When one thinks back on the past year, a few words stick out: family, friends, love and togetherness. These are the important things in life that have really come to the forefront in 2020 and beyond. Life as we know it has changed in many ways and people are learning how to live in this “new normal.”
Armonk resident John Diaconis is one of those people.
A partner at White Plains law firm Bleakley Platt & Schmidt, LLP, he is also a former New Castle Town Board member. Diaconis is now President of Friends of Miller House/Washington’s Headquarters, having been a longtime advocate for the North White Plains historical site.
Diaconis moved to Chappaqua in 1990, when he says, the area was semi-rural and very quiet. He relocated to Armonk ten years ago, where he now lives with his wife Ann Dantzig and her 91-year-old mother, Janice Rabinowitz, whom he says “has more energy than all of us.”
Diaconis served on the New Castle Town Board for five years and was the Town Prosecutor until moving to Armonk in 2010. He credits his time on the board with his eventual involvement with Miller House.
“I moved to Armonk in 2010 and the first thing I became involved with was Miller House,” says Diaconis. He was asked to participate by Dorrie Watson, a founder of the North Castle Historical Society and town historian, whom he says was a legend in North Castle. The first order of business was to help work on getting the house refurbished and renovated, as it had been neglected for a number of years.
“Credit goes to George Latimer: he spearheaded the renovation,” says Diaconis. The Miller House hopes to be back open to the public in the near future, but for now they will offer virtual programs.
As the world began to shut down last March, working from home became the norm for many, including Diaconis. As he says, no one was pressured to go into the office and that it is fortunate that most of the work he does can be done from home. Now, the firm is back up and running at 100% with all safety features, such as protective glass in place. Diaconis works in the office as much as he can now, but employees still have the option to stay home when what they are doing does not require them to be in the office. In many ways, it seems the work-life balance has greatly shifted for everyone over the past year.
Appreciating One Another
Diaconis definitely understands the vast importance of family, especially at this time in the world. Unfortunately like most of us, he has also experienced loss. Diaconis’ son Ari passed away three years ago at the age of 33. While he was sick, he spoke a lot about the importance of relationships. As Diaconis says, “He was a really smart kid. My family and I are very attuned to appreciate one another and our friendships. If anything, the social distancing and stay-at-home parts of the virus have reinforced the importance of connection with people.” Ari and his sister Alix both attended school in Chappaqua. After graduating from Horace Greeley High School, Alix is now living in Brooklyn and working as a video editor. Ari went on to graduate from Cornell Law School and practiced law in New York City.
Diaconis also has two step-daughters. Natasha graduated from Byram Hills High School while Lexi graduated from the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry. Lexi lives in Providence and Natasha in San Francisco. The family does a lot of Zoom calls and speaks regularly on the phone. Alix comes up to visit after quarantining and Diaconis visits her in Brooklyn as well.
Everything that’s been happening this last year has made them all closer. The community has definitely come together during this time as well. Diaconis says, “Armonk is an interesting town: everyone is pulling together.” North Castle Town Supervisor Michael Schiliro always starts each board meeting with “Dorrie TIME”. These are good deeds that people in the local community have done inspired by Dorrie Watson. “A lot of people are involved in community efforts to help homeless people,” says Diaconis.
Local churches are doing outreach and are doing what they can to provide shelter as well as community members volunteering with food distribution and at soup kitchens. There is also a large effort to preserve local history: many in the community are actively involved with helping to fund the library and historical society.
Diaconis really enjoys the sense of community Armonk provides as well as many of the local spots in town–La Mer Seafood, David Chen and DeCicco & Sons included. He spends a lot of time downtown, as it is so walkable and vibrant. As for his role in public service, it all comes down to one thing. “My mentor was Marion Sinek, former New Castle Town Supervisor. People are in public service to try and do good things for people. I try to follow that motto now, as do others in public service.”
Opening Soon: The Landmark Miller House
Situated on a stretch of Virginia Road in North White Plains sits the Elijah J. Miller House. Once almost lost to disrepair, the historic home has undergone an extensive renovation thanks in part to Westchester County and Friends of Miller House/Washington’s Headquarters. The site was the home of Elijah and Ann Miller and it is where George Washington once stayed during the American Revolution. Unfortunately, it had spent more than 20 years with sustained structural damage and visitation was not allowed.
In 2019, County Executive George Latimer led efforts to renovate the house so that visitors could once again come and learn about its historical significance. John Diaconis, President of Friends of Miller House says, “Credit goes to George Latimer, he spearheaded the renovation.” And Kathy O’Connor, Commissioner of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation goes on to say, “We were thrilled that the restoration of the Miller House was a priority for the Latimer administration. We look forward to the day when we can begin programming again to educate children about this important landmark and history of their County.”
Originally situated on a 100-acre farm, the house is an 18th Century Rhode Island-style farmhouse, built in 1738 with an addition built in 1770. Miller House served as General Washington’s sleeping quarters and command post during the 1776 Battle of White Plains. Shortly before the battle, Elijah, along with his two sons, John and Elijah, Jr. were killed.
Ann then turned the house into a field hospital, and many soldiers were tended to by her and others in the house and on the grounds. Eventually Charles Lee, Washington’s second-in-command was court-marshaled and the last phase of his trial was held at Miller House. In 1976, Miller House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated a Local Historic Landmark by the Town of North Castle.
Diaconis is looking forward to the day Miller House can re-open its doors to the public. “We would love to get school trips up and running again, it’s an important part of what we plan to do–to get things back to where they were.”
He has received emails from people all around the Northeast saying how they used to go to Miller House on field trips and that it was a highlight of their elementary school experience.
The Friends of Miller House board includes some millennials, whom the group hopes to connect with younger kids to help expose them to the important local history right here in Westchester County. “Anyone can join the Friends; we always want input from people with suggestions about programs they’d like to see and more. We want to hear from the public.”
For now, Miller House is planning a variety of virtual events including its George Talk book club series, which will feature a book written about Charles Lee. As Diaconis says, “We are grateful for County Executive Latimer’s leadership in preserving this historic landmark. John Nonna, Sharon Tomback and many others also worked countless hours to save the house,” which incidentally also included the saving of a 300-year-old sycamore tree.
Latimer says, “While we may not be able to gather at the Miller House in person, the meaning behind the historic home should never be forgotten. This building tells us the story of the American Spirit.” And we will all look forward to the day when we can once again take in its vast history on its grounds and inside its walls.