Happy Retreat’s Grand Idea Project

By Mercy Klein, Preserve WV AmeriCorps

Charles Washington’s Happy Retreat has come a long way since it was selected in 2010 for PAWV’s Endangered Properties List.  At the time of its listing, the nonprofit Friends of Happy Retreat (FOHR) group was working with the owners of the property to acquire and preserve it for public use.  In 2015, after a 10-year, uphill effort, FOHR and the City of Charles Town were finally able to purchase the 12.3-acre property. FOHR’s goal has been to restore the property and repurpose the home as an historical, cultural, and educational community center and heritage tourism attraction.  FOHR and the city intend to establish Happy Retreat as the area’s go-to hub for arts, culture, learning, and regional tourism – a plan they have dubbed “The Grand Idea Project.”


The project name stems from Happy Retreat being the first stop for George Washington in his pursuit of his “Grand Idea” of expanding America into uncharted territories.  FOHR and the city plan to take Happy Retreat beyond just being a historic house museum or a historic tour stop where one listens to a docent and looks at pictures and plaques. They want to take Happy Retreat to the next level by establishing it as a “historically hip” hub for arts, culture, making, and learning. They will do this by incorporating the use of interactive and creative technologies to foster grand ideas and connections and to help them share those ideas and connections within the community, beyond the community, and to the world.  FOHR and the city have partnered with the Sextant Group and others to help bring their Grand Idea Project to fruition.

The work that is underway now includes restoration of the home’s façade, windows, and west wing rooms; removal of a screened porch; upgrade of building systems; installation of an events kitchen; and repair of the home and Summer Kitchen roof.  The home will continue to serve as a space for arts and cultural events, and the upper floors will be used for nonprofit activities.  The restoration project does not stop there.  Future plans include restoring the historic Summer Kitchen for heritage tours and outdoor events and restoring the carriage house for use as the “Washington Welcome Center.”

Although the home and the outbuildings have not yet been completely restored, this has not hindered FOHR and the city’s pursuit in establishing Happy Retreat as a historic space for arts, culture, learning, and heritage tourism.  In 2015 and 2016, Happy Retreat has already hosted a number of events, including performances by the Charles Washington Symphony Orchestra, which has chosen Happy Retreat as its home performance venue; Art-Ober, a month-long arts and music festival held by the Jefferson Arts Council; and future plans for a 2017 Beer & Music Festival, as well as the first annual Wine &  Jazz Festival on June 10, 2017.  In June 2016, Happy Retreat was recognized as a “National Treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  This is a great honor for Happy Retreat, as it is West Virginia’s first National Treasure, and it is now among approximately 75 sites in the nation to be named a National Treasure.

To move the Grand Idea Project forward, funding for the project plan and design will be needed.  FOHR, the City of Charles Town, and their partners seek $50,000 in philanthropic or donor funding.  FOHR will match the funding with a $25,000 cash contribution.  Funds will be utilized for planning the Grand Idea.  Artists and musicians, FOHR, the city, Jefferson County Schools, and the Sextant Group will collaborate on identifying how cutting-edge technologies can foster creativity and connectivity at Happy Retreat.  Funding for the implementation of the Sextant Group’s technology plan will be needed in the future.  The partners will be seeking an additional $300,000 for implementation, through an application to ArtPlace America’s National Placemaking Grant program in February 2017.

The preservation and reuse of any historic site is a long, arduous, and expensive process.  However, it is well worth the time, effort, and money to save such sites in order to preserve a community’s history, a region’s history, and a nation’s history.  Historic sites can also be places where history is created.  Happy Retreat, with its Grand Idea, is such a place.


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