The Feb. 14, 1965, Denton Record-Chronicle headline read “Fairhaven Lights are on.” According to Ben Ivey, “Happiness lives here, and that should be the goal we always strive to maintain.”
Ivey was the retirement home’s finance committee chairman and founding manager, but the drive came from Myrtle Richardson and Bessie Shook. They must have breathed a sigh of relief after a decade spent raising $110,000 for land, equipment, extension of a city street and a $484,000 federal loan for an innovative retirement home that was a dramatic departure from nursing homes.
Fairhaven is a tale of what happens when a city comes together to support a cause.
The building features two wings connected by an enclosed center walkway. Landscaped courtyards are visible through picture windows in each room, with multiple lounges and a distinctive main lobby fireplace. An intercom in each bedroom put help within easy reach.
Record-Chronicle Editor Mike Engleman’s articles on Fairhaven explained the nonprofit venture’s goal of housing elders in good health in apartment-style pleasant surroundings. An editorial praised Richardson and Shook because “overcoming some of the early obstacles of the dream probably never would have been tackled by men — it took the patience of women.”
The quest for the retirement home began when Richardson, who owned the Vanity Fair Clothing Store near Texas Woman’s University, couldn’t find suitable accommodations for her mother. Richardson, an active member of the fashion industry who went to New York City four times a year to bring Denton the latest fashions, was also the president of Denton’s Business and Professional Women’s Club.
Retirement homes didn’t exist prior to the Social Security Act of 1935. American colonists’ “poorhouses” were terrible places for mentally ill and elderly people needing care. Around 1900, rest homes and nursing homes served as warehouses where people went to die.
Richardson’s passion started a Denton revolution.
Fairhaven was designed to be “fair,” meaning affordable on a pension, and a “haven” for Denton’s elderly, with picture windows, gardens and craft rooms. Rooms were staggered so apartment doors open to the wide hall didn’t look into someone else’s room.
Richardson and Shook were assisted by James Reed, the minister of the First Christian Church, and 47 committee members. Reed was named “Preacher of the Year” in 1960 by Pulpit Magazine.
In November 1958, the location committee selected 3 1/3 acres of land on an extension of Bell Avenue near Peach Street for the mature trees and overlook to Sherman Drive.
The Fairhaven Board announced the engagement of architects O’Neil Ford, A.B. Swank and Roland Laney in October 1959. Ford, a Denton native who maintained close ties, is arguably Texas’ most prominent architect. Ford and Swank designed Texas Woman’s University’s Little Chapel-in-the-Woods. Swank, who designed Presbyterian Village in Dallas, was also one of the great innovative figures of Texas architecture. Laney, a Denton architect, supervised Fairhaven’s construction.
Committee members raised money for a decade, including cake sales, yearly fairs on the courthouse lawn, dinner with elected officials such as Alonzo Jamison, coffees and teas, book reviews, sales of handiwork and household goods, brick sales, community canvasses, memorials, game parties, raffles and outright begging.
Mrs. Edward Lane helped the Ariel Club raise money, as did the Justin Business and Professional Club. Mrs. Ward Maxwell, who lived at 607 Pearl St., was a contestant on Queen for a Day, a national television show, and her wish for a television set for Fairhaven was granted.
Businesses helped, too. A dry cleaner cleaned clothing, and a bike shop repaired bicycles donated for resale. Acme Brick donated the first 10,000 bricks for construction.
Shook, a former North Texas State University English professor, was honored when Mayor W.F. Brooks Sr. declared Sept. 24, 1962, as Miss Bessie Shook Day. More than a hundred supporters joined NTSU President J.C. Matthews to recognize her as one of the early normal college faculty members.
Community support continued after the retirement home opened. The Fairhaven Store continued to resell home goods to repay the federal loan.
Honored in 1967 as the most beautiful home for senior citizens in North Texas by the North Texas Association of Homes for the Aging, Fairhaven was a communitywide effort. It closed in 2007 after 42 years of caring for Denton’s elders.