CHARLES TOWN – Happy Retreat should be more than just a stuffy museum piece. Instead, the 18th-century mansion is becoming an active place where the whole surrounding community—as well as visitors from outside the county—can come to enjoy a variety of social, cultural and historical events.
Happy Retreat, a Federal-style mansion located about five blocks from downtown Charles Town, is the former home of Charles Washington, the younger brother of George and founder of Charles Town.
Hiring a docent, building a welcome center, laying garden landscaping and pathways outside the mansion and adding modern improvements inside are all part of long-term plans to turn the property into a public destination.
Walter Washington, president of the Friends of Happy Retreat--and a direct descendant of another Washington brother, Samuel--led a presentation to Charles Town’s leaders that sketched the mansion property’s future vision, potential, and significance.
“After the Revolutionary War, George Washington was concerned about the future development of the country,” Washington told the council members. “He felt the Potomac River should be the route of commerce connecting the ports of the Chesapeake Bay to the new settlements. He came to Happy Retreat to start planning his ‘grand idea’ for the Potomac.
“We have adopted the grand idea for Happy Retreat. It’s a grand idea for the community to enjoy its culture and history.”
Washington and Matt Ward, a board member of Friends of Happy Retreat, the nonprofit foundation working to preserve and transform the mansion property, asked the city’s leaders to continue partnering with them to help make the master plan for the facility a reality.
Ward explained that generating stable, sustainable revenue is also a key goal of those long-term plans.
“We can’t just survive on donors and begging Charles Town every other year to help subsidize what we’re doing,” he explained. “We want to generate revenue.”
The Friends of Happy Retreat had been developing popular wine and beer festivals, musical performances and other events before the pandemic hit. Renting mansion and property space for other revenue-generating activities such as weddings and corporate gatherings are also planned in the future, Ward said.
Various public and private grants are being eyed for Happy Retreat, Ward added. However, those long-term plans will likely cost a few million dollars, he said. For example, landscaping the grounds and laying a parking lot could total as much as $3 million, he said.
The city of Charles Town has been involved with saving and supporting Happy Retreat for two decades. In 2000, the Gavin family who owned the property, worked with the city to help save it. In 2006, the Friends of Happy Retreat was formed to take on that effort. A decade later, city officials and the Friends of Happy Retreat got together to buy the estate.
The Friends of Happy Retreat paid $475,000 to repair the mansion and outbuildings and two acres of land. The city of Charles Town paid $350,000 to acquire the 10 acres surrounding the home as a city park.
Since then, plans for the site have been moving forward. Ward said the firm Landmarks SGA, based in Somerset, Pennsylvania, which helped restore Charles Washington Hall in Charles Town and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, was hired to draw up a master plan for Happy Retreat. That plan includes, among other things, adding air conditioning, making the site handicap accessible, and turning a carriage house into a welcome center.
Charles Town officials can assist the cause of developing Happy Retreat by donating city land next to the mansion for a parking lot, Ward pointed out. But whatever help the city could offer won’t be enough to allow the property to achieve its full potential, he said.
Ward said about $632,000 in grant funding for the mansion is on the way. About $230,000 more in tax rebates have been identified.
“We’d like to enter into a conversation with City Manager Daryl Hennessy and council members about a partnership for the exterior work,” Ward said.
After the presentation, city officials briefly and informally brainstormed ways to assist Happy Retreat’s development plans. City planners and maintenance crews might be able to donate their expertise and time, some mentioned.