— George Washington left his mark on Jefferson County, in the form of Charles Town and its surrounding areas. He encouraged his family to do the same, and their legacy lives on today.
I met Mr. Washington about a week after Independence Day. Walter Washington, that is, not George. And the year was 2016 not 1776. But it was an odd feeling nonetheless; a brush with the closest thing that America has to a royal family (although George himself no doubt would oppose such a characterization vigorously). Walter Washington is the great-great-great-great-great grandnephew of the father of our country, who had no direct descendants. And he’s part of a family whose physical mark in Jefferson County, WV, goes far beyond that in any other part of the country: Virginia has Mount Vernon. We have all the rest.
Well, at least most of them. Walter Washington, for example, lives in Harewood, the stately home of George Washington’s brother Samuel, which sits just outside Charles Town (off of Rt. 51). We can thank George for that. In 1748, at just 16 years old, he flagged the region “rich and furtile all ye way.” That year, George was on the first of many trips he would take across the Blue Ridge from his family homes in eastern Virginia—first as a surveyor for the powerful Lord Fairfax (who was granted five million acres of largely unexplored land by the King of England) and later as a surveyor for Culpeper County, VA, and others.
With the substantial proceeds from his survey work, he wisely bought land. This was the unbroken frontier in 1748, with rich soil and abundant water. Land back in the East, where the Washingtons had farmed for decades, was already exhausted from years of growing tobacco. By the time he was 20, George had purchased more than 2,300 acres near Summit Point, and he encouraged his brothers to do the same.
His older half-brother Lawrence took his advice. Lawrence bought land in and around present-day Charles Town, despite living out his life in Virginia. George’s younger brothers Samuel and Charles inherited much of Lawrence’s property when he died, and Samuel built the elegant Harewood in 1770, where Walter now resides. Charles—suffering from poor health and financial troubles—built the more modest Happy Retreat in 1780. Charles also granted land for today’s Charles Town, and named the streets after members of his family. Washington family descendants later built the remaining family homes in Jefferson County: Cedar Lawn, Claymont, Blakely, Beallair, and Locust Hill (now destroyed).
“How many Washington family homes are there in Jefferson County?” I asked Walter. “Depends on how far you want to go,” he quipped. “My grandfather built a home in Charles Town.” Good point, I realized: like mapping out a family tree, tracking family homes gets more complicated the farther down the line you get from the original source.
As he gave me a brief tour through Harewood, Walter showed me the parlor where James and Dolly Madison wed. He showed me the Mount Vernon china perched on the dining room table and sideboard. He identified the portraits on the walls as Samuel and his first wife Jane. And he showed me the old kitchen, with its enormous cooking hearth and the giant beam of wood embedded in the stones across the top, seemingly holding the entire magnificent structure in place.
According to George Washington’s diaries, he did indeed sleep here at Harewood. And we know that he stayed at Happy Retreat in 1784, after the Revolution and before his first term as president. Washington was an adventurer who loved the frontier, and a visionary who worried about the future of his fledgling country. According to author Joel Achenbach in his book The Grand Idea, Washington saw the Potomac River as the artery that would bind a nascent nation then divided by dismal roads and forested mountains—the critical link between the vast resources of the wilderness and the port cities of the Atlantic Coast.
So in 1784, at the age of 52, he set out on horseback from an otherwise peaceful retirement at Mount Vernon to follow the Potomac to its headwaters—or at least to its nearest point to the Ohio River. We now see the remains of this excursion in the ruins of the C&O canal—Washington’s attempt years later to realize his grand vision. But on that September day back in 1784, as he crossed the Blue Ridge at the beginning of his journey, one of his first stops was at Charles’ Happy Retreat.
Today, Happy Retreat looks just as imposing as Samuel’s Harewood, but most of that grandeur came long after Charles passed away. Isaac Douglass, a circuit court judge, purchased the property in 1837 and built the main portion of the house. From the Greek Revival porch, a wide hallway now opens up into large double parlors, and a staircase leads to equally large bedrooms upstairs. But in George and Charles Washington’s day, Happy Retreat was limited to the two small wings on either side of the main house, separated by open space between them.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about Happy Retreat,” Elayne Edel told me as we toured the grounds a week after my visit to Harewood. Edel is an advisor to the Friends of Happy Retreat, a nonprofit organization headed by Walter Washington trying to restore the home. Two families owned the property after the Douglasses, and modernized the building. But “the west wing is sacrosanct,” said Edel, because it remains the least modified section. The day she and I visited, two architectural historians were on site, trying to piece together just what the house actually looked like back in the 1780s. Houses often were built in phases. But which sections were built first? How were they used? And what pieces came later?
“A lot of this dating is based on technology—the kinds of bricks, the kinds of nails, the kind of saw marks,” said Dennis Pogue, formerly with Mount Vernon and now with the University of Maryland. “But we don’t have a whole lot here. It’s a huge mystery how this house was originally laid out and used.”
He and colleague Maral Kalbian showed me the fancy brickwork on the front of the house, laid out in a design called Flemish bond that was popular in the late 18th century, around Washington’s time. But the expensive design appears on only two walls of the original wings, not four. And it suggests that the wings were intended to remain separate, facing each other with their fancy bricks showing off their owners’ status—not closed off with a main house in between.
“Let me show you what we found today,” said Kalbian. She led me to the back room of the west wing and pointed to a hole in the wall, freshly poked open that day as she explored behind the site of a 20th-century stove one of the more recent families installed. When I peeked in, I saw brick: the exterior of the original one-room west wing. In other words, the back room of the two-room west wing was an add-on—probably during Charles Washington’s day, but not the original structure. “This was a tiny house,” said Pogue. “About sixteen by twenty-four feet—the size of a slave quarter. It’s small, but it’s well built and it’s got some potential. Seems like it would be part of some larger plan.”
Friends of Happy Retreat hopes to answer more of these questions as it obtains additional funding. It plans to use the center portion of the house, built by Isaac Douglass, as a cultural center for Charles Town, hosting concerts, art exhibits, educational events, and weddings.
That vision got two huge boosts this past year—the first when Taylor Fithian and his wife Margie purchased and donated Happy Retreat in 2015. Fithian is the grandson of R.J. Funkhouser, an industrialist who purchased four Washington family homes in the mid-20th century. Fithian grew up in Locust Hill and would visit his aunt, Ruth Clarke Funkhouser, at nearby Cedar Lawn as a child. Although the Fithians now live in Monterey, CA, they began restoring Cedar Lawn in 2009, after Taylor’s aunt passed away. After touring Happy Retreat with Walter Washington last year, they decided to purchase that home, as well, and donate it to Friends.
This past June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation provided another boost, listing Happy Retreat as one of its National Treasures, and giving Friends access to the Trust’s experts to help develop a strategic plan. Still, Friends estimates it will take at least $1.3 million to realize their vision.
For more information, visit www.happyretreat.org.
— Amy covers the environment, history, health, and culture for The Observer. Follow her at @AmyMatAm.