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WASHINGTON IRVING AND SUNNYSIDE
“ 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. It is said, in fact, to have been modeled after the cocked hat of Peter the Headstrong, as the Escurial was modeled after the gridiron of the blessed St. Lawrence.” Such is the humorous but faithful description Washington Irving gives of “Sunnyside,” the home of his maturer years. Turning to the west from the old post road, the modern “ Broadway," which skirts the eastern bank of the Hudson, and strolling down the winding lane, which follows the course of “Willow Brook," deeply shaded at every point by elms and chestnuts and willows, we come suddenly upon the queer little house with its pre-revolutionary gables, covered with a tangled maze of ivy, wisteria, and other vines. Beyond rolls the Hudson, its broad expanse dotted with sails and its distant views terminating in rocky headlands and wooded hills. It was this same fascinating scene which took captive the heart of Washington Irving as he returned from his wanderings over two continents, and from whose charms he was destined never entirely to break away.
It is interesting to notice that the dreams and ambitions of his boyhood shaped his whole career. When fifteen years of age he spent a holiday wandering with his gun through Sleepy Hollow, and explored the region. A little later he made his first voyage up the Hudson. Many years after this he wrote from his beloved Sunnyside : “ It has been my lot in the course of a somewhat wandering life, to behold some of the rivers of the Old World most renowned in history and song, yet none have been able to efface or dim the pictures of my native stream thus early stamped upon my memory. My heart would ever revert to them with a filial feeling and a recurrence of the joyous associations of boyhood; and such recollections are in fact the true fountains of youth which keep the heart from growing old." His residence at Sunnyside thus rounded out his life in beautiful
proportions. The shout of boyish glee mingled with the fond smile of maturity; the fervid imagination of the youth blended with the rich afterthought of a mellow old age.
In the spring of 1835, on his return from his tour of the prairies, he spent a few days with a relative at Tarrytown, and it was then that he determined to settle down in some snug retreat, and in the true spirit of Diedrich Knickerbocker chose the location of the old Dutch cottage on the present site of Sunnyside. “The exterior," writes he, in his account of Diedrich, “ of the eventful little pile seemed to be full of promise. The crow-step gables were of the primitive architecture of the province. The weathercock which surmounted them had crowed in the glorious days of the New Netherlands. The one above the porch had actually glittered of yore on the great Vander Heyden palace in Albany." The deed of purchase was dated June 7, 1835. We soon find him hard at work on the plan of his proposed cottage. In July of the same year he writes to his brother Peter: “You have been told, no doubt, of a purchase I have made of ten acres, lying at the foot of 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." He seems to have torn down the old cottage almost to the foundations, for he says of the new structure in a letter dated October 8th of the same year: “ It has risen from the foundations since my previous visit, and promises to be a quaint, picturesque little pile.” An elderly man, now living in the vicinity, who assisted in tearing down the old structure, told the writer of this sketch that Mr. Irving requested him to carefully save all the coins or relics of antiquity he might find in the débris. On the 16th of October Mr. Irving writes: “The porch is carried up and the workmen are in want of the inscription stone, previous to removing the scaffold.” A little later he writes : “ Like all meddlings with stone and mortar, the plan has extended as I built, until it has ended in a complete, though moderate-sized family residence. It is solidly built of stone so that it will last for generations.” The work went on more slowly than he anticipated. During a temporary financial pressure he says: “The cottage is slowly approaching to a finish, but it will take a few weeks yet. For such a small edifice it has a prodigious swallow, and reminds me of those little fairy changelings called killcrops, which eat and eat and are never the fatter."
The cottage was first used by him as a residence in October, 1836. The wing had not been added at that time. The place originally contained ten acres, which were afterward increased to eighteen. There are now fifteen acres. With an honest pride Mr. Irving went about to make improvements. His letters speak frequently of “sweet little Sunnyside," "dear little Sunnyside.” Again he says: “ There is a lovely prospect from its windows and a sweet green bank in front shaded by locust trees, up which the summer breeze creeps delightfully. It is one of the most delightful banks in the world for reading, dozing, and dreaming during the heat of summer." Suddenly called away from this little paradise and induced to take up once more his pilgrim staff, he writes home from the court of Spain : "Between you and I, I would not give little Sunnyside for the grandest Duke's palace in Spain."
