Print Edition

  Email News Updates

HISTORY FROM OHA: The history of the Powelson Institute/ Bryant & Stratton in Syracuse

By Thomas Hunter




That statement appeared in large, bold letters at the top of page 7 in the Syracuse Herald newspaper on May 20, 1923. The brash and daring proposal intended to entice adults to enroll in the Syracuse Extension Institute of Accountancy, Inc., a classroom and correspondence school that would teach men and women the principles of accounting all across the U.S. Syracuse Extension Institute of Accountancy, Inc., the brainchild of John Abram Powelson in 1919, would become the Powelson Institute of Accountancy, and the Powelson Business Institute, before being sold to Bryant & Stratton College in 1976.

John A. Powelson, opened the Syracuse Extension Institute of Accountancy, Inc. at 134 West Onondaga St. in Syracuse. Prior to opening the accounting institute, Powelson, a CPA, worked for six years at the Syracuse accounting firm, Haskins and Sells. 

An August 2023 photo of the Bryant & Stratton College Liverpool campus, located at 7805 Oswego Road (Route 57) in the town of Clay. (ADAM ROMBEL/CNYBJ)

By 1923, the Syracuse Extension Institute of Accountancy had hired George Stafford as its president, with John Powelson becoming the institute’s secretary and educational director. Stafford had been associated with the Alexander Hamilton Institute in New York City and the LaSalle Extension University in Chicago. Administrators took advantage of the latest improvements in communication services such as radio and motion pictures, as well as the postal service, to promote the institute’s concept of remote adult learning. “Interesting, compact, simplified, and thorough business education is our object,” Stafford asserted. 

 By 1924, more than 4,500 students across the U.S. were enrolled in the correspondence school. The institute had offices in major cities from coast to coast — Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco — with plans to open additional offices in the near future. In 1925, the school was educating a long-distance student in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Each student used accounting principles textbooks written by John Powelson that were endorsed by the American Society of Certified Public Accountants. Powelson received many favorable comments on his textbooks, but even more gratifying to Powelson were the testimonials of his former students who expressed their sincere appreciation of Powelson as an instructor and for his assistance with securing accounting positions for his former students.

John A. Powelson left the Syracuse Extension Institute of Accountancy to form his own accounting school, the Powelson Institute of Accountancy, at 333 S. Warren St. in Syracuse, in August 1926, while still operating his own accounting firm. Powelson’s wife, Mary, became the institute’s secretary and treasurer. 

On Nov. 5, 1929, Arthur V. Cooper, the principal of the Powelson Institute of Accountancy, received a patent for an educational apparatus that was adapted to a typewriter. Cooper’s device helped typing students learn to become touch typists via a mnemonic method. Cooper’s gadget created “better typists in a quicker way” and led to the Powelson Institute to establish a secretarial department with Cooper teaching typing and shorthand. 

With the addition of new subjects, the school then opened new quarters at 604 S. Salina St. in Syracuse in early 1933. By this time, the Powelson Institute also had established men’s and women’s basketball teams that played area high schools in the Onondaga County Basketball League. Through the years, the Powelson Panthers men’s team played local high school and college freshman teams at Eastwood High School and the Onondaga County War Memorial until at least the early 1960s. Powelson played against the Technical College at Alfred in January 1963.

As the Powelson Institute’s star was rising, the Syracuse Extension Institute of Accountancy’s star was dimming. By 1932, this institute was closed and no longer listed in the Syracuse City Directory. A notice in the classified section of the Syracuse Herald newspaper on Oct. 6, 1933 revealed that the school had a judgment of foreclosure with the Albany Savings Bank as the plaintiff. The property was to be sold on Oct. 17, 1933.

That was also a difficult year for the Powelson Institute with John Powelson’s death on Aug. 8, 1933 from pneumonia at age 49. His brief obituary in the Syracuse Herald stated that the Powelson Institute of Accountancy, Inc. under his supervision had quickly advanced to a high position in the business world within the seven years since it had opened. The obituary also declared, “By those who knew him, Mr. Powelson will be remembered for his courtesy, integrity and sincerity, and his devotion to the interests of those who retained his services.” The success of the institute since his death proved to be his memorial. 

