A hardware merchant and investor who left his estate of $535,000 to found Lewis Institute as a “school where men and women could secure an education to fit them for their life-work and to be a service to their community and a credit to their country.” Lewis was born in New England, a descendant of some of American’s earliest Yankee settlers. How, when, and why he came to Chicago is unknown. Brief mentions in historical accounts indicate that he lived at Tremont House in Chicago and that he traveled in Holland, Belgium, and France for three years, apparently studying the education systems there.
Lewis’ will directed that his substantial inherited wealth be used to create a school that would “assist those who are in need of an education, and who are so circumstanced as to be unable without aid to obtain the instruction in arts and sciences that their advancement in life requires.” His initial bequest of $535,000 had increased to over $1,600,000 by 1895, when it was used to form Lewis Institute.
That Lewis Institute was built in the midst of Chicago’s West Side at the time that the neighborhood was a cultural melting pot of European immigrants was no accident. Jane Addams solicited the trustees of the Lewis Estate to build in the area of Hull House, indicating the need of area residents for just such a school as was being planned. The site finally chosen was the corner of Madison and Damen streets (current site of the United Center), and from there, the school educated three generations of young people and adults, with over 100,000 names eventually recorded on its admission roles.