Panel opposes saving Keller house

06/03/2010 12:00 AM |

Despite weeks of advocacy to save Southold’s Helen Keller house, the Suffolk County Council on Environmental Quality has recommended that the structure near Cedar Beach be demolished as scheduled this summer.

The dilapidated county-owned Bavarian-style cottage — built in the 1920s and, according to local historians, rented in the summer of 1936 by Ms. Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan — has been on the demolition list since 2000. But lack of funding and a series of efforts to save the house — the latest led by Southold eighth-grader Ian Toy and County Legislator Ed Romaine — have kept the bulldozers at bay.

MaryAnn Spencer, CEQ member and chairperson of the Suffolk County Historic Trust Committee, wrote to Mr. Romaine late last month, saying the house is too far gone for restoration.

“The Suffolk County Historic Trust Committee considered the Town of Southold cottage where Helen Keller spent some time one summer,” she wrote. “Along with so many others, they were impressed with the interest Ian Toy has shown in local history and his efforts to research and preserve something he values. While the committee cannot in good conscience recommend restoration of the house, they do hope that some fitting monument or memorial can be erected on the site.”

Ms. Spencer reiterated that this is not the first time the Historic Trust Committee and the CEQ have reviewed the state of the property, which is not listed as an official historic site, and have determined the house is not worth preserving.

“There are over 100 county-owned historic structures that have been dedicated and listed and therefore deemed worthy of preservation,” she continued. “In these times, the needs are greater and the funds fewer. We urge that the legislature do what it can to preserve and maintain the historic structures that they have dedicated and listed.”

Though he says he is not happy with the recommendation, Ian, 13, has not stopped working to gather support to save the house since he spoke to the legislature during a capital budget hearing on Tuesday, May 11. His Facebook support page has attracted more than 7,500 friends from all over the world. He has also gathered evidence of Ms. Keller’s stay at the house that summer by interviewing relatives of previous owners. He will meet with Ms. Keller’s great-grandniece Keller Thompson, who will travel from Tuscubia, Ala. to tour the house on Sunday.

Ian spoke to the county’s parks and recreation committee yesterday, Wednesday. He said he is still hoping that the county will pass a resolution proposed last month by Mr. Romaine to set aside $400,000 to begin restoration of the house.

Lisa Keys, legislative aide to Mr. Romaine, said that she expects the resolution will be tabled.

“The legislature is never quick to approve anything that amends the capital budget, especially in these times,” she said. “And the parks trustees have never been in support of saving this house — ever.”

Ms. Keys said that she had sent a letter this week to parks commissioner John Pavicic, requesting that the parks department “hold off on demolition due to the recent swirl of attention” surrounding the house. Ms. Keys added that no matter what action is ultimately taken regarding the badly neglected cottage, demolition “is not imminent.”

“Anytime you need to demolish something, you need permits from the town, and the county has not yet applied for a demolition permit,” she said. “It’s not like the bulldozers will show up tomorrow.”

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