On a remote hillside above the New York village of Millbrook, a vast mansion is slowly crumbling to dust. With its dark, empty windows, rotting woodwork and abandoned, echoing rooms, Halcyon Hall looks like the setting for a horror movie. And now, an intrepid group of explorers have penetrated its spooky interior to reveal its secrets to the world.
The story began in 1893, when H. J. Davison, Jr., a publisher from New York, decided to build a grand hotel. Inspired by Mohonk Mountain House, an upstate hotel built in the style of a Victorian castle, he planned to create a similarly opulent destination in Millbrook, some 30 miles to the east.
To that end, Davison employed architect James Ware, who had worked on the design for the Mohonk building. And eventually, the results were spectacular – a sprawling, five-story hotel enjoying a picturesque location atop a hill. Boasting some 200 rooms, the building was constructed in the Queen Anne style and equipped with elegant terraces and intricately carved columns.
Apparently, the wealthy Davisons were keen travelers, and the hotel soon began to fill up with the exotic trinkets that they’d brought back from far-flung destinations. And by September 1893 the property – dubbed Halcyon Hall – was ready for its grand gala opening.
At first, Halcyon Hall was a success. Members of New York’s high society would ride the Dutchess & Columbia Railroad from the city to Millbrook station, where they would be met by carriages ready to whisk them to the hilltop hotel. But after just half a decade, visitor numbers began to fall.
With the Spanish-American War’s adverse effect on the economy, not to mention the increasing popularity of seaside holiday resorts, Halcyon Hall’s fortunes began to change. Eventually, in 1901 the hotel shut its doors for good. Fortunately, though, that wasn’t the end for this grand building, and in 1907 a new buyer was found.
At the time, May Bennett was running a successful school for girls in Irvington, some 60 miles to the south. However, she was looking to enlarge her operation and settled on Halcyon Hall as the perfect place. Soon, the guest rooms had been transformed into dormitories, while the grand public spaces became lecture halls.
As a school, Halcyon Hall found a new lease of life. With more than 100 students in residence, it offered a broad curriculum that included everything from domestic science to fashion design. Outside of the classroom, meanwhile, the girls were encouraged to partake in leisure activities such as horse riding and golf.
Over the years, a number of changes were made to the school. For instance, during the 1950s a hall and a library were added to the sprawling property, while a science building, a theater and stables further expanded the ample campus. Meanwhile, the students enjoyed a charmed life, with grand functions and an impressive arts program that featured celebrity speakers such as Dylan Thomas and John Cage.
At first, the establishment taught students for six years, incorporating two years of post-high school study. However, it later focused purely on higher education, taking on the name Bennett College. However, the institution’s ambitions didn’t always match its financial resources, and soon funds began to run low.
Although a number of efforts were made to reinvent Bennett College due to the changing educational sector, the establishment eventually went bankrupt in 1977. A year later, it shut down permanently. And even though there have been rumors about redevelopment, Halcyon Hall has laid abandoned ever since.
In 2010 New Jersey photographer Steven Bley paid a visit to the deserted and decaying former school. One year previously, he had discovered a love of urban exploration after visiting an abandoned hotel. “Since then I have kept my eyes open to everything around me, taking in small details which many overlook and seeing the beauty in the world with everything it has to offer,” he explains in his website bio.
With three companions in tow, Bley arrived at Halcyon Hall and began photographing the dilapidated building. And the results show just how far the once-grand property has fallen since its heyday. In fact, before Bley even ventured inside, the overgrown grounds and broken window panes hinted at the destruction that lay in store.
And Bley’s photographs reveal a ruin strewn with relics from its fascinating past. In one room, row after row of empty seats sit facing a graffiti-strewn stage, as if still waiting for some long-delayed performance to take place. Elsewhere, torn and tattered furniture is covered in layers of crumbling plaster and dust.
In places, it’s possible to glimpse what Halcyon Hall might have looked like in its glory days. From the sweeping, elegant staircase to the high beamed ceilings and stone fireplaces, it’s clear that this was once a beautiful place. But now, vandals have left their mark, painting tags across the wood-paneled walls.
Back in 1993 Halcyon Hall was added to the National Register of Historic Places, a directory of locations that the government has recognized as being in need of conservation. However, this status seems to have had little effect, and Bley’s photographs shed a stark light on how much the building has decayed over time.
In August 2011 a barrier was built around the property in an attempt to keep intruders out. However, these measures don’t seem to have stopped intrepid explorers who are keen to investigate these crumbling ruins. In fact, a number of YouTube videos and urban exploration sites feature footage of the building taken after this date.
In its dilapidated state, Halcyon Hall certainly looks haunting. But is it really troubled by the spirits of the guests and students who used to inhabit its walls? According to The Paranormal Guide, a blog that discusses ghostly goings on around the world, it’s not only the building’s spooky appearance that sends shivers down the spine.
Allegedly, some explorers have reported hearing their companions call them back from entering the attic or basement – only to discover that nobody had relayed such a message. Moreover, there are rumors of activity such as doors closing on their own and the sound of mysterious footsteps echoing through the empty halls.
The building was bought in 2014 by a company seeking to develop the site. And although there are plans to maintain some features from the once-proud estate, it seems that much of Halcyon will be demolished. But for the time being, the bulldozers remain at bay – and the building continues to enchant and terrify in equal measure.