After Lois and Bill married in 1918, they lived in a succession of apartments in the affluent area of Brooklyn Heights, New York, where Lois had grown up. Some of these apartments were quite sumptuous and in keeping with their situation as Bill's financial career progressed. But when the stock market crashed in 1929, Bill, by then a chronic drinker, could no longer afford to keep any apartment. The Wilsons moved into 182 Clinton Street, where Lois' devoted parents still lived. This humiliating return to her parents' home was assuaged by the fact that Lois would be able to help nurse her mother, who was gravely ill with cancer. However, it was clear that it was Bill's drinking that made the move necessary.
Lois' parents had lived in the large five-floor brownstone house since 1888 when her father, Clark, brought Matilda Sullivan there after their wedding. All six Burnham children (one daughter died in infancy) were born in the house and lived there with the exception of summers in Vermont.
The Wilsons lived at 182 Clinton Street for eight years until 1938. During that period Lois' mother died, her father remarried and moved elsewhere, Bill's drinking progressed to hopelessness, Ebby T. visited Bill and talked to him about spiritual recovery, and Bill eventually had the spiritual experience that led him to a sober life and the creation of AA. In 1938, Dr. Burnham died and, unable to keep the brownstone without his assistance, Lois and Bill were forced to leave it.
Bill and Lois packed their bags and gave away truckloads of furniture. They held on to pieces that were valuable or had special meaning and put those in storage at a fee of $20 per month. The Wilsons reluctantly accepted the generosity of their friends, living here and there or as Lois put it, "from pillar to post," making 52 moves in two years.
Lois made a small salary working as a department story decorator and Bill spent all of his time working with alcoholics and helping to create the program that would eventually be called Alcoholics Anonymous.
Being without a permanent residence was difficult for Lois, who had long yearned to have a family and home. She was unable to bear children, and at the age of 48 this reality was particularly tough on her. It seemed however that God had a plan for Lois and Bill. The solution to their problem came to them like a miracle.
There was a woman who owned a house in Bedford Hills in Westchester County, New York. It was a summer house she had built in 1920 that was rarely used and was boarded up most of the time. The woman's name was Helen Griffith, an interesting coincidence since Griffith was Bill's maternal family name and his own middle name. Helen Griffith was the widow of an alcoholic and the friend of an AA member, Joan C., whom she occasionally accompanied to meetings. Helen met Lois and Bill a few times and thought they were wonderful people and was distressed to learn they were without a permanent home. Through Joan, who was also a real estate agent, Helen suggested her Bedford Hills "cottage" for the Wilsons.
At first Lois and Bill discounted the idea, but sometime in January 1941, while staying with friends in nearby Chappaqua, they decided to satisfy their curiosity and look at the house.
They immediately loved it. Bill especially liked the large stone fireplace in the living room, which reminded him of the fireplace in the East Dorset Inn of his grandparents where he was born. Lois, an amateur naturalist, loved the French doors that opened out toward the woods. They both wanted it, but the idea of buying a house was fantastic.
Helen wanted the Wilsons to have it, too, and made an extraordinary offer: house and small garage on 1.5 acres for $6,500 with no down payment. The terms were $40 a month against a mortgage she would hold, charging them no interest for at least the first year. Could they swing that? They were pretty sure they could. The furniture would come out of storage and there would be $20 there, and they were pretty sure they could ask Don V. for loans if they needed it, which they often did.
On April 12, 1941, the Wilsons moved into the house. After 23 years of marriage Lois and Bill finally had a home of their own. They lived there for the rest of their lives.
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Welcome, come on in.
Here, you see the living room as it looks when you first enter the front door. There is a guest book for visitors to sign in, just as Lois left it.
When the Wilsons moved here, away from the hustle and bustle of New York City and as Bill put it "all that A.A. business", they thought they would have a retreat - a place to have the domestic married life they were waiting to enjoy. That, however, was not to be the case.
