The History of Happy Retreat

Charles Washington
Charles Washington 1738-1799
The original portrait of Charles Washington painted during his lifetime was destroyed in a house fire in the 20th Century. This copy of the original portrait was painted by Charles Alexander Simpson in 1855.
Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

The Historic Home of Charles Washington

Happy Retreat is the estate built by Charles Washington, founder of Charles Town, West Virginia, and President George Washington’s youngest brother. Located on the edge of historic Charles Town and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the property comprises an 18th century mansion, a stone and brick kitchen/smokehouse, and an octagonal wooden schoolhouse. A date on the cornerstone of the kitchen suggests that the property may have been farmed as early as 1768 but that has never been verified. What is certain is Charles Washington and his family moved to Happy Retreat in 1780 and set aside 80 acres to form Charles Town, officially founded in 1786.

The Washington Family’s investment in the region began in the mid-1700s. In 1748, 16-year-old George Washington surveyed it for Thomas, Lord Fairfax. Impressed with the land, George bought land along Bullskin Run in 1750. Through the years, he continued to acquire more land in the area, and, at one point, owned nearly 2,300 acres. His half brother, Lawrence, also owned land in the county, and after he died in 1752, his properties were ultimately distributed to his brothers—George, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles. George received Mount Vernon but retained the Bullskin until his death in 1799; his diaries record numerous visits to the area to visit his brothers—Samuel at Harewood, the home he built in 1770, and Charles at Happy Retreat.

After Charles’ death, the property eventually was sold to Thomas Hammond. It stayed in the Hammond family until 1837 when George Washington Hammond sold it to Judge Isaac R. Douglass. The house then passed through the hands of a number of different owners before it was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. William Gavin in the 1960s.

Today the 6,332 sq. ft. mansion lies within the corporate limits of the city on 2 acres while Charles Town’s Parks and Recreation Commission own the surrounding 10 acres which abut the northern border Evitts Run and a surrounding 21.3-acre wetland community park, which includes the gravesite of Charles and Mildred Washington.

Phases of Construction

An early historical architectural analysis of Charles Washington’s Happy Retreat completed by Matt Webster, Director of Architectural Resources at Colonial Williamsburg, indicates that the home’s development proceeded in three phases, as shown in the accompanying figure.

Phase 1 construction (in red) consisted of the old stone kitchen and a portion of the west wing. Phase 2, shown in blue, consisted of the brick portion of the kitchen and the one-story east wing. Phase 3, which was undertaken in 1837 after the purchase of Happy Retreat by Judge Isaac R. Douglass, resulted in the addition of the second stories to the two wings and completion of a large 2-1/2 story central portion connecting them.

Another early assessment of the house and outbuildings by an expert in historic preservation finds the mansion structurally sound and, except for a few minor repairs, the needed improvements to the house are cosmetic in nature. The separate kitchen, smokehouse and octagonal schoolhouse will require more substantial restoration in order to support future activities. An archaeological survey also will be used to plan the restoration of the house and grounds.

To review a more recent diagram of the phases of construction, please refer to the diagram in the section entitled: HISTORIC STRUCTURE REPORT (HSR)

Historic Photos