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Dey Mansion

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Dey Mansion front of home
Dey Mansion building and walkway
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Dey Mansion Award

About the Dey Mansion

The Dey Mansion, a superb example of Georgian architecture, achieved national recognition as General George Washington’s revolutionary war headquarters in the Preakness Valley and is considered to be the “Jewel of the Passaic County Park’s Department”.

Constructed between 1740-1750 by Dirck Dey, a Dutch-born planter, the mansion is an amalgam of Dutch and English influences, a rich and dramatic composition of country and urban elements that had few mid-18th century counterparts west of the Hudson River. Dey, in all probability, left the completion of the mansion to his son, Theunis. During the Revolution, Theunis commanded the Bergen County Militia. Colonel Dey offered the easterly side of the house to General Washington when the commander-in-chief used it for his headquarters in July, October and November of 1780.

Previous Residents
Succeeding generations of the Dey Family resided in the house until 1801, when it was sold to a private owner. In 1930, the now defunct Passaic County Park Commission purchased the Dey Mansion, together with several barns and 55 acres of land. A plan of restoration was developed under the direction of Charles OverCornelius who "was" a former Associate Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a recognized authority on early American architecture. The building was opened to the public on October 8, 1934. It is now managed by the Passaic County Parks Department. Located on a two-acre site, the grounds feature a formal garden and picnic area. Ample parking is available. Dependencies include a blacksmith shop and plantation house. In 1969, the National Trust for Historic Preservation considered the restoration of Dey Mansion an “outstanding one.”

The Dey Mansion Today
The Dey Mansion, a meeting place for several revolutionary war organizations, is the headquarters of the Robert Erskine’s Militia, a reenactment group dedicated to recreating the military life of the events at the Dey Mansion. The Dey Mansion is also the meeting place for such important and prestigious organizations as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Sons of the American Revolution, the Children of the American Revolution and Colonel Pawling’s Independent Corps Levies.

Remarks from the County Historian on Dey Mansion

   Indeed, this is an auspicious occasion, where we gather together to celebrate the restoration of the Dey Mansion Washington Headquarters Museum, a site inseparably linked to the nation’s prolonged struggle to achieve independence from the tyranny of the British Crown. What would General George Washington say if he could again revisit this well-crafted house of brick, stone and hand hewn beams, the place which sheltered him and his band of Continental Army staff officers as he grappled with decisions that affected the course of the Revolutionary War. Would he be pleased with what he surveyed? We feel confident that he would.

   The landscape and terrain would of course be vastly different, where once acres of endless woods and the hill-ringed lower Preakness Valley have yielded to the onslaughts of the intervening centuries. Yet once the General set foot in this great house, his mind would no doubt reel back to memories of Colonel Theunis Dey, the prosperous planter and land owner who in 1772 constructed the house, then called Bloomsbury, in classic, high Georgian style, a man of staunch and unswerving loyalty, the head of the Bergen County Militia. Dey had not only placed his personal fortune in jeopardy by siding with the patriots, but also his neck. Those convicted as traitors were customarily hanged. Colonel Dey lifted the torch of liberty high above his concern for personal safety and material comfort. Washington so appreciated Dey that at the end of the first encampment, in the summer of 1780, he gave a $50 gratuity for the services rendered by Dey’s servants.

   The commander in chief would vividly recall the youthful Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, brilliant, impetuous, fluent in French, bursting with ambition. In one of those multitude of letters and documents which issued from the Dey Mansion during those two occasions in July, October and November 1780, and which managed to find a safe haven in the Library of Congress Hamilton snatched a moment of leisure to write Betsey Schuyler, his future wife, on July 6th, “Here we are my love in a house of great hospitality – in a country of plenty – a buxom girl under the same roof – pleasing expectations of a successful campaign – and everything to make a soldier happy, who is not in love and absent from his mistress.”

   Washington would unquestionably remember the military bravery of the equally youthful Marquis de Lafayette and the talents of another French nobleman, the Marquis de Chastellux, a perceptive writer who met the General for the first time and closely observed him from November 23rd to the 27th. Chastellux bequeathed to posterity a valuable portrait of camp life, and of the house itself, an essential document which has materially aided scholars past and present in reconstructing Washington’s occupancy. Chastellux wrote that Washington had impressive character traits: “brave without temerity, laborious without ambition, generous without prodigality, noble without pride, and virtuous without severity.”

