Photo by Dave Warner – Benton Hall Academy in November, 2018

“For Our Children And Community…
Preserving The Past – Investing In The Future”
Preserving The Past – Investing In The Future”

by Clete McLaughlin

On February 9th, 1994 the Board of Education of the Little Falls City School District came to, what must be considered, a truly historic decision; a decision that would not only impact the future of the District for generations to come, but the direction of the entire Little Falls community. For it was on that evening, after years of study, involving often heated and contentious public debate, that the Commissioners unanimously voiced their support for the plan to reconstruct Benton Hall Academy. While in hindsight this decision may appear as being obvious, a “no brainer” so to speak, at the time there was considerable and vocal opposition to the concept of rebuilding a one hundred year old structure that, on the surface for everyone to see, appeared well beyond redemption. But after carefully studying the financial implications involved and listening to the various opinions expressed by the community, the Board chose to pursue a path that today can best be described as “visionary.” However, the Board’s “decision” was just one step in a long and challenging process that would involve the significant leadership skills of Superintendent Dr. Geoffrey H. Davis, the understanding and patience of staff, students and parents, crucial cooperation with the City of Little Falls, formal public support, and the talents, dedication and focus of a gifted team of architects, design engineers and construction specialists to make the “vision” become a reality.

Long before the Board came to its final conclusion on which path to pursue in addressing its elementary facility issues, it recognized the need to retain an architectural firm to assist in identifying alternatives and develop associated cost estimates. In addition, the Board desired a firm with the knowledge and expertise to take whatever plan was finally decided upon from the conceptual design stage through completion. Following a clearly defined selection procedure, the firm of Einhorn–Yaffee–Prescott (EYP) was chosen, based primarily on their extensive experience in both new construction and reconstruction. Headquartered in Albany, EYP had earned a national reputation for their work in school design while also developing an impressive resume in preserving and redefining buildings of historical significance. Their portfolio included work on national treasurers such as the White House, the Lincoln and Jefferson Monuments, along with several U.S.embassies. Closer to home, EYP was responsible for the remarkable transformation of Albany’s historic, but abandoned, Union Railroad Station to a regional banking center. While more than capable of designing a“new” elementary school, EYP also possessed the unique attributes necessary to preserve and revive aging and out dated facilities.

After conducting an extensive evaluation of the District’s existing facilities, working with the school administration to determine educational program needs and objectives, and interacting with a wide variety of stakeholders, including students, teachers and the general public, EYP presented the Board of Education with what it considered two viable options: 1) construct a new elementary school on the high school campus and vacate both Benton Hall and Monroe Street schools, or 2) completely reconstruct the Benton Hall complex to accommodate the entire elementary population and find an alternate use for the Monroe Street building. In terms of cost and applicable state aid, it was estimated that reconstructing Benton Hall, an investment estimated at $12.3 million, was significantly more affordable to the local taxpayer than building a new school of comparable square footage and content.

While financial considerations weighed heavily on the Board’s collective mind, there were a number of other factors influencing their final decision. One major concern was the disposition of the Benton Hall building if it were abandoned. Given its seriously rundown state it did not lend itself to a reasonable expectation for reuse, consequently it would most likely sit vacant and continue to deteriorate. The cost of demolishing the building was estimated to be in the vicinity of $1 million, and this expense was not included in EYP’s initial financial assessment. The Monroe Street building, on the other hand, being in much better condition, was viewed as having strong potential for an alternate use.

Another issue,which would prove important to the overall success of the project as it moved forward, was the historical significance of the building and its close relationship to the residents of Little Falls. Dating to 1895 and named after the Village of Little Falls’ first“President”, Nathaniel Benton, the massive structure also embodied the memory of Coach Wilber Crisp, along with that of Leon Dussault and the Little Falls Symphony Orchestra. It had been designed in the Romanesque Revival style by the renowned architect Archimedes Russell and anchored the east end of the city, overlooking Ward’s Square(Eastern Park). Through its corridors had walked generations of students, including six from the class of1943 who had given their lives in World War II and were remembered by a plaque mounted above the auditorium entrance. It was clearly understood that the building represented much more than brick and mortar, but held a strong emotional attachment to the community.

Having arrived at the decision to pursue the reconstruction of Benton Hall, the next crucial step in the process was to gain public authorization to proceed with construction. Following two months of intense public discussion and debate, on April 5th, 1994 the community was given the opportunity to voice its opinion on the matter and did so by overwhelmingly endorsing the project (1026 yes – 457 no).

Immediately thereafter EYP was given the go ahead to finalize the building design and submit all required documents to the State Education Department for approval. The objective of the design, as expressed by EYP, was to “see a historic building from the outside and enter through the doors to a brand new school.” This admittedly was an extremely involved and challenging undertaking, much more so than the construction of a typical new school. Given the age of the three structures comprising the Benton Hall complex (1895, 1898 & 1929) and the nature of their original construction, to realize the desired outcome necessitated the “gutting” of the buildings followed by completely new construction inside the existing exterior walls – all this to be accomplished while the building would be fully occupied and functioning as an elementary school.

