Public support strong for saving Happy Retreat

January 31, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Saying it's the "best thing to do for Jefferson County" and that it's a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," about 25 people who turned out Monday night for a public hearing at Charles Town City Hall gave overwhelming support for preserving the historic Happy Retreat home.

Local historic officials said they believe funding sources at the state and national level might be available to help purchase the stately home of Charles Washington - the founder of Charles Town - and others said Gov. Joe Manchin's staff and other politicians should be brought into the process.

Even the governor's wife could be brought to the mansion for tea as part of the effort to build support for the project, said Jefferson County resident Richard Raymond.


"It sounds hokey, but it works," Raymond said.

"It's unheard of to have an opportunity to save a property like this. You simply have to make the first step," Bill Drennen, president of the Jefferson County Historical Society, told Mayor Peggy Smith and several Charles Town City Council members.

Smith wanted to have the hearing to gauge the public's support for saving Happy Retreat.

Before the hearing, Smith said some people were concerned about the city's ability to purchase and maintain the property.

During the hearing, several people expressed concern about tax money being used to acquire the property, but they gave overall support for the idea.

Bill Gavin, the current owner of the home along Mordington Avenue, said Happy Retreat has become too much for him to maintain and he has proposed that the city purchase it. If they are successful in buying the property, city officials have discussed opening the home for public viewing, creating a park on the grounds and establishing a biking and hiking trail around the property.

It is believed the home might be worth about $2.5 million and Smith said the city does not have the finances to purchase it.

Smith has said she would like to set up a committee to explore funding options for the purchase if there is enough support to save it.

As she has been in the past, Smith was upbeat Monday night about the idea of preserving the home and setting it aside for public use. Smith had a sign-up sheet for volunteers who wanted to work on the project and said she believes Happy Retreat and its surrounding property would be an ideal place to have heritage-related festivals.

"There's a lot of wonderful possibilities. I really think we can do it," Smith said.

Speakers said saving the property for public use is a good idea especially given the vast amount of Washington family history in the county.

Charles Washington's brother, George Washington, frequently visited Happy Retreat and 70 members of the Washington family are buried in the county. Seven Washington family mansions are in the county and several pre-Revolutionary structures are at Happy Retreat, including a brick smokehouse and a stone kitchen with the year 1768 etched in a cornerstone.

Bob O'Connor, who works with Smith on tourism issues, said other communities would die for the type of history Jefferson County has.

"If we closed our eyes, they would probably put wheels on it and move it to their county," O'Connor said.

Drennen said he thinks the city could appeal to organizations like the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the state Historic Preservation Office for help lining up funds to buy Happy Retreat.

Then local people, like Eastern Panhandle lawmakers, could find other "pots of money," Drennen said.

County resident Virginia Graf said perhaps local bank officials could also work on a funding plan.

Gavin said he hopes to sell the home to the city and does not want to sell it to a developer.

But Gavin said he will consider other options for the property if the city does not come up with a plan or offer.

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