   Washington needed to call upon these reserves of laudable character. Douglas Southall Freeman, who produced an exhaustively researched, multi-volume biography of Washington, said that from the spring of 1778 to the summer of 1781, “It was a time of fiscal woe, of bewildering contrasts and of hope deferred.” Documents tell part of the story. Preserved are 594 pages of letters and orders that were sent by or on behalf of Washington while headquartered at the mansion. The general received 610 letters totaling 1,275 pages, but even these papers cannot give full justice to what actually happened.

   Washington and his advisors found the Dey Mansion suitable for a headquarters, where his forces could be secure, with the mountain ranges on both sides of the Hudson River were of the utmost strategic importance. As Willard DeYoe notes in an essay published by the freeholders to commemorate the mansion’s restoration, the army’s encampment in lower Preakness, was advantageous in helping French allies to make a landing. Still, we can only imagine the anguish that ran through Washington’s mind as he worked away the hours in the mansion’s east parlor, where analysis has determined that all the features in this room are original, including the floor that supported America’s imposing military leader. Morale among his troops was low. Congress was unable to requisition the necessary supplies. Washington was forced to requisition food from various localities. In the words of local historian Isaac A. Serven, “Insufficiency of clothing, desertions, arrearages in soldiers’ pay short rations, British propaganda, Tory spies and even mutiny caused Washington to emphasize the necessity of greater support on the part of Congress, observing that if this was not provided, ‘our cause is lost.’”

   It should be noted than an unsuccessful attempt was planned at the Dey Mansion to capture Major General Benedict Arnold, who had conspired to turn over West Point’s crucial fortifications to British General Sir Henry Clinton in exchange for a royal commission and 20,000 pounds, approximately three million dollars in today’s money. A composed yet distressed Washington wrote to Joseph Reed, president of the executive council of Pennsylvania, on October 18th, that “Arnold’s conduct is so perfidious, that there are no terms that can describe the baseness of his heart.” Washington wanted Arnold captured alive.” “No circumstances whatever,” he said, “shall obtain my consent to his being put to death.”

   The Dey Mansion, through documentary evidence, tells a richly tapestried story, and with this in mind, the site’s first major restoration took place three years after the property came under public control, in 1933-1934, during the trying months of the Great Depression. Despite the addition of easily removable Victorian-era excesses, the house’s fabric was found to be remarkably intact. Charles Over Cornelius, one of the nation’s leading authorities on Colonial design and architecture, was chosen as the restoration architect. The mansion soon regained its long concealed stateliness, both in its interior and exterior appearance, quite a transformation from when the last private owner. Michael Alsheimer, an industrious truck farmer, let chickens and farm animals run loose, with predicable results, on the mansion’s first floor hallway. Cornelius’ practiced eye took in magnificence right from the start. He wrote in a preliminary report that the house “was architecturally distinguished from the moment the building was completed; it has withstood the assaults of time and weather; and it has had further greatness thrust upon it by its historically patriotic association with Washington.”

   The mansion was opened as a public museum on October 8, 1934, and in May of the following year, received its first curator, the devoted Dr. William H. Rauchfuss, who was succeeded by his wife, and then by Raymond Francisco Dey, a collateral descendant of Theunis Dey. The decades moved along, and with them, as architect Cornelius said, “the assaults of time and weather.” The elements exacted their relentless toll. The freeholders, conscious of the site’s impressive historical pedigree, decided it was time to act and begin the necessary studies that would culminate in the mansion’s second major restoration. Almost a decade in the making, the project was partially funded with grant support from the New Jersey Historic Trust. As we have heard, the mansion itself was well served by John Milner Architects of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, who approached the task with the same attention to detail as did their predecessor, Charles Over Cornelius. Plans and specifications were made into reality by Dell-Tech Restoration Contractors of Trenton, whose meticulous craftsmanship was married to twenty-first century technologies, such as climate control and other improvements that were in their infancy or not yet invented when the first restoration took place.

   Construction is also moving ahead on a planned Visitor Center. An interpretive plan has also been developed, to highlight the mansion’s role in helping win the Revolutionary War, but also, to let museum visitors come away with even more than just an entertaining visit among hallowed halls and gracious furnishings. Objects are deprived of their informative value unless they are appropriately contextualized. Freeholder-Director Best, in a letter to President Obama, explained how the freeholders wanted the site not only to endure, but to educate “men, women and children from all ethnicities and creeds about the fundamentals of American democracy.” It is the fundamentals we should think about and appreciate, and how, with artifacts and documents, we can bring to life what was achieved by the men and women who inhabited the Dey Mansion during those often trying days when ultimate victory was often in doubt.




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