In 1934, school administrators dealt with employment issues created by the Great Depression. When considering the dearth of jobs during that period, and the need to educate more well-rounded students, they decided to make secretarial training obligatory for both men and women. The decision paid off in subsequent years as companies requested the more versatile Powleson Institute graduates.

During World War II, local men and women graduating from the Powelson Institute obtained jobs at area businesses that produced war products, including Carrier Corporation, Crane Company, Crouse-Hinds, Prosperity Laundry Company, Smith-Corona Typewriter Company, and General Electric. Others worked for the military as civilian employees or joined the military to fight the Axis Powers. Elizabeth J. Stephens, of Cortland, a graduate of the Powelson Institute, joined the Women’s Army Corps in April 1944. She received her basic training at Fort Ogelthorpe in Georgia and attended technical school to become a business machine operator. During the war, Miss Stephens attained the rank of technician fourth grade (T/4) and served at General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo, Japan in 1946.

By the 1950s, the Powelson Institute was registered with the New York State Department of Education and was training veterans under the G.I. Bill of Rights. It expanded its curriculum to include medical, executive, and collegiate secretarial courses, as well as general business and business-administration courses. Co-educational students could take both day and night classes. 

Three Syracuse businessmen, Robert Dermody, John Burke, and Daniel Brown, of the certified public accounting firm Dermody, Burke, & Brown, purchased the Powelson Institute from Clement LeLash of New York City, in May 1958. The school was located on the second floor of the Loew Building at 108 W. Jefferson St. in Syracuse (AKA Loew’s State Theater Building). Brown was elected president and director of the Powelson Institute, while Dermody became VP, and Burke also was named VP, as well as treasurer. 

The 1960s was a consequential decade for the Powelson Institute. It moved from the Loew Building to 400 Montgomery St. in downtown Syracuse. This building was originally built by Dr. Ely Van de Warker as an apartment complex known as The Ely; the building’s last use was as the Syracuse University Law College. The three Powelson administrators completely renovated the five-story, brick building to create a more accommodating business school. 

The Powelson Institute razed its building at 400 Montgomery St. in 1967 and built a new $1.5 million six-story, all-electric edifice on the same site, known as the Powelson Building. During demolition and new building construction, Powelson Institute students attended classes on the mezzanine at Hotel Onondaga. During Thanksgiving break in November 1968, Powelson students moved chairs into their new school. The first classes were held in the new Powelson Building after Thanksgiving in 1968. 

In 1976, Bryant & Stratton College purchased Powelson Business Institute, establishing its presence in Syracuse as Bryant & Stratton Business Institute. William H. Prentice, Bryant & Stratton’s chairman, said the college planned to expand Powelson’s curriculum, and further said at the time that the merger, “means a broader range of educational opportunities will now be open to Powelson students.” Byrant & Stratton kept the name of Powelson Business Institute and kept the faculty intact.

Almost a year later, Powelson appointed Mary Ellen Avery as its first woman director. Avery had been the dean of Powelson’s Secretarial Services Department for seven years, and had been an instructor since 1963. Along with her professional duties at the Powelson Institute, Avery was an active member of the Metropolitan Business and Professional Women of Syracuse. 

Powelson Institute occupied a newly renovated first floor of the Powelson Building in 1978 that was previously occupied by another tenant. The new facility on the first floor included a shorthand laboratory and a fashion-merchandise studio. Using a four-quarter schedule, students could then graduate earlier and receive associate degrees in accounting, secretarial science, business administration, retail management, computer programming, or fashion merchandising. 

The New York State Board of Regents authorized the Powelson Institute to offer programs to train students for legal secretarial assistant and administrative systems secretarial positions in 1980. Later that year, local high-school teachers were invited to participate in business workshops that presented the latest in post-secondary business education. Along with the workshops, Powelson Institute fashion merchandising students offered a fashion show during lunch to showcase the latest fashions of 1980.

Powelson Institute physically expanded again in 1981 when the institute purchased the Powelson Building from Dermody, Burke, & Brown. The business school added 4,000 square feet of classroom and administration space on the building’s fourth floor. The additional space occupied by the school expanded its footprint to five of the building’s six floors. The remodeling featured a renovated student lounge, improvements to the student resource center, additional administrative offices, a word-processing instruction center, and a medical laboratory for Powelson’s new medical assistant secretarial program. The expansion was necessary to provide for an increasing student enrollment that doubled between 1976 and 1981 and increased by 20 percent in 1980, alone. In 1985, Powelson’s graduating class numbered 450 students.

