Saturday, January 1, 2011

Not really a House (1 of 3)

In 1890, a millionaire pioneer of the Millbrook Colony named Henry J. Davison, dropped dead boarding a steamship in Liverpool, England. His eldest son, Harry, inherited not only his father's Millbrook estate, but also the funds necessary to indulge in our community's biggest boondoggle to date - to wit, the construction of a 200-room luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere. "If an English country home could entertain several hundred guests on a weekend," Harry explained to the Poughkeepsie Journal, "then a replica could be made for American enjoyment." It's doubtful Harry Davison ever did a business plan, or he would have realized so big and expensive an investment would never yield a decent return. Indeed it didn't. The Halcyon Hall, designed by James E. Ware, was a nothing-but-the-best construction project brimful of plush, gilt, mahogany, potted palms and "art." It opened in September of 1893 with what the New York Times called "a brilliant ball," and closed in 1903, after bankrupting its owner. The building stood empty - and lightly vandalized - until 1907, when Miss May Bennett bought it and moved her school for young ladies here from Dobbs Ferry. Until the 1950s, Bennett College was essentially a finishing school for upper crust women. An attempt in the 1970s to broaden the curriculum failed, and the college closed. The campus has since been developed into a condominium complex, but the best building on the site - namely the Halcyon Hall - has eluded preservation or redevelopment. Everybody in town feels badly about it, but nobody can figure out what to do. And it looks like it's too late now.

Image 1 - Here's what it used to look like.

Image 2 - Here's what it is today

Image 3 - It's becoming slightly Dali-esque.

Image 4 - The other side of the building, as it was

Image 5 - The other side, today.


  1. Considering the prosperity and desirability of the Millbrook area, it is a shame that this wonderful pile was allowed to fall into ruin.

  2. It is a terrible - almost unthinkable - shame. After Bennett closed, ownership passed through several hands, none of which was skillful either marketing or protecting it. To be sure, adaptive reuse of Halcyon Hall presented challenges, but these weren't met with much imagination, or so it seems to me.

  3. John- Greetings, I have been enjoying your blog
    tremendously, thank you, as well as your columns in The Millbrook Independent. I have also long admired your sympathetic restoration of Daheim,
    seemingly awakening a sense of stewardship for
    the rest of the Dieterich estate.
    I am publishing a monograph on the architect James E Ware, and am devoting mutiple
    chapters to the firm's work in Millbrook.
    Interestingly, some of the rowhouses from previous posts were possibly designed by Ware,
    712 Madison years later becoming the residence
    of his youngest son, Foster Ware, columnist
    for The New Yorker Magazine.Foster was a Columbia man, just like his two older brothers
    who followed their father into the family firm.
    Looking forward to your collection of Millbrook estate pieces, in the interest of not duplicating images, etc. but just in general.The environs of Millbrook have had so many wonderful and esteemed architects
    leave their mark, it is always a pleasure
    to learn more about them.
    Thank you!
    Patrick D Wing

  4. Thanks for the nice words, Patrick. I'll be looking forward to reacding your book on Ware. 712 Madison is around the corner from my NYC apartment, so as soon as I get back to town on Monday I'm going to run over and take closer look. Thanks for the tip, and Happy New Year....John