Story by Sara Paul
On Mar. 23, 2016, enthusiastic home remodeler Timothy Jon Mitts closed on a once-in-a-lifetime project, a run-down Monroe mansion with no less than 10 bedrooms and nine fireplaces. Interestingly though, the history buff with an eye for old beauty had no idea that the 1903 structure had such a rich, powerful, and meaningful past.
It wasn’t until the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) knocked on the centuries old wooden front door that Tim started to comprehend what his historic, heartfelt heels had stumbled upon.
The property, located at 236 High St. in Monroe, is none other than Rest Haven, a 20th century sanctuary of peace and comfort for adult blind women, once owned by Moses Charles (MC) Migel, founder and first president of the AFB. The house was visited by Helen Keller.
“When I found out, my heart fell,” exclaimed Mitts, who, with HRR Corp partner Steven Navarro, has worked tirelessly on the restoration and future plans for the estate.
“At that moment, he freaked out… and he’s been freaking out ever since,” chuckled Navarro, who provides much of the necessary beautification funds.
Nearly 150 people attended the ribbon cutting ceremony on Sat., Oct. 13 celebrating Rest Haven House’s induction into both the Federal and State registries for historic places. With a relatively short approval process, taking just under nine months, Mitts is confident that the property will be nominated as a National landmark in about a year.
“This is not just a home; it was a place for those who needed it, for disadvantaged citizens, and it’s an honor to be able to resurrect something like this,” commented Long Island born Mitts, who plans to open the doors once again, this time as an adult care facility.
From 1923 to 1968, Rest Haven functioned as a home for blind women. Historical information has shown that Helen Keller had a large impact on the management of the home, serving as an AFB Board trustee until her death in 1968. HRR Corp is dedicated to preserving this invaluable historical site by reopening its doors and allowing the public to walk the grounds that Helen Keller once did, according to the group’s website.
With a chef style kitchen, six bathrooms, and two toilet rooms filling 9,350 square feet of living space, the pristine museum meets modern mansion will be able to accommodate 12 individuals.
Rest Haven has Ties to Warwick
In an article published in the Warwick Valley Dispatch on Feb. 11, 1903, only 18 years into the paper’s publishing history, the story entitled, “A Stately Mansion,” told of the home in Monroe that had been built by the Welch Brothers of Warwick.
The photographs that accompanied the article were taken by E.F. Still, also of Warwick. The summer home of Charles McKendrick, built in 1902, was located on five acres of land and consisted of 9,350 square feet of living space. That article now resides in a glass case in the Rest Haven foyer.
Truly a blessed event, the sunny-skied afternoon ribbon cutting included three separate blessings.
First, the Reverend Robert Radak from First Presbyterian Church in Monroe gave a prayer, commending the site for being, “a place of respite, learning and peace. Its history and purpose is an example of what the world can and should be.”
Artie Quentzel, representing the Jewish faith, bestowed a blessing for something new “like a new baby.” He later sang Alleluia in the crowded, low lit parlor while Marchello, a 14-year-old Washingtonville resident, who is legally blind, played on a baby grand piano underneath a 1903 chandelier.
Reverend Philip Paul from Sacred Heart Church in Monroe also spoke.
Village of Monroe Mayor Neil Dwyer commented, “We are revisiting history and making it ours. A key piece of life is to know the past so we know where our future lies. Rest Haven has an incredible history and most definitely one worthy of repeating.”
The ribbon cutting was preceded by a speaker engagement ceremony at the Monroe-Woodbury High School where Warwick historian Dr. Richard Hull gave remarks as well.
AFB staff were excited to be a part of the day’s festivities.
“It’s a huge celebration of the history of the AFB, the Village of Monroe and possibilities created for women who were blind and poor, and in that time, persecuted,” said Adrianna Montague, AFB spokesperson.
“It was the possibility of having a full life and it’s a reminder of the significance of the 20 million Americans who are blind or visually impaired. We need to provide opportunities and ensure equal access to education and jobs, and this piece of history is a reminder that it can be done; we all need to get behind this cause,” she said.
Also present were previous owners, the Lantz family; members of the AHRC; and Mitts’s primary volunteer restoration crew: Larry Kilduff, Manny Valesquez, and Pamela Lee.
Assemblyman Karl A. Brabanec; Peter Tuohy, Monroe Legislator; Councilman Sal Scancarello, Town of Monroe Board member; Monroe Councilman Rick Colon; and Village of Monroe Trustee Carey Alley were also present for the classy event, which featured cocktails and hors d’ouevres. The gala was catered by Pamela’s Traveling Feast, with musical entertainment by the George Romano Band.
While revelers roamed the spacious mansion and chit chatted, another interesting couple emerged. Shera and Ken McFarlin now own the MC Miguel Mansion in Monroe, where Helen Keller also slept. Town of Monroe historian Jim Nelson listened as they told the story of their old home.
Anthony Rizzo, Minister at Our Faith Ministry, later blessed the house and “all the spirits who are still here,” pondering that he could “feel the spirits and see the shadows of those still here. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Staring at the names of residents sweetly, yet solidly scrolled on the pale walls, Minister Rizzo said, “The spirits are simply telling us, ‘Thank God it’s still here and may many more come here and be treated in the kind way we were.’”
Navarro looked around as well, pondering, “I cannot imagine what it took to build this in 1903.”
Mitts quickly retorted with a grin, “I could not have imagined what it would be like to work on this in 2016!”
Mitts seriously proclaimed though, “As a group, we’ve been given to preserve what could have been lost; we’ve been given an obligation by fate, and we are now connected to something magical.”
For more information about Rest Haven, visit www.helenkellermonroeny.com/
Thanks to former Warwick Valley Dispatch reporter Lon Tytell for his contributions to this story.