Women have done important projects throughout Denton’s history. Denton’s Fairhaven Retirement Home, opened on Valentine’s Day 1965, was built one cup of coffee, one slice of cake and one brick at a time.
But Denton’s history of caring for elders began in 1883.
English-style poor houses for homeless and elderly that multiplied after the Civil War were terrible places where people went to die. In 1883, forward-thinking Denton County commissioners established a poor farm on Mingo Road, instructing Superintendent Roland Laney to treat “inmates” humanely.
When local business owner Myrtle Richardson couldn’t find a suitable place for her mother to live in 1956, she decided to build a home that would be a “fair” price and a beautiful “haven.” Richardson, along with Bessie Shook and Christine Canafax, began meeting with 40 committee members at the First Christian Church, supported by such men as Fred Rayzor, Ben Ivey and Fred Patterson. It would be a 10-year journey.
At the July 27, 1957, initial fundraiser, a cake sale and dinner at the Southern Hotel, Denton House Rep. Alonzo Jamison said: “Helping provide a better life for those growing old is a project worthy of everyone’s attention.” Denton County National Bank donated space at 108 W. Pecan St. for the “Opportunity Store” to sell donated home goods benefiting the building fund. Both projects continued for a decade. Multiple businesses donated goods, services and money, and an estimated 200 women canvased neighborhoods raising funds.
A May 1959 Denton Record-Chronicle editorial commended Richardson for a series of coffees whittling away $9,500 of the $10,000 purchase price for the 3 1/3-acre lot as “another example of what happens when a group of women make up their mind about something.”
Architectural dream team O’Neil Ford, Arch Swank and Roland Laney agreed to design Fairhaven in October 1959. Ford, a Denton native internationally acclaimed for regional modernism, planned the overall design. Swank, who was also well known, concentrated on the interior after designing Dallas’ Presbyterian Village. Roland Laney, the poor farm superintendent’s grandson, oversaw local construction and promoted the vision.
Fairhaven’s visionaries cared deeply about the modern design. Ford’s signature concrete roof was poured on site. The H-shaped building with long, wide corridors allowed exercise in inclement weather, multiple lounges facilitated activity, and staggered doorways increased privacy. In the style of regional modernism, local building materials were used to complement the landscape, and picture windows in each room showcased the carefully selected tree-studded lot.
After a Jan. 19, 1964, groundbreaking, a Record-Chronicle editorial praised the group for “overcoming some of the early obstacles … that probably never would have been tackled by men — it took the patience of women.” Their $100,000 initial fundraising goal morphed to $600,000. City officials made the nonprofit pay for the road extension to Fairhaven, a common demand of for-profit developers, but fundraising became more determined with each setback.
Fairhaven’s historical significance is partly due to its design but also because it represents a community movement. The North Texas Association of Homes for the Aging named it the 1967 Most Beautiful North Texas Senior Citizen Home.
Fairhaven closed after 42 years in 2007, and the empty building became a vandalism magnet. Code enforcement labeled it dilapidated, citing it repeatedly. In 2012, a New York developer with a Grapevine P.O. box gained traction from Denton’s Planning Department to demolish the building. Local historian Mike Cochran helped defeat their efforts.
Austin-based Investcor, Historic Denton and the Texas Historic Commission collaborated in 2018 to gain tax incentives to rehabilitate Fairhaven. The building is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Investcor has spent over $5 million on the project. Construction is nearing completion, and it’s slated to reopen sometime this year to once again care for Denton’s elders.