In keeping with the principles of the AA way of life, Stepping Stones was a center of AA activity, and friends old and new were always welcome there. Stepping Stones was more of a retreat for everyone else in their lives than for the Wilsons.
Lois' favorite spot in the living room was the wall that encases three sets of French doors. The doors face several acres of lush woods. Always the nature lover, she was delighted to have so much of the outdoors visible from inside.
Lois felt that home wasn't "home" until the curtains were up, but she didn't have enough money for material to make them. So she painted curtains on the wall around the doors. Some years later Lois did have money for material and made curtains to replace the painted swags. As soon as she did, she realized that she preferred the painted curtains and regretted the change.
|The winding staircase leads to the second floor. On either side are the kitchen (left) and a guest room known as Helen's Room (right). Above the staircase opening is a balcony that overlooks the living room.|
As a hub of AA and other social activity, the house never looked this empty. In fact, it was a rare occurrence that there was no one home but the Wilsons.
Nell Wing went to work for Bill at the AA headquarters in 1947. In 1950 she became Bill’s personal assistant and stayed that until his death. Nell was also the first AA archivist. In some ways she was the child that Bill and Lois never had; she was certainly one of the closest people to them.
Nell showed up in New York City around 1947 planning to work a temp job for a year to save money to study sculpting in Mexico. At the temp office, she was told they had no work for her. As Nell was leaving, discouraged, the secretary said, almost under her breath, “well, we do have one job, but it’s working for alcoholics, so we don’t think you would be interested.” Nell had read the Jack Alexander article about AA in the Saturday Evening Post and loved the idea. “I’ll take it!” she said enthusiastically. She never left for Mexico.
Nell Wing came up to Stepping Stones almost every other weekend, to take dictation from Bill and help keep him organized. Later, she was the other person besides Lois who flew with Bill to Miami for an emergency hyperbaric breathing apparatus in the hopes it would prolong his life.
In Grateful to Have Been There Nell wrote:
In 1954 I began going up to Stepping Stones an average of every second or third weekend because Bill preferred to work there. Stepping Stones in time became my second home, and Bill and Lois, my family.
Once I returned to New York from visiting friends, stunned by the death of the long-time friend I was about to marry. Bill and Lois drove down from Bedford Hills to pick me up and take me back to Stepping Stones where, for many days, they comforted me as best they could. Another time, I was caught by a sudden appendicitis attack and rushed to the hospital. Bill dashed down to make sure I was OK, and after the operation and recovery period took me back to Stepping Stones for recuperation.” (Grateful to Have Been There, p. 32.)
Nell described life at Stepping Stones:
Life at Stepping Stones always followed a comfortable, domestic pattern. They shared an early morning “quiet time,” a custom retained from their Oxford Group experience. Lois was an avid reader on a variety of subjects, particularly science, art, and archeology. She enjoyed reading aloud to Bill during their quiet time and he enjoyed listening. They also included a prayer and short period of silent meditation, after which Bill would go downstairs, make coffee and return with it to their bedroom. Then they would have breakfast and get to work.
Around the house, Bill dressed very casually. He preferred country-style plaid shirts, a jacket, boots, and khaki pants. Outside he liked to wear a baseball or railroad worker’s cap, usually khaki-colored too... On my weekends at Bedford Hills, more often than not we would work upstairs. Lois worked on Al-Anon business at her desk and Bill dictated to me. Or, if he was through dictating, he might nap on the couch while I was typing or filing. Other times, Bill and I would be at the same routine in the studio up the hill, while Lois tended to the seasonal needs of the property.”
Dubbed Helen's Room by Lois, this guest bedroom is where Bill's half-sister Helen lived for a short period of time and would stay whenever she visited. This quote from Pass It On sets the scene:
"That house is heated from a furnace in one big register in the middle of the floor. Well, in those days, it was coal, and you had to go down and shovel it, and in the morning it would be cold, and somebody would have to go down and open the door and-- drafts and whatever-- so the heat would come up. That was a little too much, so he got an alarm clock. Remember the old Rube Goldberg things? Well, he rigged an alarm clock and some string and a big cement block and attached it to the furnace door, and the alarm clock would go off and move this string which did something, and this big block would fall down and the furnace door would open. This was great, except that of course we had coal dust-- you got coal, you're going to have coal dust-- and that got in the clock, and it didn't work.
