Lyceum?

A brief history of lyceums in Massachusetts
Lyceum Movement from Encyclopedia Britannica

We envision the Stone Building as a venue to learn from the past and shape the future.

The Stone Building was originally built as a Lyceum — a place for learning and community engagement. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the preeminent Lyceum speaker, was engaged as a minister in “Emerson Hall” during the years 1835 to 1838.

We propose renovating the building as a modern Lyceum, an inclusive learning space and center for historical interpretation, a destination for residents of all ages to gather and socialize, and a space for lectures and performances in a renovated Lyceum hall. 

The Stone Building can again be a place where groups and individuals connect to learn about vital social issues and become inspired to create positive change in the local community and beyond. 

History of the Lyceum Movement and the East Lexington Lyceum

Excerpt from “Historic Structure Report& Recommendations for Rehabilitation & Reuse: The Stone Building,” 2009.

The Lyceum Movement, with roots in British Mechanics Institutes, was the brainchild in this country of Josiah Holbrook, who founded the first lyceum in Millville, Massachusetts in 1826.

The lyceum, which grew to be a national movement, “was based on the simple idea: the coming together of ordinary people – merchants, lawyers, ministers, mechanics, farmers, neighbors all – for the high-minded purpose of learning from one another and from experts about the latest discoveries regarding the physical, social and moral world.”

The name “lyceum,” chosen by early promoters of the movement for its reference to Aristotle’s lyceum in ancient Greece, was also favored because it was thought to be a neutral word without class associations.

The movement flourished in Massachusetts in the late 1820s and 1830s, particularly in Middlesex County, where by 1832 sixteen towns had lyceums… 

Plan for a Lyceum hall first floor modeled after Holbrook. New England Farmer vol 11, 1833

The Lexington Lyceum was established in 1829. The lectures in Lexington very likely were held in the Centre Village, where the First Parish Meetinghouse and the Academy building had spaces large enough to accommodate a sizable audience. The lyceum ran from October through May and consisted of “Lectures, Instrumental Music, Discussions, Declamations, Pieces of Composition in Poetry handed to the President.” The cost was seventy-five cents annually or ten cents an evening.

The lyceum movement was the forerunner of today’s adult education and programs such as Humanities Councils’ sponsorship of local discussions. It would have been characteristic of Eli Robbins to want to provide a place for lyceum lectures closer to home at a time when he was improving the East Village in other ways. 

His daughter, Ellen, records in her diary attending lyceum lectures in January and February of 1834, about as soon as the Stone Building could have been completed, which strengthens the idea that Robbins had a lyceum in mind when he constructed the Stone Building….

Beginning with the two references to the lyceum in Ellen Robbins’s diary in the winter of 1834 and continuing through the hiring by Amos Adams, the president of the East Lexington Lyceum, of Emerson to give a lecture in 1849, there are now over a dozen known references to the use of the Stone Building for lyceum lectures.

The layout of the upstairs hall is remarkably close to the plan for village Lyceum buildings that Holbrook recommended in his journal, Family Lyceum in 1832. The two rooms adjacent to the lecture hall were to be used as a laboratory for scientific apparatus and a cabinet to hold mineral collections, instructional equipment, and a library. Holbrook envisioned furnishing “every town and village in the American Union with a place of intellectual and social resort for all its citizens.”

Links to more information on Lyceums