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A Day at Washington Irving’s Sunnyside

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The “Little Mediterranean”

It was far from sunny when I made the hour-and-twenty-minute drive from Marist to Tarrytown on March 28 to visit Sunnyside, the home of Washington Irving.  The day was gloomy but not too cold, and the snowy drive was still very pretty.  My first stop was the Historic Hudson Valley Library in Pocantico Hills.  I spent a couple of hours in the huge, quiet reading room adorned with paintings, including the George W. Waters painting of Rip Van Winkle that I had come across in my research.  Catalina Hannan, the librarian, took me through the history of Sunnyside and of Historic Hudson Valley.  Once I had compiled enough research, it was off to the house itself.

 

After parking by the museum shop (which used to be Irving’s stables), Catalina led me and two HRVI staff members down the wooded path through the former property of the author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  She explained Historic Hudson Valley’s mission to emphasize Irving’s life and achievements beyond his two seminal works.  She stressed the importance of Irving’s works to the literary culture of the young United States, as well as the fact that Irving is considered the first American to make a living through writing.  She reiterated a theme from the many sources I’d seen emphasizing the different “sides” or “personalities” of Irving: the “Spanish” Irving, whose time as American Minister to Spain and writings on Christopher Columbus have earned him an enthusiastic Spanish fan base; the “Western” Irving, who spent some time writing in the Western frontier before purchasing Sunnyside; and Irving as a Gothic writer, whose creepier, more supernatural stories mixed Gothic influences with dark humor and satire.

Passing Irving’s small man-made lake, nicknamed the “Little Mediterranean” by Irving and his family, we made our way to the cove, where we could finally see Sunnyside.  Scottish ivy, trimmed once every two years, covers the side of the house.  Catalina promised that if we were to come later in spring or summer, we would see the cottage adorned with honeysuckle and trumpet vine blooms.  We could also see the train tracks that Irving so despised when they were built in 1847.  In a letter he wrote to Gouvernor Kemble in 1850, he described being awoken at night by the “horrific sounds” and “constant calamity” of the train.  In fact, in 1854, when his neighbors petitioned to have the closest train station renamed “Irvington,” Irving alone did not sign.

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We finally made our way into the house itself.  The ceilings are low, the interior very cozy, just the way Irving liked it.  We saw Irving’s study, the desk decorated with two seafaring knives (there used to be three, but one was stolen just a few years ago!).  We saw the parlor, where Irving would look out at the view of the river.  Upstairs, we saw the rather creepy “Old Mammy’s Asylum,” a storage room with closets and a sewing area.  Irving, a lifelong bachelor and devoted sibling, invited many family members to live with him, including his aging brothers and their children.  Due to the large number of people who lived there, the house contains many bedrooms.  Irving himself switched bedrooms many times while living at Sunnyside (in one instance to distance himself from the sounds of the infernal train).  His original bedroom was my favorite; its pretty alcove decorated by a curtain was inspired by a room Irving had stayed in in France.

We passed the apple orchards, which Irving claimed were wandered by the benevolent ghost of the cottage’s original owner, as well as Daffodil Hill, which, Catalina assured us, would be in full bloom in mid-April.  She also described other Historic Hudson Valley programs in the area, many of which take place at or near Sunnyside.  Details can be found at http://www.hudsonvalley.org/historic-sites/washington-irvings-sunnyside.

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