Photos courtesy of Stepping Stones Foundation; All Rights Reserved.
The low-profile home base of AA/Al-Anon cofounders Bill and Lois Wilson is alive and thriving in Northern Westchester.
There is a century-old home in a quiet Katonah neighborhood that has attained national landmark status and draws thousands of visitors from the far corners of the world each year. Yet, Stepping Stones remains largely unknown, even within its hometown.
Foreshadowed by its long driveway, the brown-shingled Dutch Colonial Revival was once home to Bill Wilson, who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous, and his wife, Lois, cofounder of Al-Anon.
It was here, in 1941, six years after Alcoholics Anonymous was founded, that the couple escaped homelessness and dug out from under financial troubles incurred during the Great Depression and Bill’s years of hopeless drinking.
Stepping Stones gave “Bill W.” a home base for spreading the idea of alcoholism as a disease and providing a 12-step program for recovery. He was able to achieve the wherewithal to nurture AA’s growth into a movement that has allowed millions to achieve and sustain sobriety, as well as create a blueprint for other recovery programs.
The two-story home on Oak Road is also where, in 1951, Lois Wilson laid the foundation for Al-Anon, for families and friends of those suffering from alcoholism, which has blossomed into more than 24,000 groups in 118 countries.
In rooms preserved as Lois left them upon her death, in 1988, today’s visitors draw inspiration from the Wilsons’ story of hope and recovery told through their writings, mementos, artifacts, and period furnishings. Among the home’s touchstones are the kitchen table, where a conversation with a childhood friend sparked Bill’s journey to sobriety; the studio — nicknamed Wit’s End — where he drafted many of AA’s seminal publications; and the living room, where the couple entertained guests on the piano and violin.
Photos and proclamations from dignitaries fill walls in an upstairs gallery. Dozens of coffee cups line a kitchen wall, reminders of the fellowship extended to scores of guests who dropped in — often unannounced — at all hours.
“This place is going to be a godsend for Lois and me. … From anyplace in this living room, you may look out over the treetops on a swell view of rolling wooded country,” Bill wrote to AA cofounder Dr. Bob Smith, marveling at the stone fireplace and French doors.
Visitors who owe their recovery to these programs experience a range of emotions, from tearfully dropping to their knees to joining hands in prayer. “It’s a sort of homecoming,” says Sally Corbett-Turco, Stepping Stones’ executive director.
Stepping Stones came into the Wilsons’ lives at a fortuitous moment. Between 1939 and early 1941, the couple moved dozens of times after losing their Brooklyn residence to foreclosure. In 1940, Helen Griffith, a wealthy actress whose husband died of alcoholism, offered to sell them her summer home for $6,500, nothing down, and a $40-a-month payment plan. The Wilsons moved into the seven-room home in April 1941, naming it for the steps leading downhill to the garage, according to Lois.
It became a refuge for those who’d joined the nascent fellowship and others still suffering from the disease. That welcoming spirit lives on in the ethos central to AA and is celebrated during Stepping Stones’ annual picnic, which was held this year on June 3.
Margaret Dettman, Bill Wilson’s great-niece, who visited the Wilsons during the 1950s through 1970s (Bill passed away in 1971), recalled a steady stream of people wandering in and out.
“They always had an open-door policy,” Dettman says. “It was just a very warm and welcoming atmosphere. Bill and Lois were very, very generous and understanding. They didn’t turn people away.”
Stepping Stones tells “a tremendous love story,” Corbett-Turco says.
“This is a place that embodies the Wilsons’ story of perseverance, hope, and recovery,” she continues. “People leave here inspired by learning about what the Wilsons went through and ultimately the love that carried them through. It’s a great success story. It’s valuable for anybody to hear about, no matter what they’re going through, but I think the Wilsons also remind us that alcoholism is a disease; it’s a malady. It’s not a moral failing.”
Corbett-Turco calls the eight-acre homestead “truly a hidden treasure” in part because Stepping Stones has prioritized spending on preservation and operations over paid marketing; and because it is not possible to outreach through AA because their tradition suggests against endorsing outside entities. In fact, AA’s tradition against accepting property donations is what led to the formation of the nonprofit Stepping Stones Foundation, whose mission is to foster understanding of alcoholism and inspire recovery by preserving the home and its trove of historic treasures.
Just as the Wilsons opened their doors to all, technology is opening Stepping Stones’ doors to a wider audience.
An online portal will eventually allow the public to browse thousands of documents and images drawn from a massive digital archive accessible to staff and researchers. Free, live, virtual tours showcase the home and its archival highlights.
The foundation, whose operating budget depends upon donations and sales from the gift shop, hopes this exposure will attract donors and volunteers.
“We’re at a juncture in history where a landmark related to recovery might come up more often in day-to-day conversation today than it might have 10, 20 years ago,” Corbett-Turco says, adding: “We would love for people in the region to know about what a wonderful slice of world history is right here in Northern Westchester that they can visit and embrace and support.”
To request a tour, volunteer, donate, or for details on accessing the digital portal, visit steppingstones.org or call 914.232.4822.