The Rise and Fall of Halcyon Hall

The Nine Lives of a Historic New York Structure

For over a hundred years, the Queen Anne-influenced gables and shingled turrets of Halcyon Hall have risen above the tree line in Millbrook, N.Y., a tranquil hamlet known for its vineyards and horse farms. But an October 1 demolition order— though it will likely be pushed back—will soon spell the end for the historic structure, which has sat vacant for over 30 years.

Designed by New York City architect James E. Ware in the 1890s for magazine publisher Henry J. Davison, Jr., Halcyon Hall was built as a lavish country hotel. Unfortunately, Millbrook never achieved the popularity of destinations such as Lenox, Mass., or Newport, R.I. And, despite Halcyon Hall's up-to-date amenities and sophisticated interiors, the Davisons' hotel failed. In 1907 it became the main building of Bennett School, a finishing school, and later, a junior college for women. In 1978, the school went bankrupt and closed its doors following an ambitious building program that included new dormitories and a new science center (now also in ruins).

Since Bennett's closure, several plans have been proposed for the massive building. Property developer James O'Dea, now deceased, transformed the college dormitories into a condo community named Bennett Commons, but never developed a coherent plan for Halcyon Hall, eventually the Mechanics and Farmers Savings Bank of Bridgeport, Conn. took title. That bank failed in 1991, and Halcyon Hall wound up in the hands of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Juggling numerous foreclosed assets in the early 1990s, the FDIC found itself under fire from the National Trust, the Preservation League of New York, and the Friends of Halcyon Hall, which was headed by David Sloan, a Millbrook resident and relative of the original builder and owner. The groups blamed the FDIC for the neglect of Halcyon Hall, although other historic properties under FDIC control had also filed similar lawsuits.

"We pointed out that anything receiving federal funding had to comply with federal rules concerning historic structures," Sloan said. "Which included maintenance and other costs."  A subsequent lawsuit agreement gave the consortium of preservationists nine months to market the property subject to a preservation covenant. The settlement was seen as the best path forward for both parties and as a landmark for preservationists. Yet today, Halcyon Hall remains at risk.

Sloan claims that the FDIC never addressed stability issues and refused to sign the paperwork to put Halcyon Hall on the National Register of Historic Places. (Though Halcyon Hall was eligible, it received the same level of protection as though it was listed.) "We probably should have been more aggressive about that," Sloan said, pointing out that the consortium could have taken the FDIC to task for this neglect.

In addition, many historic buildings do not comply with established building codes. Once Bennett College ceased using its upper floors, Halcyon Hall lost its grandfathered exemption to current New York building codes. Sloan believes this proved daunting to prospective buyers.

The most recent plans for the threatened property, advanced by a developer named David Blumenthal around 2005, would add 91 homes to the 28-acre site—although Halcyon Hall was always going to be demolished. (The building's current owner, Bennett Acquisitions LCC, declined to comment for this article.) Of the 28 acres, 19 are zoned for building. Blumenthal's plans for cluster zoning came under scrutiny by a neighboring property trustee, Oakleigh Thorne. He expressed alarm at possible damage to the village's infrastructure.

"We put together a study that proved that there were dozens of deficiencies and inaccuracies in almost every aspect of the plan," Thorne says. "For example, cluster zoning is intended to help preserve green space. In this case, the development would leave none." As to Halcyon Hall itself, Thorne calls its current state: "A crime. The owners have done nothing but taken a great building and turned it into a community hazard."

The existing demolition order for Halcyon Hall was issued in late 2009 by Millbrook Village Building Inspector-Zoning Enforcement Officer Ken McLaughlin, and upheld by an independent hearing officer in August 2010. Per the order, demolition had to be completed by Oct. 1. But Village of Millbrook Attorney Rebecca Valk says that the building's owners have not yet complied with the order—necessary permits have not been applied for, and the village has filed an injunction against them for the demolition to continue as scheduled. At present, the village is footing the bill for security and has accepted a fencing bid to begin the first week in September. (Several weeks ago, the Board of Trustees adopted a resolution to file the security and fencing costs as a lien on the property.) Demolition costs are definitely beyond the village's budget and no one is sure whether the property owner or developer will initiate the project.  

"I think that the overwhelming feeling in town is regret that it has come to this," Valk says, saying that there may be plans to stabilize the stone portions of the structure. "I really wish I could have seen it before it reached its current state because it really is a majestic building."

"At this point I think that the building is a loss," Sloan says sadly, noting that the lessons learned are numerous.  "First off, getting the community aboard at every level is absolutely necessary. The village was never able to agree what an acceptable new use would be."  He also points out that victories of the sort represented by the court settlement with the FDIC are only steps towards an end: "There is no part of a fight to save a historic site that absolutely ensures success." 

His final point is that Halcyon Hall may be the sort of building difficult to adapt in a financially viable manner. "We get people in here all the time who fall in love with the place and say they can find people who would simply write a check out to purchase and restore it. I say: and then what? For what purpose? Where is the long-term financial plan? That's when they stop getting back to me."

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

Subscribe to the Today's News RSS feed