An Elegant Death
When you really step back and look at things, buildings are a very strange human creation. We aren't talking about shelters, but large structures with purpose beyond that of a mere survival tool. When these places are new and actively used their presence can be unbelievably bold and strong, sometimes even imposing. However as soon as the building falls vacant, you see how fragile they really were all along. No matter how masterfully crafted it may be, no structure can care for itself, and in the end they are helpless things that slowly weather away. A poignant example of this can be found in the old Bennett Finishing School for girls, a place also known by its original title of Halcyon Hall.
Bennett is equal parts elegance and frailty. Built of wood and stone, intricate carvings can still be seen adorning corners and peaks, hinting to passers-by that it must once have appeared a palace on its hilltop, and it did. Sadly today it more closely resembles the classic image of a haunted mansion. The long pronounced lines of its architecture have become discolored and severely bowed, most of the front porch has caved in from years of rain and snow, and the old courtyard where horse and carriage used to carry young girls to and from the school has now overgrown into a small forest. In an upstairs dormer window a decomposing curtain billows on a passing wind, a silent reminder of times past.
Constructed in 1890 as a resort, this grand hall only served for a brief time in its original role. By 1900 it was in use as an the upper class finishing school for young women. The students here were the daughters of industrialists, bankers and other members of society whose wealth permitted such an education. It was here that young women would learn fine arts and languages, horseback riding, and be schooled in all the lessons of societal behavior and etiquette that would make them successful in their future roles as the wives of future bankers and industrialists.
As time progressed, such an institution began to seem more and more archaic. As the once-radical ideas of feminism became mainstream, finishing schools became a symbol of sexism and a greater number of women began attending “true” colleges. In the 1970's, the school made a last-ditch effort to modernize by expanding to a four year college, but the expanded curriculum and subsequent new buildings needed for such ventures, only served to compound Bennett's financial problems, and by 1978 the school was forced to shutter.
We have documented Bennett over course of numerous years, and with each passing season we've watched as the old girl succumbed more and more to neglect. It's a sad thing to watch, but this steady decline also reinforces the importance of documenting a building while it still stands. On every trip we always made a point to set up our equipment before dawn, as to be able to capture the building at sunrise. Of all the places we have filmed, few experiences have affected me as much as watching the sun rise within the old school did. Sitting upon frozen floorboards, enveloped in darkness, awaiting the gradual rotation of the earth. It begins slowly at first, the utter blackness around you slowly dissolving to a deep blueish-purple hue. You can finally see now, but the world around you is still very grey and cold. After some time this changes, and a deep orange slowly crawls across the landscape. It's pace is so gradual that you can watch it happen in front of you. Warm yellow light reaches into the dark corridors, entering in through windows and the numerous holes in the walls. Though Halcyon Hall closed long ago, it is as alive now as it ever was.
After the golden light subsides and the sun has fully risen we carefully venture onward. The decaying building is littered with reminders of the past. Room numbers are still present on the peeling doors, claw-foot bath tubs sink into buckled washroom floors, and all around you can nearly hear girls chatting in the halls between lectures. Downstairs, in a very dark room which used to be used for the performing arts, can still be found the old stage. All lays in shadow, save for one small beam of sunlight which enters through a hole in the roof above. It shines down like a spotlight upon a single chair which still sits upon the stage.
In many ways the place is akin to a kind elderly woman, though wrinkled and frail from many years of life, you can still see the glow of her youth just below the surface. Walking these halls today, you come to understand that some places keep time differently from the rest of the world. No matter how decayed it has come to be, within the walls of the Bennett school it is still an era of floor-length dresses, horseback riding, etiquette lessons, and the long forgotten art of the curtsy. The very fibers of the withered wood excrete these ideals, and cast them in long shadows across the dust covered covered floors. The smell of lavender and the sound of a softly played piano are almost expected, even among the damp and dimly lit hallways which have so gently replaced them.
Amber rays of sunrise warm the halls within the old school.
The old dining hall.
Before dawn frost covered all the windows. It quickly dissolved with the morning light.
Just minutes before sunrise.
The former master stair now sinks into the basement below.
Bennett under stars.
Halcyon Hall as a summer storm rolls in at dusk.