Our virtual Literary Tours take us to literary and artistic destinations of all kinds. This time, we travel to the villages of Sleepy Hollow and neighboring Tarrytown, New York, which capitalize upon the scare factor of some of Washington Irving’s tales such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in which Irving wrote:
They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions…
Washington Irving’s Home, “Sunnyside”: Charming (not Haunted)
Local visitors’ guides entice tourists by offering blazing pumpkin trails, haunted hayrides, and cemetery tours; perhaps even a glimpse of the headless horseman himself. I expected Irving’s home to offer a similar mysterious, haunted vibe. Rather than the literary equivalent of a haunted house, however, Irving’s home, “Sunnyside, ” is a charming, quirky cottage nestled on the east bank of the Hudson River. Overhung by a massive and elegant wisteria vine planted by Irving himself, Sunnyside sits among ornate gardens, abundant trees, and sloping paths while overlooking the Hudson near its widest point.
An essayist, historian, lawyer, and diplomat, Washington Irving purchased the property in 1832 and began refurbishing the run-down cottage with the assistance of neighboring artist George Harvey. Having traveled extensively in Europe, Irving incorporated into his home a number of architectural design elements influenced by his years abroad. A tower added in 1847, which provided rooms for household servants, was influenced by monastic architecture Irving had observed during his years traveling in Spain. Reflecting the romanticism of the era in which he wrote, Irving’s home is filled with a number of unusual dormers, nooks, and alcoves that convey a sense of playfulness and whimsy.
Literary Tour of Sunnyside
Costumed interpreters guide visitors through each of the rooms of Sunnyside and speak with warmth, knowledge, and affection about Irving and his influence in early American history. Irving’s study is preserved in exact detail, including his personal library of books and writing desk given to him by publisher G.P. Putnam. Tucked in an alcove behind his desk, and hidden by floor-length red curtains, was a bed on which Irving could enjoy a nap in the midst of his writing days.
A number of Irving’s personal artifacts, including sketches, paintings, and handwritten notes, are currently on display for the first time at Sunnyside. A sketch drawn and annotated by Irving himself details his vision for the architectural lines he wanted to incorporate into one of the bedrooms. His handwritten note also reveals the masterful storyteller possessed grammar and spelling skills which, in the words of the interpreter, were god-awful. At the time Irving wrote, however, Noah Webster was still in the process of completing his first American dictionary and standardizing the English language for the New World.
Irving’s home reflects not only his life as a writer, but also the times in which he wrote. Named after George Washington, Irving was introduced to the President as a young boy and entertained a number of presidents and statesmen within his modest, yet gracious, home. Having originally designed the front bedroom overlooking the Hudson to be his own, Irving relinquished the room as guest space because of noise generated upon the completion of Tarrytown rail service near his home.
Washington Irving’s Family
Although Irving never married, he was surrounded by loving family members. Irving welcomed his brother Ebenezer and his daughter into his home from New York City after they lost their fortune in the financial crisis of 1837. Knowing how much his brother missed living in the city, Irving had The Wall Street Journal delivered daily to his home. He also arranged to have the family’s piano relocated from their former home to Sunnyside. Atop the piano remain collections of music played by Irving’s nieces, including a copy of sheet music for “The Sunnyside Waltz, ” composed by Henry T. Oates perhaps to reflect the whimsy and mirth often present within the Tarrytown estate.
In his final years, while suffering pain and unable to climb into his bed, Irving slept in a reclining chair and was attended by a nephew who occupied a sleeping porch adjacent to his uncle’s bedroom. Washington Irving died in his room in 1859 at the age of 76, eight months after completing his comprehensive biography of George Washington. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow cemetery, another prominent tourist stop for those seeking to round out their literary tours with a spine-tingling adventure.
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Irving, Washington (2013-10-09). Washington Irving Classics: The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon With The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, & Tales of a Traveller (Kindle Location 5230). Pearl Necklace Books. Kindle Edition.
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