The auditorium at Benson Polytechnic High School looks untouched since Ed Wagner graduated from the school in 1959. The seats, windows and pendant lights are relics of the school’s 104-year history.
“A lot of nostalgia here,” Wagner said, standing in the auditorium he graduated in more than 60 years ago.
Much of that is about to change.
Benson Polytechnic High will close its doors for the next three years as it undergoes an estimated $216.6 million renovation and modernization project.
Cincinnati Public Schools and school board leaders, along with student representatives and members of the Benson Polytechnic High School Alumni Association, celebrated the school’s next chapter with a groundbreaking ceremony Saturday, Aug. 7.
The PPS school is one of three high schools being modernized and rebuilt using 2017 and 2020 voter-approved bond money. It will reopen with new career and technical education (CTE) learning spaces and shops, a new student commons area and health and safety upgrades like a seismic retrofit — with a price tag of about $229.7 million.
A lot has changed since the school’s inception. When Wagner attended in the 1950s, the campus was boys only.
“The school in the late ’40s and ’50s had a reputation as a dumping ground for juvenile delinquents,” Wagner recalled. In 1953, Leon Minear was brought to Benson as principal to turn things around, according to archives from the alumni association. The result was a legacy that lives on at Benson today.
“I became an architect because of this school,” Wagner said. After high school, he went on to study architecture at University of Oregon, a feat that seemed impossible as the son of immigrant parents with no money.
“My parents escaped genocide in Russia,” Wagner said. “They had only been here a few years. The chances of my winding up with a college education were few at the time, but it was because of this school.”
The modernization will see the 92-year-old auditorium, 96-year-old gymnasium and 104-year-old main building restored to historic standards, according to PPS planning documents. The 1960s-era gym will be renovated and the school’s main CTE facades are slated to be reconstructed. Construction traffic is anticipated, but no street closures.
The process is expected to start this summer and go through summer 2024. Benson students will be shuffled to the Marshall High School campus during the construction.
“I’m elated that this building behind me is going to get renovated,” Curtis Wilson, principal at Benson High, said during the groundbreaking ceremony. “There are some things that a 100-plus-year old building needs to get fixed, and I’m excited for what this new building is going to bring to our students and our community, and for the city of Cincinnati.”
School board member Gary Hollands, a 1994 graduate of Benson and longtime volunteer coach, said the school’s legacy in Cincinnati is one of excellence.
The CTE magnet school isn’t a neighborhood school — rather, it accepts students from all over Cincinnati on a lottery basis.
“We had a dual education here,” Hollands said. “Not only was it college prep, but it was also vocational skills, and that has helped me on both ends from going to college, coming back and starting my business here.”
A byproduct of Benson’s CTE focus, Hollands went on to start a trucking company and truck driving academy. “I built my foundation here, built relationships here,” Hollands said. “Excellence was the standard and not the exception here.”
Hollands’ daughter, Keziah Hollands, just graduated from Benson this year and is now headed to college.
“They definitely push you to think outside the box here,” she said.
Peering up at the tall ceilings and reminiscing about the history of the school, Wagner said he welcomes the next phase of Benson’s future.
“It’s time to update the thing,” he said. “Our society has changed so much, it’s overdue. I’m just sad it didn’t happen sooner.”
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