When I first drove by the Bennett School for Girls, I did a cartoon double take. If asked to imagine the most elaborate, creepy abandoned mansion I could, my fantasy would come nowhere near the actuality of Bennett, which is better than anything CGI designer could conjure up. The structure looked so implausible and surreal that it made my brain fall apart. That also might have had something to do with my having slept at an abandoned asylum the night before, but that’s a story for another day, I said as if this was CBS Radio Mystery Theater.
Before Bennett School for Girls was a school, it was Halcyon Hall, a luxury hotel constructed in 1890 in Millbrook, NY. According to Opacity, Halcyon Hall was constructed by New York publisher H.J Davidson Jr, and was “constructed of wood and stone…filled with books and [curiosities] from around the world…featur[ing] beautiful, carved wooden pillars, balconies and small niches to seal a quick read or nap.” As someone who spent part of my childhood reading in a small niche in a wood attic, and a part of my adulthood collecting old treasures, Halcyon Hall sounds amazing.
Despite its elaborate decor, the hotel didn’t attract enough patrons and quickly went bankrupt, closing in 1901. Bennett College purchased the hotel in 1907 and the five story, 200-room structure became Bennett School for Girls. During its first year, the school had 120 students and 30 faculty members. Bennett offered six years of study, covering high school and two years of junior college. Shortly after opening, Bennett discontinued high school classes and became a junior college only, going by the ineloquent name of Bennet Junior College Halcyon Hall. Bleh.
The students of Bennett were young ladies from wealthy families. The school began at the tail end of the Victorian Era (when women were expected to be, as the phrase goes, “idle and ignorant) and the early years of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement in America. The college was progressive, allowing women to have two years education beyond basic high school courses. I use the word “progressive” lightly, since no mathematics, science, economics or business classes were offered at Bennett, as those were considered subjects a lady ought not dabble in when she should be busy learning how to roast a brisket or whatever it is people do with meats.
Ladies were not required, nor encouraged, to have much of an education beyond the domestic obligations expected of women of that era. Most courses at Bennett were aimed at educating women in being women, such as child rearing, fashion design and “domestic science,” which is the collegiate term for “darning socks” and “cooking.” The ladies did participate in some sports, most of which were distinctly for feminine activities, with a few exceptions such as golf and fencing.
It would be biased of me not to acknowledge the other courses offered as part of the students’ well-rounded educations. The ladies of Bennett could also study music, interior design, art, dance, history, literature, drama and -last but not least- equine studies, which, in the context of Bennett, was the business of riding horses. Horseback riding has always been a pastime of luxury, since owning and maintaining horses is a ludicrously expensive endeavor, which is amusing since horses are basically nature’s free car.
The college continued its two-year curriculum until the 1970’s, when co-ed colleges became the norm. Attempts at collaborating with a nearby college failed, and costly upgrades eventually bankrupted the school. It closed permanently in 1978. Water pipes burst when the heat was turned off, causing sever water damage and the wood structure began rotting. Over the following decades, chunks of roof caved in, floors collapsed and stairways fell apart. The ivy-enveloped structure is only still standing due to the stonework that supports the wooden parts. Many development plans failed and the school was taken over by a bank that went under in 1991. Scheduled for demolition in 2012, Bennett School/Halcyon Hall still improbably remains as a very precarious structure I would not recommend exploring.
The front entrance stairwell:
I couldn’t get the stairs from the proper angle, because that would have required me to stand right here:
Now that I’ve gotten the history of Bennett/Halcyon out of the way, please indulge me as I ramble on about how much I love this building. It’s everything I ever wanted an abandoned mansion to look like but figured only existed in the 1995 movie, Casper. You know, the one with Bill Pullman and Christina Ricci, where they moved into an abandoned mansion with crazy nonsense rooms, forgotten treasures in the attic, secret doors, an elaborate Rube Goldberg Machine, and a hidden science laboratory. Bill Pullman’s character was a skeptical ghost hunter and he was all “ghosts are poppycock tommyrot,” and Christina Ricci was like “but daaaad, there’s totally a ghost in my room and he’s 90’s heartthrob Devon Sawa!!” and Rodney Dangerfield was all “BOO!” and he ghosted Bill Pullman right outta the house. Sorry, I did not mean give you such a thorough plot analysis of Casper, but I just loved that movie so much even though I was just a little bit too old for it. Also I just googled Devon Sawa and he’s not my type at all anymore.
A hallway off the main entrance. My exploring pal snagged a lightbulb from one of the light fixtures, and whadda ya know, it works! bahdahdahDAH!
I used to love this kids book, Ivy Cottage, about a girl who lived in cottage completely covered in ivy and it was all I ever wanted until my ma crushed my dreams by telling me facts about ivy, like how it eats away at wood and the moulding between bricks and ruins houses over time. Also, hella bugs.
The basement was my favorite part because it had shelves of countless treasures. There were gadgets and gizmo’s aplenty! Whozits and whatzit’s galore! But the only recognizable thing was a spoon and I can’t comb my hair with a spoon so FUCK THAT. (Little Mermaid jokes, y’all, just in case you thought I lost my ever lovin’ mind.)
The dilapidation of Bennett/Halcyon is especially fascinating to me because the house I grew up was built the same year and also has wood walls, secret niches, libraries and collected curiosities. Structurally, the house is an old piece of shit, but I just love it so. My parents bought it for only a few farthings in the 70′s, around the time when Bennett shut down. Basically I could almost live in Bennett and it’d be the same thing is what I’m saying!! Except no.
The school added on a theater in its later years. The room is devoid of all the lovely ornate details of the original Halcyon Hall building. The large windows are appealing but man, what a terrible design for a theater since they’d have to have to cover them with huge curtains every time they had a show. Although from the looks of the ceiling, they just had two massive curtains that covered the whole wall all at once so forget what I just said.
Have you guys seen Danny Boyle’s Sunshine? If so, this photo is relevant to you.
Elevator stuffs (above and below)
All historical photos are from Opacity
To see more photos of the Bennett School for Girls/Halcyon Hall, go to the Flickr set.
Disclaimer: If any information on this post is incorrect, if you have more info or would otherwise like to tell me something, feel free to contact me.