Between 1989 and 1990, Bryant & Stratton Business Institute completely absorbed Powelson Business Institute and no longer used the Powelson name. 

Bryant & Stratton Business Institute moved into a newly renovated building at 953 James St. in Syracuse in September 1993. The $1.6 million renovation included redesigning the interior, adding housing suites for 160 students, and installing new equipment. Bryant & Stratton then vacated the Powelson Building at 400 Montgomery St. in downtown Syracuse. The Powelson Building remained vacant for many years until the City of Syracuse razed it in May 2004. 

After having a second location at the Penn-Can Mall in Cicero since 1982, Bryant & Stratton Business Institute decided to close that campus in 1996 due to the mall’s dwindling popularity. Only two tenants — Bryant & Stratton Business Institute and Albany Savings Bank — remained in September 1996. At the same time, Byrant & Stratton began to prepare another site in Liverpool for a new location. School officials chose the site because of its close proximity to area stores and businesses where students could get practical experience while taking classes. The new campus would focus on providing courses in paralegal studies and electronic technology. The James Street campus would specialize in allied-health programs.

The following year, Bryant & Stratton launched an athletic program that would include men’s and women’s soccer teams. Two years later, the Bryant & Stratton Bobcats boasted a men’s team’s record of 13-2 and a women’s team’s record of 12-1-1. Today, along with the soccer teams, Bryant & Stratton offers students an opportunity to play basketball and compete in track & field events.

Bryant & Stratton Business Institute received accreditation from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools in 2002 for the quality and integrity of its diverse business and professional programs. At the time, Bryant & Stratton offered its programs to local students, along with remote learning on fourteen campuses in four states. “The Middle States Commission’s accreditation places Bryant & Stratton among an outstanding group of colleges and universities,” said John J. Staschak, Bryant & Stratton’s president and CEO. “The commission’s accreditation makes a clear statement to students, the educational community, the business community and other employers that Bryant & Stratton is accomplishing its mission to provide high-quality educational programs,” continued Staschak in October 2002. 

In 2003, Bryant & Stratton Business Institute celebrated its 10th anniversary at its James Street campus. The school had assisted with revitalizing an economically faltering area with its success. In 2003, Bryant & Stratton had 500 students and offered eight degree programs. 

That same year, Bryant & Stratton Business Institute decided to change its local name back to Bryant & Stratton College, its original name when established in 1854. The name change came after the school was accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. In 2004, Bryant & Stratton College celebrated its 150th anniversary.

Bryant & Stratton College expanded again in 2007 by enlarging its Liverpool campus. The $1.9 million expansion allowed for a gradual student population growth for at least the next five years. The project comprised remodeling and adding 9,500 square feet to the already 28,000-square-foot building. The expanded space established eight new classrooms, two computer labs, a student lounge, and a library.

As the 21st century entered its second decade, Bryant & Stratton College offered a wider range of degrees for its students: criminal justice, graphic design, human resources specialist, medical administrative assistant, networking technology, restaurant and hotel management, travel and tourism management, and security technology. By the spring semester in 2012, Bryant & Stratton was offering a new bachelor of science degree in health services administration. 

In 2023, Bryant & Stratton College still maintains two Onondaga County campuses in Syracuse and Liverpool (Route 57 in the town of Clay) and offers two-year and four-year degrees in a variety of business, health care, human, legal, and technology programs. Along with the two Onondaga County campuses, Bryant & Stratton College offers degree programs in Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany, New York, as well as in Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The college also provides career services and continuing education.

From the humble beginnings of the Syracuse Extension Institute of Accountancy in 1919, to the expanded Powelson Business Institute, and then the Bryant & Stratton Business Institute in the late 20th century, and now a varied curriculum at an accredited college, the history of Powelson Institute and Bryant & Stratton College remains intertwined. And yet, the college looks forward to providing a diverse student body with a quality education and career preparation well into the future.          

Thomas Hunter is curator of collections at the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) (, located at 321 Montgomery St. in Syracuse.