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Now 3 schools in 1, Bennett High still embodies architectural dignity

These days, it’s called the Lewis J. Bennett School of Innovative Technology. But for the old-timers, this handsome, imposing building on a hill overlooking Main Street will always be known simply as "Bennett."

“The site is very dramatic and that probably sets Bennett apart,” said Paul McDonnell, director of facilities, planning, design and construction for the Buffalo Public Schools. “Everyone knows where Bennett is on Main Street. It’s really become so much of a community icon.”

Built for a growing North Buffalo population on land donated by businessman Lewis Jackson Bennett, the building opened for the first day of school Sept. 8, 1925, with an enrollment of more than 2,500 students.

Despite the mammoth size of the four-story building – well over 200,000 square feet – it didn’t take long to outgrow it, as Bennett would become Buffalo’s pre-eminent high school, producing a vast network of graduates who would go on to do well for themselves and remain fiercely loyal to their alma mater for years to come.

“Bennett High School had a prestige that really outweighed all of the other schools,” McDonnell said. “In the 1940s, '50s and '60s it was considered the best school in Buffalo.”

In more recent decades, though, Bennett would suffer from low test scores and poor graduation rates, forcing the district to phase out the “old” Bennett in 2017 and phase in a “new” Bennett with a new program and new administration.

It now houses three small, distinctly different Buffalo high schools that share space under the same roof – the Bennett School of Innovative Technology, Middle Early College, and the Research Laboratory Program for Bioinformatics & Life Sciences.

But in many ways, it’s still the same Bennett.

“I would definitely call it a Georgian revival style of building,” said McDonnell, who is also chairman of the Buffalo Preservation Board. “Very traditional in design.”

“One of the primary elements is the wonderfully elaborate entrance with a pediment supported by Doric columns,” McDonnell said.

Look up and you’ll notice that the clock in the pediment is working again for the first time in nearly a half-century, after being restored by the district within the past year.

Let your gaze follow above the third-floor windows and you’ll see the ornamental stone work with the engravings of the names of all the U.S. presidents – Washington to Harding – up until the building was designed in 1923.

“Once inside the school, there’s a gorgeous lobby with an ornamental terrazzo floor,” McDonnell said.

Along the walls of the lobby are plaster cast friezes, a replica of the Elgin Marbles, the collection of classical Greek sculptures from the Parthenon.

The auditorium is the largest in the city school system and one of the larger venues in the Buffalo area, McDonnell said.

Around back, there's All-High Stadium.

“All-High Stadium is one of the largest athletic fields in Buffalo and may be the only one with covered built-in seating,” McDonnell said. “It has a wonderful façade along Mercer Avenue that is reminiscent of many college stadiums. I think that’s what they were trying to get, this very collegiate-type look.”

In fact, Bennett was recently named a local landmark by the Buffalo Common Council.

McDonnell quotes architectural historian Frank Kowsky, who described Bennett this way: “There is no more eloquent architectural statement of the dignity of education anywhere in town.”

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