So he cleaned up the clock. My room [was] on the first floor. Bill and Lois were upstairs. He bored a hole right by my bed, brought the alarm clock up, set the alarm clock. So in the morning about six o'clock, the alarm clock would go off, and I'd reach over and pull the darn string, and all these things would happen, and the furnace door would open, and we'd have heat. When I stayed in town -- why, everybody froze to death." - Pass It On, pg. 263.
By far the most important piece in the kitchen-- in the house for that matter-- is the kitchen table. This modest enameled-top wooden table came from the Burnham house in Brooklyn Heights.
It is where Bill sat with Ebby T. in later November 1934 when his old friend amazingly refused to join Bill and instead told him that there was a spiritual solution to his drinking problem.
It was at that table where one of the major tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous was formed when Ebby told an argumentative Bill to choose his own concept of God as a higher power rather than trying to convince Bill to change his beliefs. From the AA Big Book:
"Near the end of that bleak November, I sat drinking in my kitchen. My musing was interrupted by the telephone. The cheery voice of an old school friend asking if he might come over. He was sober. It was years since I could remember his coming to New York in that condition. I was amazed. Rumor had it that he had been committed for alcoholic insanity. I wondered how he had escaped. Of course he would have dinner, and then I could drink openly with him. Unmindful of his welfare, I thought only of recapturing the spirit of other days. There was that time we chartered an airplane to complete a jag! His coming was an oasis in this dreary desert of futility. The very thing - an oasis! Drinkers are like that.
The door opened and he stood there, fresh skinned and glowing. There was something about his eyes. He was inexplicably different. What had happened? I pushed a drink across the table. He refused it. Disappointed but curious, I wondered what had got into the fellow. He wasn't himself. "Come what's all this about?" I queried. He looked straight at me. Simply but smilingly, he said "I've got religion." I was aghast. So that was it - last summer an alcoholic crackpot; now I suspected, a little cracked about religion. He had that starry-eyed look. Yes, the old boy was on fire all right. But bless his heart, let him rant. Besides, my gin would last longer than his preaching.
But he did no ranting. In a matter of fact way he told how two men had appeared in court, persuading the judge to suspend his commitment. They had told of a simple religious idea and a practical program of action. That was two months ago and the result was self-evident. It worked!
He had come to pass his experience along to me - if I cared to have it. We talked for hours...my friend sat before me, and he made the point blank declaration that God had done for him what he could not do for himself. His human will had failed. Doctors had pronounced him incurable. Society was about to lock him up. Like myself, he had admitted complete defeat. Then he had, in effect been raised from the dead, suddenly taken from the scrap heap to a better life better than the best he had ever known! Had this power originated in him? Obviously, it had not...
My friend suggest what then seemed a novel idea. He said, "Why don't you choose your own conception of God?" That statement hit me hard...it was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning."
- Alcoholics Anonymous Third Edition, pages 10-12
|The dishwasher was a gift to Lois from Bill in 1948.|
While the rooms on the first floor are rather elegant, the kitchen is downright homey. Like many a kitchen in a summer home, the room has exposed wood walls, open cabinets and lots of coffee cups.
The china on the shelves, however, attest to a more genteel life. Some of the beautiful china patterns include Tiffany and Royal Doulton and several items on display are beautiful examples of fine porcelain. What gives the house its charm, however, is that these exquisite pieces mingle with Saucy Seafood jar glasses and an odd assortment of handmade knickknacks and souvenir gifts.
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The Gallery, as Lois called it is what we like to think of as Lois' gift to you. She knew that people would want to visit long after she had passed, and she dedicated the last years of her life to developing this musuemlike display.
