Monday, January 9, 2012

Washington Irving's "Sunnyside"

Washington Irving's 'Sunnyside'
Sometimes a detour from the busy highway leads to enchantment. That's especially true in the storied Hudson River Valley where all thruways and traffic seem to be sucked into New York City, and figuring where to exit can be a startling discovery in the rear-view mirror.

After a day in Manhattan, I wanted respite. My son and daughter-in-law knew where to find it. Ducking under I-87, we slowed onto Sunnyside Lane finally coming to rest at the home of Washington Irving.

Irving (1783-1859) was one of America's earliest authors of international renown. While most writers were publishing books of practical value, Irving was penning for pleasure, while his readers enjoyed his writings at least as much. His Tales of the Alhambra has enticed travelers since 1832. Irving's Sketch Book has delighted readers with magical tales such as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle." Those, of course, were inspired by tales of his beloved Hudson River Valley.

Near what he called the "wizard region of Sleepy Hollow", Irving purchased a small cottage known as "The Roost" overlooking the river and began adding to it in 1835. "I have had an architect there," he wrote, "and shall build a mansion upon the place this summer. My idea is to make a little nookery, somewhat in the Dutch style, quaint but unpretending.” The new architectural elements included motifs characteristic of New York Dutch and places he loved in Spain and Scotland. He named it "Sunnyside."

He described it in his book, Wolfert's Roost and Miscellanies (1855). "About five-and-twenty miles from the ancient and renowned city of Manhattan, formerly called New-Amsterdam, and vulgarly called New-York, on the eastern bank of that expansion of the Hudson, known among Dutch mariners of yore, as the Tappan Zee, being in fact the great Mediterranean Sea of the New-Netherlands, stands a little old-fashioned stone mansion, all made up of gable-ends, and as full of angles and corners as an old cocked hat. Though but of small dimensions, yet, like many small people, it is of mighty spirit, and values itself greatly on its antiquity, being one of the oldest edifices, for its size, in the whole country. It claims to be an ancient seat of empire, I may rather say an empire in itself, and like all empires, great and small, has had its grand historical epochs. In speaking of this doughty and valorous little pile, I shall call it by its usual appellation of 'The Roost.'"

Irving wrote much about its history and more about its former owners, then gleefully announced, "I have become possessor of the Roost! I have repaired and renovated it with religious care, in the genuine Dutch style, and have adorned and illustrated it with sundry reliques of the glorious days of the New Netherlands. A venerable weathercock, of portly Dutch dimensions, which once battled with the wind on the top of the Stadt-House of New Amsterdam, in the time of Peter Stuyvesant, now erects its crest on the gable end of my edifice; a gilded horse in full gallop, once the weathercock of the great Vander Heyden Palace of Albany, now glitters in the sunshine, and veers with every breeze, on the peaked turret over my portal; my sanctum sanctorum is the chamber once honored by the illustrious Diedrich, and it is from his elbow-chair, and his identical old Dutch writing-desk, that I pen this rambling epistle."

Irving landscaped the property in an appropriate rustic style. A long curving drive led downhill and passed a small pond which he called his "Little Mediterranean." There he would sit in clement weather to draw inspiration and write. A small orchard not only provided necessary fruit but enhanced the scene as it satisfied his interest in growing things. He planted climbing vines such as trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), English ivy (Hedera helix) and wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) against the edifice, which remain to this day. Visitors will also find a small gardener's cottage surrounded by flowers and vegetables.

It was and remains an enchanting place, but think it was more so in its early days. A comfortable sitting room with plenty of glass opened onto the river view. Irving, his family and guests could rest on the veranda, stroll down the gentle slope to sun on a small beach, go boating, or fish.

Unfortunately the idyll was corrupted when the railroad was constructed between "Sunnyside" and the Hudson. His quiet retreat with its unspoiled vista and fresh river breezes was often interrupted by the iron behemoth belching coal smoke. Irving was furious, of course, fuming that they'd build a railroad through heaven, if they could. The "iron horse" has been replaced by less interesting engines, and the nearby Tappan Zee Bridge conveys thousands of vehicles across the Hudson each day.

Tours of Sunnyside are conducted by docents, dressed in period clothing, who are very knowledgeable about "Sunnyside" and Washington Irving. As we got to know our guide better, we learned that she was also well-acquainted with Savannah, my hometown, and Charleston, where she once lived. It was fun to discover that affinity.

You can buy individual tickets on site. If you live in the area, check online at Historic Hudson Valley to learn about various levels of membership that will allow "affordable, close-to-home fun along the Hudson." There are grander estates waiting for you to explore, and events to experience!

Not far from "Sunnyside", you'll find the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow where Washington Irving is buried. Walk around the church and explore the cemetery. It's free. You'll find lots of other notables buried there. Take US 9 north to Tarrytown. The Old Dutch Church address is 430 North Broadway, Sleepy Hollow, NY 10591.

There is an ancient sycamore tree near Sunnyside's lane that has the distinction of being recognized jointly by The Internation Society of Arboriculture and The National Arborist Association in 1976 as a Bicentennial Tree, "having lived here during the American Revolutionary period." It's humbling to be in the presence of something so old that has weathered the winds of change. I'm reminded of another old tree within the walls of the Alhambra which Washington Irving is said to have mused to be the “only surviving witness to the wonders of that age of Al-Andalus.”

It's mysterious how serendipity works.

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