Good News for 'Happy Retreat'

Actor Richard Dreyfuss to Help Save Washington Family Mansion

Last month, following years of efforts to save the 1780 mansion where George Washington's brother and his family once lived, Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss confirmed that his Dreyfuss Initiative will help to protect the property known as Happy Retreat. At an announcement Sept. 17, Dreyfuss committed to partnering with the Friends of Happy Retreat, a nonprofit group formed in 2006, to purchase the house and 12.2 surrounding acres. His initiative, a civics education program, will eventually occupy the top floor of the manor.

"One of the reasons we are so excited about this is because it is such a great compatible use for the property," stated Nell Ziehl, Program Officer at the Southern Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Houses and museums all over the country are struggling, so this is sort of the perfect marriage between a historic and academic function."

In 1780, Charles Washington, the First President's younger brother, arrived in what is now Jefferson County, W. Va. After receiving a land inheritance from his half-brother Lawrence, Charles built a Classical Revival-style mansion, and named his new estate Happy Retreat. In 1786, 80 acres near the manor was chartered as Charles Town.

Charles Washington lived in the house until his death in 1799; he and his wife, Mildred, were both buried on the property. Following the Washington family's residence, the manor continued to serve as a private residence. Later owners added a series of additions to the original structure.

Today, according to local assessors, the house and property might sell for as much as $1.2 million. But the historic structure requires an estimated $1.5 million in restoration.

The Friends of Happy Retreat was formed to address growing concerns about the house's condition and its vulnerability to development. But not even inclusion on the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia's 2010 most-endangered list helped attract the financial support necessary to reach the group's goals, which include buying and restoring the house.

Then, in June, Dreyfuss and the Dreyfuss Initiative stepped forward. The Initiative was looking for property for the new George Washington Institute on the Enlightenment—a place where scholars and students could research the nation's Founding Fathers, Enlightenment-era ideas, and the American Revolution. Happy Retreat fit the bill.

"We are 100 percent committed to purchasing the property," says Scot Faulkner, executive director of the Dreyfuss Initiative. Sources close to Dreyfuss say the actor has volunteered to host fundraising events to raise $1 million in needed support. On Sept. 17, he appeared at a ceremony in Charles Town and told the crowd, "We need your money so that we can buy this property and create something that has never existed before in this country."  

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has advocated placing an easement on the house to protect the historically significant structure.

"I'm very pleased that the Dreyfuss folks have recognized the value of the property for its role in American history," said former president of the Happy Retreat Foundation, Curt Mason. "We think it's an important part of the Washington family history in West Virginia."


For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

Subscribe to the Today's News RSS feed


Submitted by Kevin at: October 18, 2011
Unfortunately the Richard Dreyfuss Initative fell through. We need someone else to step up and save historic Happy Retreat.

Submitted by Kevin at: October 18, 2011
The Dreyfuss Initiative fell through. We need someone else to step up and purchase Happy Retreat.

Submitted by Trotskii at: October 14, 2011
Mr. Dreyfuss, God bless you! We need more people who think like you.