The Record-Review – The official newspaper of Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York

 

John Jay Homestead

Carriage Barn to transform into new visitor center
The Carriage Barn, built in 1801, will undergo a $1.5 million renovation and restoration starting this spring, transforming the structure into a new education and visitor center for the historic site in Katonah.
 

By JOHN ROCHE

The 211-year-old Carriage Barn at the John Jay Homestead State Historic Site will be transformed into a new education and visitor center, complete with modern technology including interactive computer stations, hands-on exhibits, a reading room and a gift shop.

The first contract for the $1.5 million project was awarded last week, with exterior work slated to begin this spring, and the renovation and restoration of the barn expected to be completed next year. Plans for the center were in the works for more than a half-decade, but hit some bureaucratic snares and other obstacles that were cleared in recent months.  

Rose Harvey, the New York State Commissioner for Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which is working in cooperation with the Friends of John Jay Homestead on the project, called the start of the renovation and restoration “a major step forward” for the 64-acre site in Katonah, which was home to John Jay, one of the nation’s Founding Fathers.

“We’re thrilled that we’re moving forward on this,” Ms. Harvey said by phone from Albany this week. “The importance of the Carriage Barn project is twofold, because not only will it create a new and exciting education and visitor center but it will also renovate and restore this historic structure. The Carriage Barn project will celebrate history, encourage tourism at the Homestead and provide the community additional reasons to visit this local and national treasure.”

The Carriage Barn, built in 1801 under the direction of John Jay, had box stalls, space to store hay and grain, and large hinged doors to accommodate horse-drawn carriages and sleighs during the time he and his family lived on the farm. The structure continued to serve as a riding stable and carriage barn until about 1910, at which point automobiles replaced the carriages.

In almost constant use for practically 200 years, the building is now in significant danger of deteriorating beyond repair, according to Wendy Ross, executive director of the Friends group, a nonprofit educational organization that provides volunteer assistance, funding and other support for the operation, preservation and restoration of the site.

Commissioner Harvey, Ms. Ross and Friends of John Jay Homestead president Melissa Vail this week said the new education and visitor center will serve as “the gateway” for the site, encouraging more people to visit the Homestead and enhancing the experience for those who do.

“The Carriage Barn’s central location and regular operating hours will provide an accessible point of entry to the site, including for the approximately 60 percent of visitors who visit the gardens and grounds but don’t otherwise engage in site programming,” Ms. Vail said. “We’re opening up the site to give people a better opportunity to learn about both the indoor and outdoor stories of John Jay’s life and times. We are especially excited about these connections as we expand the farming and agriculture activities available at the site, including our new farm market, chicken-and-egg coop, beekeeping school and community teaching garden.”

The new Wi-Fi equipped education and visitor center will include an information desk, a viewing area for videos about John Jay and the historic site, computer stations with interactive education components, and a hands-on activity space for young learners, those involved in the project said. In addition to a gift shop and reading room, the revitalized barn will feature exhibits about farming and the use of horses throughout the farm’s history, as well as throughout Bedford.

Since the Carriage Barn is one of the oldest standing structures on the site, its historical integrity will be maintained despite the modern touches. “All the improvements must be reversible, so that if in the future there are new restoration methods or other plans for the barn, those can be introduced,” Ms. Ross explained.

The Carriage Barn project will also allow for expanded educational outreach at the site, including larger numbers of schoolchildren and more groups from underfunded school districts who visit the site thanks to the Friends’ free bus transportation program, according to Ms. Vail.

Of the approximately 50,000 annual visitors to the Homestead, roughly 20,000 are school-age or younger children, according to Heather Iannucci, the historic site manager at the Homestead.

“This will be extremely helpful to the educational programming at the site,” the commissioner said. “I believe that education, information and outreach about our history, particularly for young people, is one of the most important things that our sites can do and that our Friends groups can do for us.”

Ms. Harvey pointed out that the new center will also broaden the reach of the site to those who visit the Homestead’s sprawling grounds without even entering the main house. “If they don’t get to the house, this is a way to educate all our visitors about the history if they also use the grounds as a park,” the commissioner explained. “That’s the wonderful and unique symmetry of the Homestead, to have both the environmental use and the historical use all rolled together.”

Ms. Harvey commended the Friends of John Jay Homestead, which has more than 400 members and donors, for its fundraising efforts for the Carriage Barn project, as well as the group’s overall work for the site. The commissioner said that the John Jay Homestead Friends group, and this project in particular, are strong examples of the kinds of public-private partnerships needed at all historic sites and parks.  

“The John Jay Homestead is a model and example for all of our historic sites, and we’re particularly indebted to our Friends group here,” the commissioner said. “The Carriage Barn is one of many projects that they’ve taken on, and we’re thrilled with what they’ve done and will continue to do as this project moves forward. This kind of partnership is a fundamental goal of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, since it deepens the visiting experience to the sites, enables more creativity and community involvement and allows for the leveraging of both of our resources, which is critical in these economic times — all to really enhance our parks and historic sites.”   

Ms. Ross explained that more than half of the total fundraising goal has already been reached, through a combination of individual donations, private foundation grants and government funding. “I think many, many local residents will be excited that this project is finally moving forward, not only because of the significance of the project itself but also because so many people from the community have supported this,” Ms. Ross said, adding that 100 percent of the Friends group trustees contributed toward the $1.5 million goal. “We have been continually gratified by the generous support this project is receiving from people throughout the area, those affiliated with the Friends group as well as people who understand that this site and the depth of history it contains represents a true gem in our community.”

The center will also provide information on other things to see and do in the area, which Ms. Vail and others involved in the project said is also aimed at creating stronger partnerships with other cultural organizations in the area, stores, restaurants and businesses in Katonah, and contributing overall to Bedford’s economy.

Although Ms. Harvey herself downplayed her role in moving the project forward through the red tape that had been holding it up for the past few years, Ms. Ross and others at the site thanked her for her leadership in that regard. “We are also grateful for Commissioner Harvey’s skillful work with the different agencies and levels of government involved in making and administering government grants to this project,” Ms. Ross said.

Fundraising for the remainder of the total cost is ongoing. “We continue to reach out to individuals who have a love of history and of this site,” Ms. Ross said. “We look forward to giving people the opportunity to participate in carrying the site’s legacy into the future.”

A black-tie gala will be held this spring to celebrate the start of construction, and will also include the presentation of the Founders Award to Friends trustee and former board president Sascha Douglass Greenberg and her husband, Evan Greenberg, chairman and CEO of Ace Group. Ms. Ross said that some of the exhibits to be featured in the new center will be featured at that party, providing a sneak peek at what’s to come. 

The John Jay Homestead is one of only a handful of historic farms in the country once owned by a Founding Father, and open to the public, Ms. Ross said.

John Jay co-authored the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War, and the Federalist Papers, which aided ratification of the U.S. Constitution. He served as president of the Continental Congress and U.S. Secretary for Foreign Affairs. He also served on the U.S. Supreme Court as its first chief justice and as the second governor of New York State.

After retiring from public service, he lived on the 750-acre farm from 1801 until his death in 1829.

In 1958, the 24-room farmhouse and 30 of the original acres were purchased from his heirs by Westchester County and transferred to the State of New York, which opened it to the public in 1964 as a historic site. The historic house was restored to an 1820s appearance, and can be seen by guided tours.

In addition, the Homestead’s sprawling grounds include historic outbuildings, four formal gardens, open fields, a pond and wooded trails.

For more information about the Carriage Barn project or the Homestead, visit www.johnjayhomestead.org.


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January 27, 2012