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George Washington's Birthday Celebrated at New York's Oldest House

  • Noelle Esquire

This week Americans celebrate the birthday of George Washington, the first president of the United States, and a leader of the U.S. Revolutionary War.

The Morris-Jumel Mansion is the oldest surviving house in Manhattan. Built in 1765 by retired British colonel Roger Morris and his wife, the house served as the couple's summer home. With the dawn of the Revolutionary War in 1775, the Morrises returned to Great Britain.

General Washington discovered the vacant Morris home and decided it was a prime location to set up his headquarters for about five weeks during the Revolutionary War. The house is situated at the second highest point in Manhattan. It overlooked the site of the Battle of Harlem Heights, where a small American force routed the British.

"It was a good vantage point to oversee what was going on in the city," said Michael Grillo, a "living history" actor who portrays different historical figures from the 18th century. "We happen to be on high, elevated ground. You do not notice it now as much in the 21st century because of the roads and most of the land has been flattened out. You are basically on mountainous terrain. You would be able to see all the way down into the city."

At the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Grillo assumes the role of General Washington and leads school tours.

A nonprofit organization operates the house, focusing on educational programs. Its revolutionary background makes it a popular site for school field trips.

Rashawn Hoke, an elementary school teacher, finds the mansion a good resource to teach his students outside of a classroom setting.

"Many of these children live in the area," said Hoke. "It is an urban setting, and it was important to kind of give them an idea that there are historical sites in their own neighborhood."

After the Revolutionary War, the house passed through a number of different owners. Stephen and Eliza Jumel bought it in 1810, and returned it to its original function as a summer home.

The house is still furnished with many pieces that belonged to the Jumel family. Museum tours allow visitors to explore the mansion and understand how life in the 18th century differs from life today.

"How did people survive without these refrigerators," asked one student.

The museum also exhibits local artwork. During February, the museum is showcasing the work of Caribbean artists Carlton Murrell and Alfred Weekes, in honor of Black History Month. Both artists are originally from the island of Barbados, the only place George Washington visited outside the United States.

"It is a chance for us to tie in our overall history with the history of much of the community," said Ken Moss, the executive director of the museum. "We, of course, have Stephen Jumel who came here from Haiti, and there were many, many servants, and in the very early years there were certainly slaves here at the house, some who may have come from the Caribbean. It is part of the whole history of the mansion, and it is part of the history of many people here in the community."

Moss says the mansion is important today in the midst of modern New York City as a place for people to remember and explore New York's colonial history.

"New York is such a destination city and it features some of the greatest of world-class museums. But sites like Morris-Jumel Mansion, are the only sites that remain that tell of this colonial era, here in New York. Expansion of the city took place so rapidly that most of the early history of the city does not remain," he said. "So, Morris-Jumel Mansion provides an opportunity for people who come to New York, or people who live in New York, to really learn about the history of this region, and the Revolutionary War activity that took place."

Every February, George Washington's birthday is celebrated at the Morris-Jumel Mansion with free admission and a guided tour. Guides dress up in colonial clothes, serve refreshments popular during the Revolution, and teach visitors about the important role the mansion played in American history.

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