The John Jay property in Rye is in good hands thanks to a deal that transfers oversight of the historic site from Westchester County to a nonprofit group with a track record of preserving the national historic landmark.
A 10-year licensing agreement announced Friday between the county, New York State and the nonprofit Jay Heritage Center bodes well for the 23-acre property overlooking Long Island Sound that was the boyhood home of New York's only native-born founding father and America's first chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The new partnership has been years in the making and should act as a blueprint for other historic sites around Westchester County -- notably the Elijah Miller House in North Castle. In 1776, the Miller House was a command post for Gen. George Washington during the Battle of White Plains, which, some say, despite a Continental loss, allowed its army to retrench and enabled Washington to escape and fight another day.
To look at the two properties now, it's hard to find similarities. The Jay property on Boston Post Road is grand, pristine and open to visitors, including any number of schools that use the site for educational programs.
The Miller House, owned by the county, is blocked off, dilapidated and covered with a tarp. It sits across from a cement plant and is easy to miss.
In the 1980s and early '90s, the Jay property was in such bad shape that it was in jeopardy of being demolished. Enter a grassroots movement led by preservationists, environmentalists and committed citizens. Over 20 years, they raised $8 million for restorations and committed untold hours to raise awareness about the property's important history.
Now it's hard to imagine the landscape without this resource and historic gem, whose centerpiece is the Jay House, an 1838 Greek Revival mansion known for its grand columns, art galleries and ornate interior space.
As part of the John Jay deal, the nonprofit group will take over upkeep of the property; most of the land is owned by the state and county, with the Jay Heritage Center owning two main structures on 1.5 acres. The organization will be responsible to maintain the gardens, apple orchards, pathways and structures. The nonprofit is also charged with raising additional money and securing grants for capital projects like garden restoration and educational programs. In exchange, the county relieves itself of taking care of the property and saves $25,000 a year.
The Jay Heritage Center has shown over the years that it has the best interests of the property in mind. Now the Miller House needs such advocates.
Efforts to salvage this 18th century Rhode Island-style farmhouse have gone nowhere. The Board of Legislators twice approved borrowing $1.3 million to fix the site, only to be rebuffed by County Executive Rob Astorino's vetoes and inaction. Talk by lawmakers of moving the house to a more accessible location like Kensico Dam Plaza has only complicated the situation.
If the Jay center story shows us anything, it's that committed individuals and nonprofits can be excellent stewards of historic sites. But they can't do it alone; the Miller House once again needs a general.
Saving the house requires leadership from the county executive. With modest investments of time and resources, he can set the framework of a successful partnership with the private sector.
Absent that, it's hard to imagine any group taking on this uphill battle.