The Jay Heritage Center (JHC). is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization incorporated in 1990 and chartered by the New York State Board of Regents to act as stewards of the National Historic Landmark home of American Founding Father John Jay in Rye, New York. Jay's childhood home, which also includes the 1838 Peter Augustus Jay House built by his eldest son, is the centerpiece of the Boston Post Road Historic District.
The Jay Heritage Center's mission is to educate the public about the legacy of American patriot, jurist, anti-slavery advocate and diplomat John Jay through the historic preservation, restoration and interpretation of the land upon which he grew up in Rye, New York. Jay's character was influenced by this touchstone throughout his formative youth and early career; he would return to it frequently as a place of both contemplation and celebration.
After being raised in Rye from three months to 14 years old on a 400-acre (160 ha) farm, Jay went to New York City to study law at Kings College (today's Columbia University) but continued to come home fortnightly to spend time with family. When the Stamp Act compelled him and many other lawyers to strike in defiance of British law, he returned there to live from 1765 to 1766, and immersed himself in re-reading the classics. After negotiating the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, Jay rejoiced with family and friends at his home in Rye in July, 1784. As an adult, Jay owned and managed the property from 1813 to 1822 before transferring ownership of it to his eldest son Peter Augustus. The home stayed in the Jay family through 1904.
Today, JHC manages the remaining 23-acre (9.3 ha) core parcel of Jay's home as an educational center with programs in American history, architecture, social justice, landscape conservation and environmental stewardship. JHC's signature educational program Striving For Freedom is a site-specific, interactive play based on historic records which engages 4th grade to 7th grade students in a discussion of Jay's role in the abolition of slavery in New York State. The play has been performed for over 13 years. JHC was also named to New York State's Path Through History in 2014 for its programs that explore themes of Civil Rights as reflected in the legacy of the Jay family.
Other popular school and family programs have included hands-on archaeology digs, architecture mini-camps and "Our Footprints Matter", a program about sustainability which highlights the energy efficient measures employed by JHC. Notable programs for adults at the site have featured author Ron Chernow, Lincoln historian Harold Holzer, constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alan Taylor, landscape preservationist Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, and the late Roger G. Kennedy, former Director of the National Museum of American History who helped outline an interpretative plan for JHC in the early 1990s.
Past exhibits have included A Legacy of Sailing – Residents of the Jay Estate and Yachting New York 1843–1966, which coincided with New York State's Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial celebration and was co-sponsored by Mystic Seaport; The Jays and The Abolition Of Slavery: From Manumission to Emancipation co-sponsored by the New-York Historical Society; and The Landmarks of New York a major exhibit of over 100 black and white photographs of iconic structures saved through preservation advocacy. Most recently the exhibit Mary Rutherfurd Jay – Garden Architect (1872–1953) illustrated the life and career of one of America's earliest landscape architects and proponents of professional education for women.
In 2012, JHC created "The John Jay Medal For Service" "to recognize individuals who demonstrate a selfless spirit of commitment and engagement with their community." JHC Founder Catherine “Kitty” Aresty and New York preservation advocate Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel were the first recipients of the Medal awarded by Congresswoman Nita Lowey.
JHC is one of three owners of this parcel of public parkland that overlooks Long Island Sound. JHC owns 1.5 acres (0.61 ha) and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP) and Westchester County Parks share interest in the remaining 21.5 acres (8.7 ha) (with NYSOPRHP owning 90% and Westchester County Parks owning 10%). In August 2013, JHC was awarded management of the Jay Estate by NYSOPRHP and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino through a public-private partnership agreement. The agreement had previously received unanimous and bipartisan support from the Westchester County Board of Legislators in November 2012. NY State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey commented on the agreement in a lecture titled Stewardship of New York's Cultural and Natural History on April 29, 2014. The Commissioner articulated the importance of saving the site: "Here we are at the boyhood home of the only native founding father and the first Chief Justice of the United States, author of New York's constitution and two time governor, abolitionist and patriarch of several generations of similarly public minded descendants. It is a reminder of how many leaders called New York home and it is a source of state pride that we have preserved this home."
JHC is entrusted to stabilize and rehabilitate culturally significant landscape features at the Jay Estate including 1822 stone ha-ha walls, 1.5 acres (0.61 ha) of historic sunken gardens that date back to the 1700s, a meadow, an apple orchard, and elm tree allée. JHC was awarded a $500,000 Regional Economic Development Council (REDC) grant in December 2014 to help restore the historic Jay Gardens.
JHC is also overseeing restoration and rehabilitation of several historic buildings. JHC owns two of the buildings outright – the 1838 Peter Augustus Jay House and the 1907 Van Norden Carriage House. The Carriage House was designed by the architect Frank A. Rooke who designed Claremont Stables and several Sheffield Farms dairy plants in Manhattan. Commissioned by the later residents Warner and Grace Talcott Van Norden, the Classical Revival, yellow folly has its original, four-faced Seth Thomas clock and three pairs of mahogany pocket doors.
The remaining buildings – the 1907 Zebra House, Jay Ice House, 1917 Indoor Tennis House, and an 18th-century farmhouse – belong jointly to New York State Parks and Westchester County Parks but are being managed and restored by JHC. On August 4, 2015 Governor Andrew Cuomo announced more than $6.2 million in grant awards to help 16 historically significant properties repair severe damage from Superstorm Sandy in 2012; JHC was one of those organizations and awarded $391,056 for stabilization and restoration of the 1917 Palmer Tennis House which is also in its care. "The Palmer Tennis House, the third oldest indoor tennis court in the United States, experienced roof damage during Hurricane Sandy. The Jay Heritage Center will stabilize and restore the wood truss system and copper trimmed skylights, as well as the stone foundation and clapboard siding. Improvements to the tennis house, constructed circa 1917, will facilitate historic usage and interpretation."
Members of the JHC Board have been honored for their service in building awareness about the historical significance of John Jay's legacy and home in Rye by a number of organizations including the Garden Club of America, African American Men of Westchester and Parks & Trails New York.