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JJ'S Bright Future

John Jay Homestead plans for future generations



Wendy Ross, executive director of the John Jay Homestead, commenced her relationship with the historic landmark shortly after moving to Katonah with her family in 1986. First she was a volunteer, then vice president of the Friends of John Jay Homestead, and finally the group’s president. In 2004 she was named executive director. During her 25-year association with the historic site, Ross has been instrumental in increasing membership, recruiting volunteers, and initiating new programs including long-range planning, landscape restoration, and entertainment  events including the now-famous Barn Dance and the Country Fair. After a storied party in May to celebrate her efforts, Ross stepped down. Ruth Sonshine, from development at Yale Law School, has been hired as director.

Ross left, but the John Jay Homestead carries on. Heather Iannucci, historic site manager for seven years (she is also the Historic Site Manager of Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers), says Ross’s legacy is “planting roots in the community and branching out beyond.” Heather Langham, who is completing her first year as president of Friends, says, “The Friends are the community support. They drive attendance to events and formulate plans to best serve the Homestead’s needs.”

“I am excited,” says Iannucci about the Homestead’s plans. “Don’t expect any major shift in direction; our mission remains the same.” That mission, she said, is to “Examine the story we’re telling and find more and new engaging ways to tell it.”

The John Jay Homestead site itself encompasses 62 acres. The primary asset is the house itself, presently closed in preparation for what is anticipated to be a year of renovations. After a huge HVAC overhaul in 2013, the plan now is to restore all the period rooms, including wallpaper, paint, and finishes. “This is a very large capital project that needs lots of money to complete,” Iannucci says. Bids for the work are still out. “We can’t be the Mount Vernon of the north until we restore the house,” said Iannucci.

The new Visitor’s Center was a $1.4-million project that successfully catapulted the site into new realms. “Everything we can do here educationally is so much larger now,” Ianuucci says. “For example, where we could only accommodate 60 students at a time, now we can have 160.”

Langham’s focus is identifying new constituencies. “We have a conservation committee now, and we’re involved in a collaboration with Cultural Katonah,” she said, referencing the alliance between the three major cultural institutions of Katonah—Caramoor, the Katonah Museum of Art, and the John Jay Homestead. In addition to the site’s on-going connection with local garden clubs, and even the Boy Scouts, Langham said, “We’re also working with local farmers and Westmoreland Sanctuary.” She is particularly excited about the new Innovation Committee headed up by board member, Steve Ohler, a Bedford resident. A newly marked Perimeter Trail specifically for walkers was completed in collaboration with the Bedford Riding Lanes.

One of the great beauties of the John Jay Homestead is that it is open 365 days a year. “There’s no toll booth, and our admission prices to many events are extremely reasonable,” Iannucci says. In addition to the Saturday Farm Market which opened June 14, and the Independence Day Fair on July 4, some new family programs starting in June have been instituted, including Play Day @ Jay, a program for children aged three to 10 who come with their caregiver to play, picnic, explore the grounds, play with old-timey toys, and engage in craft activities in the Visitor’s Center. The first Summer Hike with a naturalist tour guide is June 21. That same day is an Open Day in the Sundial Garden. A Teen Advisory committee has been inaugurated to engage older children. “We have two parties planned already,” Langham says. “The first will take place in the fall for seventh, eighth, and ninth graders. The second party will be for kids in grades ten, 11, and 12. There will be bonfires. It’s meant to be fun, not educational,” she said. An idea has been floated to create a debate society.

“We’re continuing to expand our capacity and our audience,” Iannucci says. “And activate more community involvement.” To that end a summer movie night will take place on the lawn. Come July 19 for a screening of The Wizard of Oz.

While change is in the air, now-iconic events at the Homestead such as the Barn Dance and the Scholars Lecture series will remain in place. “What’s important is we continue to tell the basic story of the people who lived here and how they lived,” Iannucci says. “It’s John Jay. We’re not revisionists.”

“The point is to keep the place going for the next generations,” Wendy Ross explains. “We’re keeping the American story alive.”

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