The Helen Keller House

Written By: Ian  Toy

The East End of Long Island was home to the last summer Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller spent together. The pair rented a house on Cedar Beach, in Southold. Annie passed away several weeks later, in autumn of 1936.

Before the Great Depression, the area surrounding Cedar Beach was being prepared for a large subdivision, entitled “Cedar Beach Park”. It was supposed to become a summer colony built around the Cedar Beach Inn, which would include nearly two hundred lots with access to tennis courts, beaches, and boardwalks. Most likely a result of the widespread economic failure, the subdivision was never developed as planned; however, one house was built, and it later became known as the “Helen Keller House”.

During the time of Annie and Helen’s stay, the house was owned by the Rogers family, who purchased it in the early thirties. Their presence on the North Fork’s East End was mentioned in the September 11th, 1936 issue of Suffolk County News, and the September 16th issue of Mid-Island Mail. As a result of Annie’s failing health, they sought a calm, scenic place to spend the summer. Polly Thompson, Helen’s secretary, also accompanied them. According to the Rogers’ realtor, Ed Dickenson, the three women drove out to Cedar Beach, to personally inspect the house, from their residence in Forest Hills.

At the time, the house was fairly new, and was built to reflect traditional Tudor fashion. It featured stucco exterior walls with sharp, gabled roves. A large screened-in porch overlooked the water, which was a perfect source for effortless fresh air.

Evidence provided by Lillian Fanning Townsend, owner of the Townsend Manor Inn from 1925-1945 in Greenport, expresses Helen’s appreciation for the area. She and her son, Joseph Townsend, remembered Helen and Annie, as they dined at the Inn several times over the summer. Although deaf and blind, Helen even attended the movie theatre in Greenport!

Unfortunately, Annie collapsed while wading in the Peconic Bay, and was rushed to the hospital. The rapid decline of her condition concluded the three women’s summer retreat.

The next, and final family to own the home, was the Strauss family. Originally from Germany, they moved to the U.S. in the 1940s to get away from the war. Up until the 1960s, the Tudor-esque house was owned by Strauss, when Suffolk County claimed it through the process of eminent domain.

Ever since, the building has slowly been deteriorating. For a brief period of time, Cornell Cooperative Extension, marine biology center, used the house for lab purposes. Since the house wasn’t kept, it eventually became too unstable to use for any purpose.

In the 1990s, Maryann Strauss Sewell, daughter of the Helen Keller House’s previous owners, offered to buy the house back from Suffolk County, since it clearly wasn’t being used. Since her mother, Elizabeth, was still alive, she thought it would be nice for both of them to see their old house be resurrected. Maryann’s offer was declined, even though the building continued to rot, serving no purpose. The southern side of the house collapsed in the early 2000s, and exposed a large portion of the interior to the elements.

By the time I discovered the history of this unique home, it was scheduled for demolition. Originally, my mother was working for the Census Bureau in 2010, which was how the house was first brought to my attention. She happened across a withered, old house, hidden behind decades of untended trees, on her route. Later that day, she told me about the house. I was nearly thirteen, and fascinated by architecture. The two of us went down to Cedar Beach, and peaked at the house.

After doing some research, I found that Helen Keller had, in fact been a guest at this very house. Between the building’s unusual architecture and Helen Keller’s historical significance, I decided it was a place worthy of being preserved.

With only a few months to spare, I raised enough local and nationwide support for saving the house that I was able to appear in front of the Suffolk County Legislature. I was no longer the only one who wanted to see Helen Keller’s former summer home become a landmark. I gave the Legislature a brief history of the house, and stressed why myself and my community wanted to save it.

To gather information, I contacted Olive Rogers Penfield. She remembered meeting Helen when she was a young girl, when her father and realtor, Ed Dickenson, took her to greet the three women that were going to be renting the house. One of her most significant memories was that Helen noticed her little dog, without even being able to see or hear it.

Next, I contacted Maryann Strauss Sewell. She informed me about how the house was transferred from her parents to the county, and her attempt to buy it back.

Upon recognizing my community’s concern for saving the house, Suffolk County agreed to postpone the demolition. Although I had much support, I ran into obstacles with getting the house’s history properly documented and received by several organizations. By this point, the house had grown even more unstable, and would have needed to be rebuilt almost entirely. If the house had been confirmed an official historic landmark, there would have been a much greater chance for its survival, even if much of it had to be reconstructed.

Since 2010, the house has continued, as it has been for the past fifty years or so, to deteriorate. Suffolk County has stated that it is scheduled for demolition, once again. Since the house is on the verge of collapsing completely, there is not much one can do to save it, now. The best way to look at this situation, at least for those who appreciate the history of this place, is to accept it as a mistake made by Suffolk County, and to learn from it. Most importantly, Helen and Annie’s presence on the Long Island’s East End should never be forgotten.