Legislator backs effort to protect Keller house

05/06/2010 12:00 AM |

The interior of the dilapidated, junk-filled house where Helen Keller and her teacher and companion Annie Sullivan may have stayed near Cedar Beach in Southold. Eighth-grader Ian Toy is leading the charge to save the house.

Ian Toy’s timing in his quest to save Southold’s Helen Keller house might be right on the money — literally.

Nearly a month after launching a Facebook page to gather community support for his endeavor, the Southold eighth-grader and his mother, Claire Kennedy, met with Suffolk County Legislator Ed Romaine Friday afternoon outside the long-neglected house — which the county owns and has scheduled for demolition this summer.

Mr. Romaine, a former history teacher at Suffolk Community College who has lobbied to save other historic structures in the county, told Ian that he would propose earmarking $400,000 for restoration the 1920s Bavarian-style home near Cedar Beach. It is believed Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, spent their last summer together there in 1936. It’s also believed by some that Albert Einstein and Oweny Madden, owner of New York City’s famed Cotton Club and a rum-runner during Prohibition, stayed there.

“The county has never been good stewards of historic property, and in the scheme of things restoring this property doesn’t provide the biggest bang for the buck,” admitted Mr. Romaine, who will argue for the funds at Tuesday’s county budget meeting. “But with three budgets to be adopted in June, now is the time to act. And this is certainly a capital project.”

Mr. Romaine stressed that without a historic landmark designation from the town, he “wouldn’t have anything to hang my hat on” to argue for restoration. So 13-year-old Ian, who said he plans to speak at Tuesday’s meeting in Hauppauge, wrote letters to Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell and Jim Grathwohl, chairman of the town’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Ian also started an online petition to save the house, which had 180 signatures as of Wednesday morning from locals and from people across the country.

In the days since he launched his campaign, members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission have voted to propose registering the site as a historic landmark with the Town Board, and on Tuesday, the board authorized Supervisor Scott Russell to send Mr. Romaine a letter of support.

Eventually, the town will schedule a public hearing on whether to officially register the Helen Keller house as a town historic landmark.

Even with these positive actions taken, Mr. Grathwohl said he had stressed to Ian that the house is “almost beyond repair.” And though $400,000 is a “handsome amount,” he added, it certainly will not be enough to restore the structure in its current state.

“As you can see, the only things that are holding it up at this point are the vines and trees,” Mr. Grathwohl said on Wednesday. “But I think the facade appears to be restorable, and a new building could be built behind it. That is often done in places like Washington, D.C., and in New York City. But the important thing now is to prove the viability of this place as a landmark.”

Mr. Grathwohl recommends that Ian get an estimate from a builder and find out what it will actually cost to restore the house before he makes his pitch to the Legislature next week.

“To think that all of this has been generated by a 13-year-old,” Mr. Grathwohl said. “I give him a lot of credit, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission will be happy to continue to support him.”

Ian said he has been coming up with ideas for how the structure could actually be used if it is restored — a museum, a summer weekend retreat for the deaf and blind, or office space for Cornell Cooperative Extension or Suffolk County Community College.

His recent efforts to wade through bureaucratic red tape will, at the very least, halt the demolition of the house, Mr. Romaine said. So, as long as Mother Nature doesn’t intervene, the Helen Keller house will remain standing for one more summer.

“I feel this is very important, because Helen Keller was a miraculous person,” Ian wrote in his plea to Supervisor Russell. “We were lucky enough to have her here in our community. Even though she was deaf and blind, she could still sense the beauty and peacefulness of our area. It is important to preserve our local history or else it will be forgotten. You can’t bring it back once it’s destroyed.” Read original story

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