Living in harmony: Efforts ongoing to save a piece of Rockland's past

·5 min read

Hidden behind a strip mall and a row of towering trees along a busy stretch of Orange Turnpike in Sloatsburg, it’s easy to overlook the stately mid-19th century manor that was once home to a prosperous industrialist whose family gave this tidy village its name.

Nowadays, the Jacob Sloat House is also known as Harmony Hall, a Greek Revival mansion spared from development by an ardent band of supporters whose numbers include two of Jacob’s descendants. The task of peeling away decades of modern contrivances to reveal its original beauty has been an arduous one for these volunteers, with only one of the three main floors close to completion.

But entering from the veranda of the clapboard and brick home into the foyer provides a glorious welcome for visitors arriving for the diverse music and art shows presented year-round here.

Light pours into the expansive double parlor and dining room through windows that reach from the heart of pine floors to 12-foot ceilings; iron and brick coal-burning fireplaces stand in each room; a Colonial Revival style chandelier illuminates one room; restored plasterwork includes detailed ceiling medallions.

Portraits of Jacob Sloat and his wife, Sarah, gaze down upon period furnishings, directly across from an 1850 drawing of the home by their good friend, Hudson River School artist Jasper Cropsey.

A campaign to restore the mansion’s spacious veranda to accommodate outdoor events is underway. Meanwhile, crumbling plaster and exposed wooden beams await restoration in a half-dozen bedrooms on the home’s two upper floors.

The estate was once a centerpiece of village life, but “most people don’t know about it because it’s totally buried behind all of this,” said Peter Bush, a Sloat descendant, gesturing toward the strip mall one recent July morning.

“The average person might say, ‘Oh, it needs so much work,’ ” he continued. “It has incredibly important historic attributes, architectural attributes, and that’s what keeps me going. The fact that it’s an incredible resource for the community.”

The home dating from 1848 stayed in the Sloat family until 1908, after which it accommodated several restaurants before becoming an elder care facility. With plans looming for housing on its acreage, the site was recognized for its significance by the state in 2004 and later placed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

‘A sense of being at home’

Peter Bush, right, and his father Harrison outside Harmony Hall Jacob Sloat House in Sloatsburg on Thursday, July 14, 2022.
Peter Bush, right, and his father Harrison outside Harmony Hall Jacob Sloat House in Sloatsburg on Thursday, July 14, 2022.

As traffic whizzed by along the main road and a train whistle sounded in the distance, Harrison Bush, Jacob Sloat’s great-great grandson, connected Harmony Hall’s familial and historic significance.

Harrison’s grandmother, Henrietta Sloat, was born in the mansion, whose grounds once swelled well beyond Harmony Hall’s two acres. In her day, the home was topped by a cupola that’s disappeared but may someday be replaced.

Harrison Bush, a 96-year-old lifelong village resident, became Friends of Harmony Hall’s first president when it was founded to revive and operate the estate following its open-space acquisition by the Town of Ramapo in 2006.

The Town of Ramapo provides property upkeep and building maintenance, while memorial gifts, corporate and personal donations, and the not-for-profit Friends pay for ongoing interior renovations through net proceeds from year-round programs and events.

“It’s important to me because it’s part of the history of the whole Ramapo Valley,” said Harrison Bush, who was born and raised on a family homestead off Seven Lakes Drive.

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Harrison’s son, Peter, sees the preservation effort as a stronghold against what he calls Rockland County’s urban sprawl and disregard for historic sites.

“When I walk into the double parlor, in which the Friends restored the plasterwork a number of years ago, there is a tremendous sense of being at home,“ said Peter Bush, 65. “It is an incredibly welcoming house. Its magnificent architecture is what sustains me. What we have accomplished as a volunteer organization in that house shows the promise of the future.”

Geoff Weich, curator of Harmony Hall  Jacob Sloat House in Sloatsburg, in one of the interior rooms on Thursday, July 14, 2022.
Geoff Weich, curator of Harmony Hall Jacob Sloat House in Sloatsburg, in one of the interior rooms on Thursday, July 14, 2022.

The mansion’s name is an appropriate one, given the diverse musical events it hosts every year, from chamber music in the parlor to an annual bluegrass festival on the lawn that attracts some 1,000 visitors. The Friends are stepping it up a notch this summer with a Grateful Dead tribute music and crafts festival.

The house and grounds provide an attractive canvas for artists who come for the annual Plein Air Painting and Art Show.

These gatherings underscore the site’s value beyond historic preservation.

“It’s not a museum,” Peter Bush says. “We are a year-round cultural resource for the whole region.”

If you go

Who was Jacob Sloat?

  • Born in 1792, Jacob Sloat was a grandson of Stephen Sloat, for whom the nearby circa 1755 Sloat House is named.

  • He and his wife Sarah had nine children, five of whom died before the age of four.

  • Jacob Sloat was an inventor and industrialist, with his Sloatsburg Manufacturing Company producing as much as 8,000 pounds per week of the cotton twine.

  • In 1846, he began construction of the avant-garde Greek Revival home on a knoll overlooking his cotton twine mills along the Erie Railroad tracks. The family moved in two years later.

  • When Jacob Sloat died in 1857, the house passed into the hands of his wife and, in 1861, it was purchased by the couple’s 23-year-old son, Henry.

  • The high price of raw materials driven by the Civil War made it difficult to produce and sell the Sloatsburg Manufacturing Company’s twine, and in 1878, it collapsed under competition from lower-price, low-quality producers.

  • Henry Sloat died in December 1905, and the house passed out of the family’s hands in 1908.

Source: Friends of Harmony Hall

Robert Brum is a freelance journalist who writes about the Hudson Valley. Contact him at metro@lohud.com. Read his work at robertbrum.com.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Harmony Hall in Rockland is a piece of the past worth saving