Historical Sleuthing: Reclaiming the Past at Washington’s Headquarters
I have the deepest respect and admiration for people who undertake the restoration of historic houses. Our first home as newlyweds was an 1870s Victorian. Although it was a lovely structure with great potential, we quickly determined that we did not possess the skills, tools, funds or time necessary to rehabilitate the place. Today’s intrepid restorers can garner inspiration and motivation from the work done on a variety of historic restorations and national sites around the country, including Hasbrouck House in Newburgh, NY.
Built in 1750, the Hasbrouck House served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War from April 1782 until August 1783, which was the longest time the general spent at any wartime location. The oldest house in Newburgh, the property was acquired by New York State in 1850 and became the first publicly operated historic site in the country.
The first substantive restoration efforts on Hasbrouck House began in 1912 and have continued throughout the years as new information and technologies have become available. “The Hasbrouck House is interpreted to reflect as accurately as possible Washington’s military headquarters during his Newburgh stay,” explains Elyse B. Goldberg, historic site manager. “Research, primarily the Washington Papers and Hasbrouck family inventories and comparative studies of other Washington’s headquarters, provided the rationale and context for the functional use of the rooms in Hasbrouck House.”
In order to recreate the authentic appearance of the building, walls, bricks and ceilings were removed to expose the original stonework and hand-hewn beams. Narrow floorboards were removed to reveal the original wide plank floors and hand-wrought nails. And the paint, whitewash, and varnish were restored to original historical formulations, with the the interior woodwork being repainted Prussian blue, Indian red, and cream.
Correct paint colors were determined by actually taking samples of the doors, mouldings, window frames, baseboards and wall surfaces, cutting into the areas with a knife, and sanding to reveal the various layers. A ‘bull’s-eye’ outside of Washington’s bedroom (below) shows this process.
“The Prussian blue paint was reproduced by hand, grinding the pigment and using white lead,” points out Susan E. Smith, director of cultural resources and development and historic sites restoration coordinator for the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, which operates the site.
“From my samples, I could determine the percentage of Prussian blue pigment to white lead. From there, it was trial and error to get just the right mix to match the original colors at Hasbrouck House—a little bit of this, a little bit of that! The whitewash was also made by hand, slaking the lime and using specific mixes of lime paste, water, and glue.”
Other renovations included re-pointing and cleaning the original “Dutch Jambless” fireplaces, and removing bricks that had been placed over the stones. The carved wood mantelpiece and mouldings in the parlor were cleaned and repainted, and an English-style mantelpiece in Washington’s bedroom was reconstructed.
“I could see from using directed light just where the mantle was in this room–its gross size–but of course we didn’t have the details for the mouldings,” Smith remarks. “So, I designed a stylized version of an 18th century mantelpiece using the dimensions of the original.”
Historians also have furnished the house with as much original and period furniture as possible, including Washington’s writing desk from a different headquarters, a chair used by the General, and an original chair belonging to Jonathan Hasbrouck. “Every effort was made to utilize as much furniture as possible from the existing collections at the site,” Goldberg notes.
The end result is an extraordinary example of preservation, offering an enthralling glimpse backward into our nation’s rich past and offering hope and encouragement to anyone with an interest in conserving historic homes.
For more on preservation and restoration, consider: