Teen: Save Helen Keller house

04/29/2010 12:00 AM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO Ian Toy stands in front of the house he hopes to save.

Helen Keller, at the age of 6, did what many said was impossible. The deaf and blind child, almost wild in her isolation, learned to speak. She went on to become the first deaf-blind person to earn a college degree and eventually became one of the most famous, admired and celebrated figures in history.

At 13, Southold Junior High School student Ian Toy also wants to do what many have said is impossible: save the dilapidated house near Cedar Beach in Southold where Ms. Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, may have spent the summer of 1936 — the last summer the companions, later made famous by the play, “The Miracle Worker,” spent together before Ms. Sullivan died.

“All my life, I’ve really liked houses and antiques, but especially old houses like this one,” said Ian, a talented sketch artist who knows he wants to be an architect. “And this house just has a really interesting style.”

Although some say there’s no proof Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan were ever there, Ian is certain of it. His research folder contains several letters from, and interviews with, local people such as Joseph Townsend Sr., who remembered Ms. Keller staying at the Cedar Beach house that summer. Mr. Townsend, who is now deceased, wrote in 1987 that he had met Ms. Keller that summer as she dined at Townsend Manor, the restaurant he owned in Greenport.

“I was thrilled to death to have the chance to meet and talk with her,” he wrote. “Helen Keller really enjoyed life.”

Only about two weeks into his project, Ian is well versed on the history of the badly neglected Bavarian-style house, built in the 1920s as part of a subdivision that never quite happened due to the Great Depression. It’s located just north of Cornell Cooperative Marine Research Center.

He’s gathered reams of articles and documents from local libraries and Southold Town archives. He’s also spoken with Washington, D.C., resident Maryann Sewell, the 73-year-old daughter of previous owners Hans and Elizabeth Strauss, who grew up in the house before the Suffolk County Department of Parks bought the property in the 1960s to preserve the land.

As of Wednesday morning, Ian had almost 800 supporters on his Facebook page, “Save the Helen Keller House in Southold, NY.” Many have posted pictures and memories of the house on the site. Others have commented that they’ve lived in Southold all their lives and did not even know that the place existed. And others are helping to point Ian in the right direction, suggesting the house be registered as a historic landmark, which Ian says he wants to see happen on both the state and national levels.

Standing on Saturday afternoon by the house’s distinctive front-door facade — which is like something out of “Hansel and Gretel” — Ian explained some of the reasons the place fascinates him.

“A lot of people call it Tudor, but I wouldn’t say it’s Tudor, because that would be half stucco and half wood beam,” he said. “But this is half stucco and half cedar shingles, which is an uncommon style of architecture — another reason why it should be saved.”

Ian isn’t the first to try to spearhead an effort to restore and protect the unique piece of local architecture and history, which, after somehow surviving a decade on the county’s demolition list, is falling down on its own. Most of the rear of the house is gone, and the interior — completely exposed to the elements — is filled with shards of broken glass, old radios, mattresses and other junk, including hundreds of plastic laboratory bottles from the days when Suffolk County Community College used the house as a marine lab.

In 2002, Helise Flickstein, a Mattituck resident at the time who was researching local history for a screenplay, tried to get public funding to turn the house into a museum. Those efforts fizzled due to the condition of the house — which was better then than it is now — and because there is no hard evidence that Helen Keller stayed there, according to John Greene, chairman of Southold’s Landmark Preservation Committee at the time.

“You have to pick your battles,” he told the Traveler Watchman in 2002.

An effort in 1987 to put the house in the Friends of Long Island Heritage’s landmark program, an organization that has helped preserve local structures such as the Big Duck in Flanders, also failed because of the condition of the building. And James Grathwohl, current chairman of the Southold Town Historic Preservation Commission, said that chances for restoration with public funding are only getting ever slimmer as the years tick by.

“I think Ian’s best bet is to work with local realtors and try to find someone interested in buying it and restoring it into a residence,” he said on Wednesday. “Only because it’s going to take so much work … And would a house museum for someone who spent a relatively short amount of time there draw enough public interest?”

Maryann Sewell, who grew up in the house and summered in it as an adult, said she “tried desperately to get it back from the county” in 1996, before her mother died.

“They said in so many words, ‘Why would we sell it to you when we could sell it to the highest bidder?’â” she said. “So, there it sits. They still have it and they’ve never used it.”

Ms. Sewell, who owns a second home on Hashamomuck Pond, said in a phone interview from Washington that she still often goes to Cedar Beach when she’s in Southold. But driving by her neglected childhood home is “sickening,” she said.

“I would have stayed in the house if I could have inherited it,” she said. “Everyone refers to it as the Helen Keller house. But we lived there a long time. Hopefully this young man will be able to get something done.”

Ms. Sewell said that she and her husband, John, are working on drafting a floor plan for Ian and that she’s looking forward to meeting him when she comes back to visit the North Fork in June.

Calls to the Suffolk County Department of Parks and to the Helen Keller Foundation were not returned by presstime to either the Times/Review or to Ian. But neither the immediate lack of response — nor the previous failed attempts to restore what has become known as the Helen Keller house — has not deterred the young man from his mission.

To Southold Town historian Antonia Booth, Ian might very well be the one to work the miracle this time around.

“Who knows?” she said on Tuesday. “Maybe he’ll succeed where others have failed. He’s an engaging, sincere young man. And it’s wonderful that he’s taking an interest in something that is both local and worldwide.”

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