Erasmus Hall Academy


IF I WERE TO ARTICULATE ANY SIBLING RIVALRY towards my younger sister, it would be that she got to attend a true one-room schoolhouse and I did not.

When our parents moved to Craftsbury, Vermont—right about the time the band, Three Dog Night, was popular—the school system consisted of three buildings the divided the grades somewhat democratically. My sister attended the elementary school—a classic one-room schoolhouse with a large multi-paned window fronting the winding road up the hill to “the Common” and a belfry. No kidding. I attended the middle school across the street—an ugly two-room school fashioned out of a former church. Stained glass windows and a mock stage where the altar used to be, but no charm.

But when I graduated to junior high, I attended the academy up the hill and a world away from the little kids’ schools. Founded in 1829, Craftsbury Academy—the oldest continuously operating high school in Vermont—had all the charm my middle school did not. The predominant building on a picture-perfect common, the white, clapboard school was quintessential Norman Rockwell.

Craftsbury Academy

Yet, for all my aesthetic yearnings, I’m not nostalgic about that school. I’ve never been to a class reunion. I don’t send checks. I roll my eyes when I tell people I graduated from a class of 13—in a year when high school enrollment was about 55.  In short, I left memory of that school in some dusty corner of my adolescent brain along with my disappointing first kiss, the hated algebra book and awkward fashion sense.

Fast forward. Two years ago, while walking the streets in Flatbush, Brooklyn for a story, I came across an odd building that reminded me of my old high school. It was nearly hidden from view, enclosed in a green surrounded by fantastic Gothic architecture that turned out to be Erasmus Hall High School. But looking through the gates, I saw a classically proportioned white, clapboard building. I was too far away to see much detail, but the building’s warped roofline and lopsided porches hinted at some romantic dilapidation.

Then I forgot all about it.

A few months later, at the end of 2008, while researching a preservation story on endangered sites in New York, the building reappeared, or more accurately, re-inserted itself into my head.  This time, a few things stuck. The former school—also an academy— dates to 1786 and was first funded by Founding Fathers such as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and other notables (the grand sum of 915 pounds helped finance the school). Not for nothing, it maintained its A-list standing, graduating Mae West, Eli Wallach and Mickey Spillane, and later, counting Barbra Streisand, Beverly Sills and others among its alumni.

Last year at this time, I was invited to go on a field survey of the building with the New York Landmarks Conservancy. It was a long subway ride from Astoria and it was pouring buckets; my sense of intrigue damped each time I looked out the window. But I also sensed it was a rare opportunity, so I dragged myself out.

If the school looked forlorn from the outside, it appeared haunted on the inside.  Small, sad ghosts of its past lives were everywhere: school memorabilia, mannequins in period costume—some dismembered, others sitting wonky on their Colonial chairs. Strange Spanish Gothic wooden thrones, wooden file cabinets and abandoned band instruments filled parts of the basement: All things that once had a purpose and now were slightly too good for proper disposal, yet not good enough for utility or even decoration.

Members of the alumni association and the principal from the adjacent school accompanied us, alternating shaking their heads, tsking at the ruin and eager to show us the extent of neglect. Their previous outreach attempts were unsuccessful for a lot of reasons—most stemming from bureaucratic frustrations around the Department of Education, which owned, but would not preserve the building.

I was again drawn to the sadness of the building—its undeniable pedigree spiritlessly honored, the discarded mascots, the jumble of cast-off instruments. I walked around on its sloping wooden floors, imagined the quiet country landscape outside its expansive windows, felt its peculiar familiarity. It was almost exactly a year before I could articulate that.

Erasmus Hall Academy. Photo: Natalie Keyssar

Today, my story on Erasmus Hall Academy appears in The Wall Street Journal’s “Greater New York” section.  I hope its alumni are nostalgic.

You can see my homemade video here and the Journal’s considerably more professional effort here. A PDF version of the story is here.


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4 responses to “Erasmus Hall Academy

  1. Kenny Wolin

    Thank you for your well-written piece… and for your interest.

    Kenny Wolin
    EHHS ’64

  2. Steve Raye

    Both my Mom and Dad went to Erasmus hall in the 30’s!

  3. kperry

    The land to build Erasmus Hall was given by the Flatbush Reformed church in 1787. My interest in the school started when I was told that Joris Rapalje born 28 april 1604 Valenciennes France and his wife Catalina Trico born 1605 Prisches France were buried there. They are my ancestors. Joris Rapalje and Catalina Trico got married 21 Jan 1624 In Holland and 4 days later got on the de Eendracht (the Unity) for the New World. There were some couples that were going to be married on the ship. But Joris and Catalina decided to marry before they left. They were 19 and 18 yrs old. They were French Huguenots and at the time many were being massacred in Europe because they were protestants.
    They helped start the first settlement in Fort Orange NY 1624, and then when Peter Minuet bought Manhattan Island in 1626, they were sent to Manhattan to help settle Manhattan. Joris was an Inn Keeper and his inn/tavern was next to the Fort. In 1637 he bought land at Wallabout Bay in Brooklyn.
    He was on the “Council of Twelve Men” in 1641 and a Magistrate of Breucklien 1655, 1656, 1657, 1660 and 1662.
    Joris Rapalje and Catalina Trico are the parents of Sarah Rapalje born 9 June 1625 in fort Orange NY, “the first white christian European female born in New Netherlands” is what they say. In all they had 11 children.
    Thinking that they are buried there on the Erasmus property, what a tragedy that we have done nothing to preserve this part of our history and the history of New York.

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