The Gallery illustrates the history of AA and Al-Anon, as well as the Wilsons' personal lives in just the way she wanted them to be seen. Support from our donors has enabled us to leave the Gallery intact as Lois left it.
This portion of the northwest wall shows two of the six alcoves upstairs. This wall consists mostly of AA history, people and events. It includes Lois' explanations of each item, which she prepared in her nineties. It is in this area that Lois' elevator would emerge from the bedroom below to bring her to her own bedroom upstairs.
The south end of the gallery shows the fieldstone fireplace and the entrances on either side of it to the Master Bedroom.
The boomerangs are gifts and represent Bill's adventure crafting a working boomerang when he was a child. The cradle belonged to Lois;she said she got it just because she liked it.
For years Bill and Lois regretted that they couldn't have children. Not until later did they know that if they had a child, they never would have been able to devote their lives to the nurturing of AA and Al-Anon. Figuratively at least, the couple that bore no children ended up with millions of them.
"For my part, I would not let myself perceive that I was not as happy as I should have been after all my dreams of Bill's sobriety had come true. Although my joy and faith in his rebirth continued, I missed our companionship. We were seldom alone together now. There was no time for outdoor weekends. Bill was busy working with his alcoholics...I felt left out and unneeded.
My daydreams as a young girl were of changing bad people into good people. My mother seemed to have this gift; everyone who had intimate contact with her was the better for it, I felt. Bill's power drives were nothing to my subtle self-assurance, which, however I thought were not too evident to observers as I was different and shy in groups.
With this background, was it any wonder that I thought I could inspire Bill to stop drinking and that I kept trying for seventeen years? Even after Bill's spiritual awakening it didn't occur to me that I needed to change. One Sunday Bill casually said to me, "We'll have to hurry or we'll be late for the...meeting." had a shoe in my hand, and before I knew what was happening, I had thrown it at him and said, 'Damn your old meetings!'' - Lois Remembers, page 98.
Lois said that this display of anger surprised her more than it did Bill. At the meeting a friend helped Lois realize that she had been trying to manage her life all by herself. It was then that she realized that she needed to apply the 12 steps to her own life. She worked the program that way until Al-Anon was founded in 1951. She called the day of the shoe-throwing incident "the day I woke up."
Lois's desk is located on the northwest corner of the upstairs gallery which is also the site of the first Al-Anon office. Al-Anon was founded at Stepping Stones in 1951 when Lois and Anne B. started what would be today known as Al-Anon Family Groups, which also includes Alateen. The fledgling fellowship operated out of Stepping Stones for eight months when as a result of growing membership, it moved into larger quarters in New York City at AA's 24th Street Clubhouse.
|This is the view one sees of the Gallery when entering the room from the Master Bedroom. Lois' desk is in the far left corner. The light box to the right of the window contains transparencies taken of the Wilsons during the filming of Bill's Story, a documentary often shown at AA conferences and conventions.|
|The west window of the master bedroom overlooks the front gardens and main entrance. Being a summer home originally, the house was designed for casual living for a few months out of the year. This explains the makeshift location of a sink behind the left curtain and a shower in the left side of the alcove. |
The right alcove contains a somewhat updated bathroom for Lois designed for an older person. The dresser holds photos of the Wilsons and personal items. The photos around the mirror are of AA co-founder Bob Smith, Fayette Griffin, Bill's grandfather, Bill's mother, Emily Griffin Wilson Strobel, Bill's father, Gilman Wilson, and a particularly lovely portrait of Lois taken while she and Bill were in British Columbia visiting Gilman in 1947.
|Lois and Bill's bed faces the south windows of the master bedroom. As with most of the furniture in the house, this bed came from the Brooklyn Heights home of Lois' parents, Clark and Matilda Burham, the same home she and Bill shared until 1938. Lois and the other five Burham children were born in the bed.|
|The east window of the master bedroom faces the back of the house and overlooks lawn and several acres of woods.The photos to the right include Lois and Bill at the downstairs piano, and one of Lois' parents at Emerald Lake.|