Recognizing the tremendous complexity associated with the project and the related potential for disaster, the Board of Education made another important decision by selecting the construction management firm of Barry, Bette and Led Duke (BBL) to oversee construction. A recognized leader in the construction management industry, BBL was given the responsibility to develop and manage the construction schedule, supervise construction and to maintain cost control. It was BBL’s task to essentially take the design as created by the architects and“make it happen.”

With the school, architect and construction manager working closely as a team actual construction began in October of 1995. The BBL construction schedule was laid out in three distinct phases. The first focused on the 1895 building which had sat vacant for nearly twenty years. The plan called for the“gutting” and reconstruction of the building to be completed by July of 1996with occupancy in September. Following this the 1929 building was to be vacated and undergo demolition and reconstruction with work to be finished by December of 1996, being occupied in January. The final phase, the 1898 structure, would then be emptied, “gutted” and reconstructed by August of 1997. September of 1997would see the completed project, if all went accordingly.

During the course of the reconstruction details of the buildings new design became increasingly evident. The extent of the “gutting” of the buildings was revealed to the public in March of 1996when they were invited in to see the completely hollow interior of the 1895building. The exterior brickwork underwent a complete cleaning and repointing, while the existing windows were replaced with modern, energy efficient replicas. Even the cupolas, which once adorned the Benton Hall roof line, were reintroduced based on old pictures of the building. Period site lighting and attractive landscaping enhanced the buildings architectural presence as its grounds now merged with Eastern Park. Amazingly the “old school” began to look attractive again.

Unlike the exterior, on the inside everything was new – almost. The auditorium seating, with its unique end caps sporting the LFHS logo were removed and returned to the original manufacturer in Canada to undergo a complete restoration. The Wilber Crisp Gymnasium was also returned to its original appearance and purpose. Beautiful oak wainscoting, which once was so prevalent throughout the building, was saved, refinished and reused as a classroom detail. Beyond that, however, the interior oft he school was nothing like it had been. Completely new, state of the art, heating and ventilating systems were now in place, while building occupants could enjoy the benefits of air conditioning. Primary classrooms each had their own bathrooms which were designed age appropriately. All classrooms now had their own sinks, telephones and computer networks. Although not required by regulation, for safety purposes the building included a fire sprinkler system. The project budget provided for completely new and colorful furnishings. One of the most important elements of the “new” Benton Hall was the cafeteria and kitchen which now allowed on site preparation of student meals – and there was so much more.

The interior of the building was as spectacular as the exterior was striking.

On August 10th of 1996, as part of the District’s intended effort to keep the community informed on the progress of the project, and in conjunction with the annual Canal Days celebration, the public was given the opportunity to view the completed Phase I (1895) of the reconstruction. An estimated 1,500 people took advantage of the chance to tour the building, a significant number of them former students and senior citizens. From the comments expressed that day, and since, it is obvious that the objectives of the project had not only been met but exceeded. Approaching Benton Hall Academy one cannot help but be impressed by its architectural beauty and sense its historical significance; and upon entering through its doors no one could argue it was not a brand new school.

As the reconstruction moved toward final completion in the summer of 1997, ahead of schedule and under budget, plans were being made to celebrate the successful conclusion of this challenging undertaking. Among the most memorable events held was the dedication of the Benton Hall library to Dr. Bernard J. Burke. On a fall evening, with the auditorium filled beyond capacity, the community came together to express its appreciation to the good doctor – who surprisingly showed for the occasion – and to add his name to the other prominent citizens associated with the school, and thus also providing a fitting closure to the project.

Today Benton Hall Academy stands proudly, almost defiantly, reflecting the history and values of Little Falls. It serves as a reminder of what can be accomplished, regardless of difficulty or obstructions, when a community comes together for a common purpose. It teaches us not to be hesitant to pursue a vision and to see beyond what is in front of us.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine Little Falls without Benton Hall. It has become engrained in our community fabric and helps define us to visitors. One hundred years from now, as the City gathers to celebrate its tricentennial, it would not be surprising to learn that the “old school” was still standing and serving an important public service.

What if the Board of Education had decided on the other, easier path? How would our community be different today? February 9th, 1994 was indeed a historic day.

(Commissioners of the Board of Education at the time of the decision to reconstruct Benton Hall were Joan Carrig, George Bunk, Greg DeLuca, Myria Fredericks, David Smith, Stan Zysk and Ed Kasner)

(Clete McLaughlin is a 1973 graduate of Little Falls High School, earned his BA and MBA degrees from Union College and retired after his 36th year as Business Manager of the Little Falls City School District)