Steeped in History, Hackley School Looks to Future

An institution steeped in history is looking to the future after a fire destroyed a building more than 100 years old. Hackley School, which sits atop the peak of Benedict Avenue, nearly lost all of the 8,500 square-foot Goodhue Memorial Hall after a bolt of lightning struck on August 4.

But in a visit to the 285-acre campus earlier this month, it was business as usual.

imagesThe 830 students in the K-12 prestigious private school were busy learning in their classrooms. Meanwhile, outside on the lawn during a beautiful October morning, the construction crew was at work stabilizing the stone façade in an effort to keep Goodhue’s foundation, which was built in 1901.

Headmaster Walter Johnson was working away behind his wooden desk inside his cozy office before a reporter’s visit that morning. Johnson was in Putnam County for the weekend on Aug. 4, when he was notified about the fire. "I got the call at ten-of-five," Johnson said. A couple motorists on Route 287 and the Tappan Zee Bridge called 911 at about 4:15 a.m. to report a fire seen in the distance.

What was his reaction when he arrived at the school? "You can imagine," Johnson said, "it was very shocking and upsetting." In fact, the events of that day appear to be seared into Johnson’s memory. Without looking at any notes or statistics, Johnson was able to share that 375 lightning bolts struck within a five-mile radius.

"It was a very unusual storm," he said. After arriving at the school, he immediately placed telephone calls to the school’s head librarian, Laura Pearle, and the English Dept. chair, Richard Robinson — the two faculty members most impacted by the destruction. The fire that engulfed the building destroyed 27,000 volumes of books, CDs, DVDs, videos and magazines at Kaskel Library, which was housed in Goodhue. The fire also destroyed 100 computers, three computer labs, two English classrooms, the English department office and a photography lab. The damages amounted to millions of dollars.

As for the 21 fire departments that responded to the fire? "They did a spectacular job," Johnson said. He noted that the most important thing was that nobody was hurt. And he said that due to the firefighters’ efforts, the adjacent building, Raymond Hall, was minimally damaged. The school has since sent separate donations to all 21 fire departments.

The school opened on schedule and they moved several of the functions from Goodhue into other buildings. "Now, the challenge is to make sure that Goodhue is reconstructed within the stone fabric," Johnson added. "In order to maintain the frame and keep it from collapsing," he said, "builders must install steel struts to support the building."

This step is important, because the building is very important to the memories of faculty, alumni, and parents. In fact, one alumnus, architect Keith Kroeger — Class of 1954 — converted part of the inside of Goodhue into the library in 1983. "Naturally, an architect is always sad to lose a piece of work to fire," Kroeger said in a recent telephone interview. "It’s a rare occurrence."

A few years after constructing the library, Kroeger was recognized when the American Institute of Architects gave him an award for the best adapted reuse of a building. As a current Hackley trustee and chairman of buildings and grounds, Kroeger is optimistic that the school will do a great job with its future conversion into a contemporary interior with the same late 19th century exterior. For example, unlike 1983, libraries are dominated by computers now, and the new design will reflect that. "We’re going to use this [fire] as an opportunity," Kroeger said. "In the long run, it’ll be a positive thing." The board expects renderings to be drawn up in the next few months.

All of this will cost the school more than what the insurance would be willing to pay, according to Johnson. He said the insurance will pay to restore it to what it was. But, by law, the school must make changes. Some of the new features will be governed by existing building codes established under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Also, echoing Kroeger, Johnson said that the school has an opportunity to create a state-of-the-art library. "We have an opportunity to make it better than it was," he concluded.

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About the Author: Brett Freeman