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Sunnyside
Country home of Washington Irving
West Sunnyside Lane
Tarrytown, NY 10591
(914)631-8200

 

ucked quitely into a glen on a low bluff overlooking the Hudson, Sunnyside reigns as one of the supreme personal expressions of domestic architecture and romantic visions in America. Sunnyside encompasses both an idealized structure as well as the romanticized landscape giving it a distinct sense of place, atmosphere and fantasy.

Standing at the entrance to Sunnyside with flowering vines dripping from the walls and the broad Hudson flowing lazily through the Tappan Zee, you are overcome by the "drowsy, dreamy influence [that] seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere..." Irving skillfully played with the visual elements of bricks and mortar, the setting and the landscape to create "illusions which fancy has cast over commonplace realities."

"You have been told, no doubt, of a purchase I have made of ten acres, lying at the food to Oscar's farm, on the river bank. It is a beautiful spot, capable of being made a little paradise. There is a small stone Dutch cottage on it, built about a century since, and inhabited by one of the Van Tassels. I have had an architect up there, and shall build upon the old mansion this summer. My idea is to make a little nookery somewhat in the Dutch style, quaint, but unpretending. It will be of stone."

Irving believed that the Dutch, still influential in New York during his youth, formed the true cultural mileau in which he was reared. Born in 1783, Dutch architecture still dominated New York City as Irving grew up and the cultural life of late 18th century New York still bore the unmistakable stamp of the Dutch. In his writing and in creating his "little nookery" Irving incorporated styles, features, places and names of the Dutch in New York claiming as his own the antique and romanticized memories.

Irving paid Benson Ferris the amount of $1,800 in June of 1835 for his two room farmhouse and surrounding land. Shortly thereafter a relationship was formed with George Harvey who became Irving's artistic collaborator and foreman. Harvey's qualifications were those of an artist and someone who had previously created his own Romantic cottage in nearby Hastings. Originally the site had been a part of the Manor of Philipsburg.

Where to Go, Play, Stay & Eat Nearby!

The plan for Sunnyside created through the collaboration of Irving and Harvey was a typical expression of the Romantic style. It is a subtle blend of different styles, a mix and match of details and features assembled into a pleasing visual composition. Sunnyside contains elements that express the life of Irving and his travels ranging from Dutch to Spanish to Scottish. As well as being Americas most prominent literary figure, Irving also spent extensive time living in Europe and during the 1820s served as part of the US legations in both Spain and England. During the 1840s he served as the US's first Spanish speaking Minister to Spain. All of these influences can be found in the architecture and styles of Sunnyside.

During his lifetime, Sunnyside became renowned as a symbol and icon of American domestic architecture. Images and paintings of Sunnyside were widely distributed and the fame of the home was further established in Irving's "Wolfert's Roost", published in 1855, where Irving wrote of a "little old-fashioned stone mansion, all made up of gable-ends, and as full of angles and corners as an old cocked hat."

During the mid-19th century the "cottage" fad further enhanced the reputation of Sunnyside. The concept of a "cottage", a personal expression of style, was applied to all manner of products aimed at the middle classes. Americans believed that an individual creating his own environment, particularly in the form of a cozy country home, was an ideal. Irving and Sunnyside epitomized this ideal and images of Sunnyside were widely distributed on all manner of commercial art. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that Sunnyside stood "next to Mount Vernon, the best known and most cherished of all the dwellings in our land."

Above all, Sunnyside was a home. It was Irving's first and only permanent domestic residence. Previous to his living at Sunnyside and during the early years there, Irving traveled widely and lived extensively in Europe. With the creation of Sunnyside however, he had finally created a certain domesticity that he had previously avoided. At Sunnyside Irving surrounded himself by family and friends. His door was always open to visitors and frequently his home was filled with guests and friends, often causing his nieces to have to abandon their bedrooms and move into the tower in favor of guests.

Irving died of a heart attack in his bedroom at Sunnyside on November 8, 1859, at the age of 76. Being a confirmed bachelor, the house was passed to his brother Ebenezer and to Catherine and Sarah Irving, maiden nieces who had served as his hostesses and housekeepers at Sunnyside. The estate remained in the family's hands until it was acquired by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1945. In 1947 it was opened to the public as one of the first houses of this era to be preserved as a museum. The home was restored by Rockefeller to its 1859 appearance, requiring the removal of additions and extensions made to the home during the tenancy of Irving's heirs.

The restoration of the estate was facilitated by the contemporary images of the estate as well as an extensive collection of letters of accounts of visits to Sunnyside as well as the writings of Irving.

The house contains a large collection of original furnishings and accessories owned and used by Irving. Irving's study, or "workshop" is one of the best documented rooms in America. All of the furniture and most of the accessories in this room are original. The dining room, drawing room and picture gallery as well as most of the bedrooms are all open to the public and contain much of their original furnishings.

The grounds, landscape and cutting garden form an idealized creation of the Romantic movement; a manipulated and controlled environment designed for the development of vistas, the artful use of perspective and the careful creation of spaces all aimed at the enhanced discovery and enjoyment of the natural environment. The landscape served as an object of contemplation and a sentimental source of inspiration for Irving and his guests. Irving wrote, "I have made more openings by pruning and cutting down treas, so that from the piazza, I have several charming views of the Tappan Zee and the hills beyond; all set as it were in verdant frames, and I am never tired of sitting there in my old Voiltaire chair, on a long summer morning, with a book in my hand, sometimes reading, sometimes musing on the landscape, and sometimes dozing and mixing all up in a pleasant dream."

Visiting Sunnyside

Where to Go, Play, Stay & Eat Nearby!

Located off Route 9, on West Sunnyside Lane, one mile south of the Tappan Zee Bridge, (Interstate 87, NY State Thruway). Sunnyside is open to the public from March through December daily, except Tuesdays, from 10am to 5pm. During January and February Sunnyside is open but the hours vary, call ahead for exact times. The grounds are open for strolling, the house is open by guided tour only. A small admission charge entitles you to a tour of the house as well as access to the grounds. A small museum shop and canteen is available for visitors. Sunnyside is available for weddings and corporate functions.

Sunnyside sponsors a regularly scheduled series of events and lectures. Check with the Visitor Center for a complete schedule.

Some text for this article has been based on the various publications of Historic Hudson Valley, Inc. Interior photographs by Historic Hudson Valley, Inc. Antique images of Sunnyside from the collections of Historic Hudson Valley, Inc. Exterior photography by HV/Net.

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