Historic Mansion Comes to Life Through Wine & Jazz

Jun 21, 2018

Happy Retreat is a historic mansion in Charles Town that was once the home of Charles Washington – founder of Charles Town and brother to the nation’s first president. Today, the house is becoming a hub for public events, community outreach, history and tourism.

On a hot Saturday afternoon in June, hundreds of locals and out of town tourists stop by a historic mansion in Charles Town, West Virginia known as Happy Retreat.

They’re here for a day of wine and jazz out on the back lawn.

A volunteer serves wine to a man attending the Happy Retreat Wine and Jazz Festival on June 9, 2018.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Inside the Happy Retreat mansion, visitors explore the first floor taking in the historic rooms.

This house was built in the 1780s by George Washington’s youngest brother, Charles Washington – the founder of Charles Town. It was his home until he died. For more than 200 years, Happy Retreat was a private residence, but then in 2006, the owners at the time were elderly, and the future of the house was unclear.

That same year, a group of locals formed a nonprofit group called “Friends of Happy Retreat” to restore and protect the mansion -- and boost tourism for the area, too. Nine years later, the group purchased the home and began holding events on the property.

A portrait of Charles Washington, founder of Charles Town, W.Va., hangs on the wall of one of the first floor rooms in the Happy Retreat mansion.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Friends of Happy Retreat” do charge tickets to attend their events and festivals, but everyone involved in putting those events together are volunteers, and all the proceeds go to further restoring the house.

Stephanie Somers was born and raised in Charles Town. She says she’s glad to see the direction the mansion is taking and was excited to come out for the wine and jazz festival.

“By opening places like this up to the public, you’re inviting them in, and you’re; maybe by them coming in, they develop this sense of personal ownership of it; this is a part of my community," Somers said, "and by developing that sense of ownership, they’re gonna care a lot more about it, and it’s going to be so much easier to preserve and maintain these places forever.”

Another festival-attendee, Evan Clark, is a resident from Winchester, Virginia. He crossed state lines just to attend the event. He says bringing people out to the mansion in this way will help keep the history alive.

“I’m embarrassed to say; I used to be a history teacher, and I didn’t know that George Washington’s brother lived here," Clark said, "so this type of pairing; you know, wine and jazz festival, brings people to the venue and allows us to learn the history, and then understand also that it costs a lot of money, so maybe they’ll come for a tour, maybe they’ll become a donor or benefactor, and we can preserve that history by exposing more people to it. So, I think this is just a wonderful pairing.”

It’s for exactly those reasons, Charles Town resident Walter Washington wanted to turn Happy Retreat into what it is today – a historic landmark that draws visitors through community events.

“It was important to have a place in town that could really be; that would draw; a place for heritage tourism,” Washington said.

Walter Washington, descendant of George Washington's brother, Samuel Washington. Walter is the President of the nonprofit, "Friends of Happy Retreat."
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Fun fact about Walter -- he’s actually a direct descendant of George Washington’s other brother, Samuel. Walter’s responsible for starting that nonprofit we mentioned, “Friends of Happy Retreat,” to ensure the mansion’s survival.

“You know, we have the courthouse of course where John Brown was tried, and that’s a hugely important historical structure," Washington noted, "but this goes back to, you know, the 1780s, and there was no place in Charles Town that really told that story; the story of the early part of town.”

Rather than turn the house into a museum, Walter wanted to bring the place to life by incorporating its history into fun events like wine and jazz, book talks, craft beer festivals, and chamber music concerts.

Walter says by making this historic spot a vibrant and exciting place to visit, he hopes it will enrich the community and help increase tourism for the entire state.

“Jefferson County is really the eastern gateway to West Virginia," he said, "I mean, we have all of the, I don’t know how many million people live in the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan areas, with all the suburbs of the surrounding counties, and so this is really the gateway to West Virginia for those people. I mean, they come to Harpers Ferry, but that’s; Harpers Ferry is the very eastern tip of the whole state, and so if we can draw them in this way, a little further, we can tell more stories that way.”

A potted flower sits in a window of the Happy Retreat mansion. Outside is the back lawn of the house. A temporary stage has been built for the Wine and Jazz Festival on June 9, 2018.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

There’s something special about putting yourself in a historic space while listening to music or a guest speaker at the same time, that’s according to Director of the Happy Retreat Wine and Jazz Festival Fiona Harrison.

“I’m from the west coast, you know, we don’t have old buildings like this; we have different sets of history; we have Mexican explorers and the pueblos and the missions and stuff," Harrison explained, "but to have an old building like this where former presidents have sat and met and probably had dinner and conducted business, it’s, I think the community is missing out if they don’t know that, that sort of thing happened here.”

In the fall, Happy Retreat will host a Craft Beer and Music Festival.