Washington's headquarters rots in New Jersey

Rockingham mansion was general's home for three months in 1783

July 28, 2002|By Andrew Jacobs | Andrew Jacobs,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KINGSTON, N.J. - It's hard to imagine anyone, let alone George Washington, sleeping at Rockingham, the 288-year-old clapboard mansion that served as his final headquarters toward the end of the American Revolution.

Like some beached and eviscerated whale, the house sits along the main road here with one facade stripped of its double-height balcony and another sheathed in jarring white plastic.

Carpenter bees are boring into the pea-soup green siding, water is collecting in the basement and splotches of mildew are spreading through the plaster and oak ballroom where Martha Washington entertained James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and members of the Continental Congress.

Important relic

After three moves, this was supposed to be the new and improved setting for Rockingham, which Revolutionary War historians say is one of the most important and underappreciated relics from the nation's struggle for independence.

Washington lived here for three months in 1783 and wrote the farewell address he gave to his army, an event that set him apart from Old World military men whose battlefield victories often led to a lifetime of institutionalized power.

But after funding the recent $3 million move and restoration - a project 10 years in the making - the state abruptly pulled the second half of its grant this year, citing its gargantuan budget deficit.

The timing could not have been worse for the brittle structure, which had just been moved 2.2 miles from its previous home, a cramped parcel prone to the aftershocks from blasting at an adjacent quarry.

Although contractors had set the house on its new foundation, and although $50,000 was set aside by the state to stabilize the structure, the outstanding $1.8 million would have paid for a fully restored balcony, kitchen and roof, as well as electricity, plumbing and ventilation.

By now, the museum should have been opened, drawing armies of schoolchildren to the 1,200 Colonial-era exhibits now being stored in a $3,000-a- month warehouse in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Volunteers' regrets

"This was supposed to be a step up for Rockingham but now it's in jeopardy of being lost forever," said Anne Wooley, a member of the Rockingham Association, a private group that has seen the house through a number of near-death experiences. "If only we could have looked into the future, we would have stayed where we were."

As she spoke, Wooley's fingers traced a series of cracks in the plaster that she said have widened over the winter and spring. Volunteers bought an emergency generator for the house and installed dehumidifiers to help stanch damaging moisture.

"This is akin to a doctor prepping a patient for surgery, making the incision and then walking away," said James Farrell, the association president. "The procedure will prove fatal to the patient."

Preservationists and history buffs are dumbfounded by a bureaucratic decision that places a rare piece of American history in peril.

It was only last October that a bevy of politicians flocked here for the rededication, gathering under a great white tent as the Rev. Samuel Hugh Moffett, a descendant of Rockingham's 18th-century owners, offered a benediction that asked God to bless a house which "sheltered one of the greatest of thy gifts to our nation: our first president."

Eyes welled up as his words turned to the events of Sept. 11, five weeks earlier.

"In a time of the falling of great towers," he said as an unexpected tempest pulled at the tent's moorings, "let this little treasure of a house stand strong, a symbol that we are still the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Capital budget gone

It is not that Rockingham has been singled out by Trenton. The Division of Parks and Forestry, which oversees historic sites, lost its entire $16.5 million capital budget for next year. By contrast, state funding for arts and culture was cut 10 percent. Most agencies were hit with reductions in the single digits.

Pat Huizing, executive director of New Jersey Preservation, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the fate of Rockingham and other landmarks reflects the state's ambivalence toward its past.

"We're just focused on the newest and the latest," she said. "But we're really missing the boat by neglecting our history. Heritage tourism is a terrific economic opportunity that is really being overlooked."

Until recently, a letter-writing campaign by Rockingham's defenders had little impact. But Bradley M. Campbell, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, now says his agency has decided to release $50,000 for emergency stabilization work. The rest of the money, he said, would have to wait for better economic times.

While Farrell was pleased to learn about the allocation, he said the money would not end Rockingham's precarious, dispiriting state of limbo. Even if the worst deterioration is halted, the house will remain closed to the public for months, perhaps years.

"To have such a rich symbol of the freedoms we enjoy so neglected," he said, his voice trailing off. "After all the effort that was made, it's just a shame."

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