Photos by Marc Ferris
Westchester County played a pivotal role in the Revolutionary War, but until recently, two tangible legacies of this colorful past sat decrepit.
Now, however, after local officials and private organizations stepped in to stem their decline, there is new life for Elijah Miller House and Odell House — both associated with George Washington.
Miller House, located in an industrial section of North White Plains, reopened last October after years of neglect. The county acquired the property in 1916 and it has been closed to the public for the last three decades.
A grassroots local duo served as catalysts for preservation. Five years ago, after locating former resident Ann Miller’s unmarked gravesite at White Plains Presbyterian Church, Cynthia Kauffman became concerned for the home’s future.
Due in part to its location across the street from a cement factory, she said, “people talked about giving the house away to another community, saying it was ‘just a farmhouse, so who really cares?’ The county historian questioned if George Washington had really been there. When people understand the actual story of what happened, they want to keep it where it belongs — on sacred ground.”
The home served as Washington’s headquarters during the Battle of White Plains in 1776 and as a field hospital where men died, said Kaufmann.
The terrain at the time (pre-Kensico Dam), including the Bronx River, a swamp and steep hills (like the sheer rock curtain behind the house), helped forestall the English advance, which allowed Washington to escape, fight again and return to Miller house twice.
Kauffman and her friend, Debra Palazzo, formed Daughters of Liberty’s League to provide public education programs about the home. They raised $4,000 for a headstone to adorn Ann Miller’s grave and began lobbying to save and restore the property.
“The house is a unicorn — it’s never been moved, never been renovated,” she said. “A significant story happened there and we know all about the family, too. A gem like this is hard to find because there are so few homes standing from that time.”
For years, Kauffman sat at the table with county officials who kicked the can down the road. “We kept the conversation going long enough and [County Executive George] Latimer finally did what others said they were going to do,” she said.
The county spent $3.25 million to renovate the house. State Assemblyman David Buchwald appropriated $250,000 in grant money for a new education center on the site, which is completed.
In Greenburgh, the town stepped in to save Odell House, another revolutionary-era relic that is falling apart.
Tarp covers the roof, along with a gaping hole in the wall. Other structural breaches, including several broken windows, expose the house to the elements. Many interior items are stored in large metal containers on the property.
The Town of Greenburgh will likely take over the deed in January  as the process winds through the court system, said Town Supervisor Paul Feiner. In December , the town received a $1.2 million matching grant from the state, which covers the architect’s estimate for stabilizing and restoring the structure.
The town is overseeing this effort, but seeks to minimize its financial exposure, said Feiner. He estimates that public expenditures so far amount to $100,000.
Susan Seal, former president of the Westchester County Historical Society, organized the nonprofit Friends of Odell House Rochambeau Headquarters to help raise $600,000 as required by the grant and, in time, offer programming.
Her ultimate goal is to turn the site into a museum that is eventually absorbed into the National Park Service.
Without question, the place played a pivotal role in the Revolutionary War.
In 1781, around 6,000 French troops marched from Rhode Island to the hills of Hartsdale, camping out for six weeks in July alongside about 4,000 American forces.
During the encampment, Washington stayed where the radio tower on Secor Road now stands. Odell House served as the headquarters of Comte de Rochambeau, commander of French land forces during the Revolutionary War.
In August, the generals, who partied and plotted strategy in the home, embarked on a long march to Yorktown, Virginia, the battle that ended the conflict two months later.
Though dilapidated, the house is salvageable. The first portion dates to 1732. Subsequent owners added on in 1760 and 1855. Each section is in original condition, “the floorboards, fireplaces, molding, everything,” said Seal.
“Usually, when you come across these types of buildings, you have to take away the modern stuff, but these were never modernized. There’s no heat or plumbing and only one electrical outlet.”
Seal is seeking support from French sources: the Consul General visited the house last summer and she applied for a grant from the French government.
After the French Revolution, she said, “a lot of the heritage from France in the 18th century got destroyed, so many historical artifacts are missing. Now they realize that they do exist, but not in their country.”
She notes the survival of several journals written by French soldiers during the time they spent in Westchester.
“The people we’ve spoken with are excited to be able to experience this marvelous moment when the French decided to help us,” she said. “This could become a major attraction for French tourism.”