Why he should have called his cottage “Sunnyside " is not quite apparent. Perhaps the following extract may throw light on the subject : “For my part I am almost a worshiper of the sun. I have lived so much of my life in climates where he is all-powerful, that I delight in his vivifying effect on the whole face of nature and his gladdening influence on all animate creation. In no climate within the range of my experience is sunshine more beautiful in its effect on landscape than in this, owing to the transparency of the atmosphere, and at the same time the variety of the clouds with which our skies are diversified. To my mind neither Spanish or Italian skies, so bright and cloudless, can compare with ours, forever shifting in their tints and at times so gorgeous with their floating region of cloud-land.'" “Sunnyside" is the natural outcome of such feelings.
The name which he at first intended to give to his “snuggery” was Wolfert's Roost." At one stage of his work on the cottage, during the financial pressure above referred to, he wrote: “I intend to write a legend or two about it (the cottage) and its vicinity by way of making it pay for itself." He could hardly have found a more fertile theme. He seized upon the scanty records of the old Dutch cottage and has given us a most delightful interweaving of fact and fiction. The remark of Mr. Warner at the Tarrytown centennial of the author's birth is well illustrated at this point, in that the true discoverer of the Hudson was Washington Irving, for he has made it the highway of the imagination for all days to come. Just at the foot of the river bank in front of Sunnyside boils up a clear cold spring. About this spot he locates the story of a famous Indian sachem, a great wizard and medicine man, who ruled in olden times from O-sin-Sing to Spyten Duyvel. “Of his wizard powers," he says, “we have a token in a spring which wells up at the foot of the bank, on the very margin of the river, which, it is said, was gifted by him with rejuvenating powers, something like the renowned Fountain of Youth in the Floridas, so anxiously but vainly sought by the veteran Ponce de Leon. This story, however, is stoutly contradicted by an old Dutch matter-of-fact tradition, which declares the spring in question was smuggled over from Holland in a churn by Femmetie Van Blascom, wife of Goosen Garret Van Blascom, one of the first settlers, and that she took it up by night unknown to her husband from beside their own farmhouse near Rotterdam, being sure she should find no water equal to it in the new country—and she was right.” High up on the gable end looking westward, fastened securely to the wall are the mysterious figures in iron—1656. The untutored take this as positive evidence that the building, as it is, was finished in that year of our Lord. As we have seen, however, this cannot be the case. It is to be hoped that none are so uncharitable as to condemn one accustomed to modern conveniencies, much less a man of Mr. Irving's taste, to the narrow spaces and inartistic devices of the Dutchman of three centuries ago. But the figures are none the less significant. In the famous days of Peter Stuyvesant there lived an intrepid Dutch burgher of no mean reputation, Wolfert Acker, who gathered up his valuables, and, with his household, sought the unmolested solitudes of the wilderness. He built him a house on the banks of the stream which his own countrymen had introduced into the geographies of the world. He took possession of this new homestead in the eventful year 1656. Bidding farewell to the world of conflict, he determined henceforth to claim the deeper joys of peace and prosperity. “In token of this fixed purpose,” says Mr. Irving, “ he inscribed over his door (his teeth clenched at the time), his favorite Dutch motto ‘Lust in Rust' (pleasure in quiet). The mansion was henceforth called Wolfert's Rust (Wolfert's Rest), but by the uneducated, who did not understand Dutch, Wolfert's Roost'; probably from its quaint cockloft look, and from its having a weathercock perched on every gable." The drowsy days of the seventeenth century rolled on, and Wolfert Acker slept with his fathers-not altogether peacefully it seems, for among “ the old gray, moss-grown trees of his apple orchard " behind the house (the only remaining relic of his labors), may be seen, according to the popular legend, his restless ghost stealing pensively along of a bright moonlight night. Jacob Van Tassel with his “great goose-gun” next appears on the scene, whose patriotic exploits in the Revolutionary war brought down the wrath and the guns of the British on his devoted head. The venerable walls and gables were shattered, the creaking weathercocks were brought low. The valiant defender fled, leaving behind shapeless ruins. Years of conflict ensued. “In the mean time," says the chronicler, " the Roost remained a melancholy ruin, its stone walls and brick chimneys alone standing, the resorts of bats and owls. Superstitious notions prevailed about it. None of the country-folk would venture alone at night down the rambling lane which led to it, overhung with trees and crossed here and there by a wild wandering brook. The story went that one of the victims of Jacob Van Tassel's great goose-gun had been buried there in unconsecrated ground." But during the peace that followed the Revolution Jacob Van Tassel returned and again made the wilderness to blossom as the rose.