BY ZACHARY MOHAMED
The ivory columns give way to a dramatic view of the Long Island Sound. As I arrive at the small but magnificent house, I spot the stern portraits of John Jay beside the French furniture, and a sense of grandeur overcomes me: I’m on the same spot where John Jay, first Supreme Court justice, celebrated the completion of the Treaty of Paris and the establishment of the independent United States. There is important work to be done.
In the small space set aside for me, I continue my research of historical records. My current project is to trace the path of Jay family friend, Alden Twachtman, in World War One. I meticulously take notes on historical accounts of Twachtman’s Army Division from a book I’ve borrowed from a local historical society and scour archives of the New York Times for accounts of Twachtman’s residence. To me, the whole project is fascinating: it’s like piecing together an enormous puzzle — I algorithmically locate fragments of the past and sequence them, focusing on the niches that fit everything together perfectly. I’m not reading a textbook; I’m re-creating the story of one of the most decorated officers in World War I. Through his experience I live the cavalry charges, last stands, and triumphs Twachtman saw in northern France.
Suddenly, I’m called away from my research to help a young couple tour the house. As we meander, I recount the symmetric architecture used by Peter Augustus Jay to open his estates to the sea, the gold leaf on the living room walls that reflected light long before electricity, and Mary Rutherfurd Jay’s pioneering garden designs. I take thousands of minute facts and details I’ve learned in my experience here and weave them together into a three hundred year narrative. Even though the inhabitants of this house are long gone, their stories come to life. Giving tours makes history relatable because it combines content with informal conversation, something I have fallen in love with here.
Because our not-for-profit is small, we are always looking for ways to reach out to the larger community. I have been blessed to have the opportunity to plan events such as a debate night and advertise our programming to local media. Historically significant places like these hold enormous, untapped value for the community as centers for civic education. The Jay Heritage Center has made my dream of teaching others all that I’ve learned here come true. As I walk out of the Jay house, I consider, ever deliberately, that here, only twenty minutes away from my house, the very foundations for our nation were established.
Photo above of JHC Guest Photographer and Author Alex MacLean (Harvard ’69, M.Arch. ’73 with JHC Volunteer Zachary Mohamed (Harvard ’20)