Washington Irving‘s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” may be a spooky tale featuring a murderous headless horseman and a hapless schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane. However, the picturesque setting of his home in Tarrytown, New York that he aptly named Sunnyside is so far removed from his most famous work of fiction, you have to wonder how he came up with such a bone-chilling story in the first place.
As an aspiring writer myself, I enjoy visiting the former homes of famous authors. I have this misguided notion that just by standing in the places where these people penned their literary masterpieces, I will somehow be overcome by a lightning stroke of brilliance and find the inspiration to write the next Great American Novel (so far, no dice but I haven’t entirely given up). Some that I have visited in the past include Louisa May Alcott’s house outside of Boston, MA (most known for Little Women) and Victor Hugo’s apartment in Place des Vosges in Paris (most known for Les Miserables), And now I can finally add Washington Irving to that list.
The man himself. Source: Wikipedia
I’ve blogged about Washington Irving before, in which I explained the roots of one of the most famous ghost stories in America, the short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I am sure you have heard about it in some way even if you have never read the story. There was a popular movie starring Johnny Depp that came out about 15 years ago, as well as an upcoming TV show entitled Sleepy Hollow that will be airing on the FOX channel. I do wonder what Irving would have thought of seeing his most famous work being used as inspiration for movies and TV shows if he had lived in this century.
Irving spent nearly two decades traveling and writing in Europe, including a stint as the US ambassador to Spain. When he finally returned to New York, he settled at a cottage he had previously bought in 1832 along the Hudson River, a place he dubbed Sunnyside.
Isn’t this place so incredibly charming and quaint? The cottage looks like it belongs in some kind of Disney fairytale or a Brothers Grimm story. The cottage looks small from the front, but in this case looks are very deceiving. There is a whole wing in the back that you cannot see from this vantage point. The wisteria trellis growing on the facade of the house is the same one that has been growing since Irving’s lifetime. I hope they do trim it from time to time because someday that thing will engulf the whole house if left unchecked!
You can only visit enter the cottage with a tour guide, though you can wander around the grounds once the tour is over at your own leisure. Pictures were not allowed inside which is such a shame in this case because the interior was just as pretty as the exterior. However, I managed to find some pictures online of Irving’s office and what I think is his bedroom (there were about 4 or 5 bedrooms on the second floor). Behind Irving’s desk, you can see what looks like a red couch in front of the shelves. When Irving had a lot of family and friends staying over, he would let guests take over his room while he retired to this red couch in his study which also doubled as a bed.
Irving never married or had children. His fiancee Matilda Hoffman died of tuberculosis when he was in his twenties. Her death left him devastated, so much so that he was unable to say or hear her name without completely shutting down. I found some passages from letters in which Irving describes Matilda to friends and how he found himself unable to cope with her passing. I suggest that you take a look at them–I was blown away by the lyrical quality of Irving’s writing and just how in love he was with this young woman. And I wanted to weep at the way Irving chronicled the aftermath of her death. You can find the letters here.
In fact, I suspect the reason Irving spent such a long time traveling and wandering around Europe after Matilda’s death was because he was trying to recover from a broken heart. Sounds cliche I know, but it is the only argument that makes sense to me and explains why he avoided returning to New York for so long. The memories of Matilda were just far too painful (and I totally believe that after reading those passages from those letters).
Path up to a pond on Sunnyside property that Irving dubbed the “Little Mediterranean.”
However, when Irving finally settled down at Sunnyside for good, he was far from lonely. His brother Ebenezer (got to love the old-fashioned names people had back then!) and his four daughters also lived in the cottage, along with various servants. By that point in his life, Irving was very well-known and had received critical acclaim for his writing, one of the first American authors to gain this kind of attention. Despite his fame, he seemed to live a modest, quiet life and spent the rest of his days writing surrounded by his close family, all the while getting to gaze at the Hudson River every day. After Irving died at Sunnyside in 1859, the Irving family continued to reside there until 1945 when it was sold to a member of the Rockefeller family. It was then turned into a museum and eventually was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1962 (which I have come to realize is the USA’s version of a UNESCO World Heritage site).
Here are the rest of my pictures of Sunnyside. If I somehow ever become an internationally acclaimed writer during my lifetime, this is the kind of place I would want to live (though I would not want to be anywhere near the Metronorth train tracks, which go right in front of the Sunnyside cottage). Not too far from a major city, but removed enough in an idyllic location I could consider as my safe haven. This is what I like to think Irving had in mind when he bought Sunnyside.
The tower on the right was called the “Spanish tower,” inspired by the architecture of the Alhambra where Irving stayed while in Spain.
View of the kitchen yard where servants did laundry and other chores.
Apple tree in the kitchen yard.
The outhouse for you know what.
View of the Hudson River from Irving’s living room marred by power lines and the Hudson Line of Metronorth. Luckily Irving is no longer alive because I have a feeling he would not appreciate the noisy train going by at all hours of the day!
Not sure why this part of the house has 1856 up on it.
Wandering around where we think the old vegetable garden used to be.
So if you ever find yourself in Westchester County, New York and you’re looking for cool historic places to visit (and you like visiting the homes of famous dead authors like I do), definitely make a point to stop by Sunnyside. You can also visit neighboring Sleepy Hollow (yes, it is a real place and I can vouch for the fact that the new Sleepy Hollow tv show on FOX includes aerial shots of the town though the actual shooting of the show takes place in North Carolina) and the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where Irving is buried, along with other famous people. Also random but kind of cute: Sleepy Hollow High School’s team mascot is the Headless Horseman.