Written by Mary Ellen Porrazzo Friday, 30 September 2011 00:00
Walk inside and you enter the place where a vision to educate deaf children in a loving, family environment grew into The Mill Neck Family of Organizations that includes award-winning schools for deaf children and adults and children with speech and language delays and autism spectrum disorders, innovative teacher training, job-seeking and creating programs, ground-breaking technology and research and so much more. The forward thinking and concrete action that flourished behind these doors thrives to this day and promises a future as rich as its past.
At the Sept. 25 visitors tour, nearly 60 years to the day the Manor House was dedicated, docent Ken Thalheimer told the gathering of 19 men and women that the massive oak doors are 450 to 500 years old.
The mansion itself and the gardens and grounds hearken back to an era when elegance was the norm on Long Island’s Gold Coast and luxury was almost routine.
While that age may now be assigned to the literature of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the substance and determination of the era’s businessmen and their commitment to excellence is evident in the people who work for and support The Mill Neck Family of Organizations. Docent-in-training Tracey Urzi’s eyes sparkled when she said their school is “run by people with really good hearts, people who really care.”
Overlooking the Long Island Sound, the Tudor-style granite manor sits on an 86-acre estate, which was built for Robert Leftwich Dodge and his wife, Lillian Sefton Dodge, in the 1920s. Originally called the Sefton Manor, it was purchased in 1949 by the Lutheran Friends for the Deaf, the founding organization of The Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf.
It originally housed an elementary school and many of the young students who attended. A photo contained in the graceful hardcover book Mill Neck at the Millennium shows four young children pedaling their tricycles past the main entrance, those stately doors standing sentry. Another photo shows two young children, a boy and a girl, lost in a book in a favorite reading spot – one of the spectacular fireplaces – a perfect hide-away to spend some cherished time.
Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf was housed in the Manor until 2002 and has since moved to another location on campus, the state of the art “Deaf Education Center.”
Docent Thalheimer led the group into the Great Hall where a copy of the book, with the Manor on its cover, rested on an elegant table. To the right is the chapel, dedicated in 1958, once a parlor, now a peaceful, quiet space used to this day for services. To the left of the Great Hall is the kitchen area with a window that looks out on a large rock of significance. Known as Signal Rock, it is said that it served as a signal across Long Island Sound to Connecticut for the Matinecock Indians many years ago.
Turn back just a bit and take the carpeted staircase halfway up and it becomes clear what Docent Thalheimer meant when he said the Manor “makes full use of the light that comes through.” Up the steps from the Great Hall and its 12-foot carved plaster ceiling are five breathtaking stained glass windows depicting scenes from five Shakespearean plays. On this brilliant day, light gently streamed through, casting a glow on the carpet that Thalheimer pointed out featured colors complementing the windows. He said when Mr. Dodge commissioned them in the 1920s, the windows cost $10,000 apiece.
On the second floor resides the bedroom of the Dodge’s only daughter, Mary. Its ornate ceiling is unique. In fact, no two ceilings in the Manor are alike.
As tour-goers moved from room to room, sometimes taking advantage of cozy window alcoves to rest, gentle “ohs” and “ahs” could be heard. One man, clearly knowledgeable about woodworking, touched one engraved wall and remarked “so beautiful, so smooth.”
Upstairs on the third floor are the rooms, which once served as servant’s quarters. Docent Thalheimer proudly pointed out that their “servants were always treated with respect” and he said an assignment in the manor was quite a privilege.
One upstairs guest room featured original advertising on its walls. Mrs. Dodge was the heiress of the Harriet Hubbard Ayer Cosmetic Company. Another upstairs room featured a two-way mirror. It was once the school’s principal’s office.
There are 34 rooms, 16 bathrooms and two elevators in addition to two downstairs vaults practically hidden in the wooden walls and really, only visible upon close inspection.
Visible outside the many windows are the beautiful grounds and gardens. Although the tour was on a sunny, warm day, it was possible to envision a winter memory of Lucille Luebke, the wife of the beloved first headmaster Melvin Leubke. In the book, Mill Neck at the Millennium, she recounted tobogganing with the children on the manor’s magnificent rolling lawn.
In front of the entrance and those imposing doors is a working fountain, imported from Venice that served as the center of a sundial. With benches on either side, one could only imagine resting on an autumn day amid the glory of the colors or in spring as the bulbs blossom and the leaves make their appearance. English beech trees line the walk to the Mill Neck Manor Memorial Garden, dedicated in 1997, situated right before the water fountain.
Mary McKenna, marketing communications coordinator of The Mill Neck Family of Organizations, praised the crew of six maintenance workers for keeping the grounds meticulous, always inspecting them before and after bouts of serious weather, such as recent tropical storm Irene and tending to damage immediately.
The Manor, the recipient of many honors, notably designation by The Interior Department to the National Register of Historic Places, now hosts corporate meetings and retreats, location shoots and other events including Designers’ Showcases, in addition to docent-led tours that take you behind those doors into an extraordinary past that gave birth to a present and future of promise and hope.
More information about tours is available at www. millneck.org.