The Reconstruction of Benton Hall Academy

Written and narrated by Gray Smith, Cooperstown Museum Studies Graduate Program, SUNY Oneonta, Researched in 2023.

A community begins and ends with its children, this is particularly true in small towns across America.

Due to declining enrollments and escalating operational costs, some local communities have had to combine school districts. Benton Hall Academy’s restoration helped Little Falls avoid that fate. 

In the early 1990s, many Little Falls residents believed that Benton Hall Academy could not be saved. Leaking roofs, outdated facilities, and large unusable spaces due to safety concerns suggested to some that the building should be abandoned, and a new elementary school built. Other residents supported the restoration of Benton Hall Academy, feeling that too much community history and culture would be lost if the building was replaced by a new structure. 

First, some background. Prior to the 1895 construction of Benton Hall Academy, the Little Falls Academy stood on this same site. Benton Hall Academy was designed in the Roman Revival style by renowned architect Archimedes Russell who also later designed the Little Falls Masonic Temple.

Benton Hall Academy was named in honor of the work Nathaniel Benton accomplished for the community.

He was the first mayor elected by Little Falls and a veteran of the War of 1812 who worked as a lawyer in Little Falls starting in 1819. From there, he continued to serve the county and state in some capacity until his death in 1869.

Nathaniel Benton is not the only person that Benton Hall Academy is dedicated to. A plaque was added to the wall outside the auditorium after WWII to commemorate the seven graduates of the local high school who lost their lives serving our country. The auditorium was named after a local conductor for the community and World War I veteran, Leon Dussault. In 1967, the gymnasium was named after Wilbur Crisp, who coached the 1929-1930 New York State champion high school boys basketball team. He’s in the high school basketball Hall of Fame. After the reconstruction, a few more dedications have been added. The library is named after a highly regarded local physician extraordinaire, Dr. Bernard J. Burke whom a city park and bridge were also named after. The STEAM center has also been named after Clete McLaughlin, who was the business manager of the school district for 36 years and was one of the key proponents for the renovation of Benton Hall Academy alongside the superintendent, Dr. Geofrey Davis.

A community debate ensued in the early-1990s between residents who wanted to abandon Benton Hall Academy and build a new elementary school near the new high school and middle school and residents who wanted to preserve and completely refurbish the academy, both inside and out. The building had once housed elementary, middle, and high school for the community, but issues with the building and need for updated facilities had caused only the elementary school to be left in Benton Hall at the time. 

The lower portion of Alexander Street once passed between Benton Hall Academy and Ward Square, but the reconstruction plan called for the closure of this street, allowing the school grounds to now flow uninterrupted from the school into the park and playground and then onto the nearby public library to create a campus-like setting. The upper portion of Ward Square now serves as space for gym classes and informal athletic fields.

The building reconstruction began in 1995 and was completed in 1997, costing $12.3 million.

The building was completely gutted except for some of the supportive columns. Residents of the neighborhood could hear the wind howling through the building on windy nights. However, as many of the interior elements that had been removed, such as doors, entranceways, and window frames, were preserved and reused as possible. The brickwork was completely sandblasted, cleaned, and repointed. The cupolas on top of the building, which assist in regulating the airflow, were reproduced based on vintage photographs to restore the building to its original architectural character.

Although its interior has changed, Benton Hall Academy’s importance to the community has not. What has changed is an increased number of wall panels and plaques explaining the various dedications. Today, Benton Hall Academy is the oldest public school building in New York State and stands as a testament to what a community can accomplish when they come together under a common vision. The academy stands proudly, almost defiantly, reflecting the history and values of the City of Little Falls and its citizens.

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