A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art
History of Early American Landscape Design

Difference between revisions of "Sunnyside"

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[[File:2133.jpg|thumb|right|Fig. 7, Benson John Lossing, ''Residence of Washington Irving, Esq.'', in ''The Family Magazine or Monthly Abstract of General Knowledge'' 6 (1839), 135.]]
[[File:2133.jpg|thumb|right|Fig. 7, Benson John Lossing, ''Residence of Washington Irving, Esq.'', in ''Family Magazine or Monthly Abstract of General Knowledge'' 6 (1839), 135.]]
* Lossing, Benson J., 1839, describing Sunnyside (1839: 135)<ref>Benson J. Lossing, “Residence of Washington Irving,” ''The Family Magazine'' 4 (1839), [https://www.zotero.org/groups/54737/items/itemKey/3TS4N8BE view on Zotero].</ref>
* Lossing, Benson J., 1839, describing Sunnyside (1839: 135)<ref>Benson J. Lossing, “Residence of Washington Irving,” ''Family Magazine'' 4 (1839), [https://www.zotero.org/groups/54737/items/itemKey/3TS4N8BE view on Zotero].</ref>
:“The grounds about it have been cleared, the thick [[copse]] that concealed the ‘Taappan Zee’ from view has been levelled, and Mr. Irving has rendered it one of the most delightful summer residences in the country.” [Fig. 7]
:“The grounds about it have been cleared, the thick [[copse]] that concealed the ‘Taappan Zee’ from view has been levelled, and Mr. Irving has rendered it one of the most delightful summer residences in the country.” [Fig. 7]

Revision as of 03:49, September 16, 2018

Sunnyside, the home of the American author Washington Irving (1738–1859), is located near Tarrytown, New York, on the east bank of the Hudson River. The small estate is known for the eclectic architecture of Irving’s cottage and for its romantic, picturesque landscape. Tourists frequently visited the home during Irving’s lifetime, and it was well known to the public through published textual and visual descriptions. Today, Sunnyside is operated as a historic site by Historic Hudson Valley.


Alternate Names: Greenburgh, The Roost, Wolfert’s Rest, Wolfert’s Roost, Van Tassel Cottage
Site Dates: The original Van Tassel cottage dates from the mid-to-late 1600s; Irving purchased the estate in 1835
Site Owner(s): Washington Irving (1783–1859)
Associated People: George Harvey (c. 1800–1878; architect)
Location and Condition: Tarrytown, NY; altered
View on Google Maps


Fig. 1, George Harvey, The Old Cottage Taken Previous to Improvement, c. 1835.
Fig. 2, George Harvey, Scudding Clouds After a Shower/The Residence of Washington Irving, Esq., 1836–1840.

In June 1835 the American author Washington Irving purchased a 17th-century, Dutch-style farmhouse located just south of Tarrytown, New York, on the east bank of the Hudson River.[1] Shortly after acquiring the cottage, Irving set out to landscape the grounds (view text) and expand the house (view text), collaborating on renovation plans with George Harvey (c. 1800–1878), an English-born landscape painter and amateur architect who had recently constructed his own Gothic house and picturesque garden in nearby Hastings-on-Hudson.[2] Harvey wrote that Irving enlisted his help on the project because “[Harvey’s] own residence, being in the Elizabethan style, had so pleased the author of the sketch-book as to leave him to desire something similar, but modified with Dutch roofs.”[3] Irving and Harvey incorporated the existing two-story, boxy stone farmhouse, which Harvey painted soon after Irving acquired it, into the new design [Fig. 1]. The principal architectural changes from the 1835–36 remodel—an extension added to the back of the cottage, an open porch facing the Hudson on the west side of the house, a new façade featuring Gothic details and lancet windows, and a cluster of chimneys at the center of the red-shingled roof—combined elements of Dutch colonial history and Gothic revival architecture into a unique blend [Fig. 2].[4] The irregular shape and eclectic style of Irving’s remodeled cottage constituted, according to many scholars, an early shift away from the Greek revival style that had dominated architectural design in the early 19th century toward a more romantic style.[5]

In addition to the cottage remodel, Irving also devoted significant resources to shaping the landscape at Sunnyside. According to Debra Lynne Clyde, because much of Irving’s land had been farmed throughout the previous century, large swathes of it required replanting in order to transform the grounds into a picturesque landscape, a project that occupied Irving between 1836 and 1841.[6] Even before Irving had acquired the title for the house, he apparently desired to “clear away all the old outhouses, fences and rubbish and have a clear green lawn” (view text). Irving later wrote, “[I] was pretty much my own architect; project [planner] and landscape gardener, and had but rough hands to work under me” (view text).[7] By the spring of 1836, Irving reported to relatives that he was busy “[s]etting out trees” (view text) and boasted that he was becoming “a capital florist and horticulturalist and agriculturalist” (view text). Although Irving had never planned a landscape prior to Sunnyside, he likely acquired a working knowledge of landscape design during the course of his travels through Europe, including several “picturesque tours” to estates in Britain between 1815 and 1817. According to Robert M. Toole, Irving “did not recreate the rectilinear basis of old Dutch gardening, but instead manipulated the natural scene as a park-like composition, following the principles of English landscape gardening and the ‘Picturesque improvers.’”[8] Irving would have gained experience with horticulture and landscape design more locally as well. In 1832, three years before purchasing Sunnyside, Irving toured Dr. David Hosack’s Elgin Botanic Garden in Manhattan; he also visited Montgomery Place twice and would have undoubtedly noticed the horticultural efforts of the estate’s first owner, Janet Livingston Montgomery (1743–1827), who had erected a greenhouse and established a nursery for both native and exotic species.[9]

Sunnyside boasted a large variety of plant species. Vines of honeysuckle, English ivy—reportedly from a cutting taken at Abbotsford, the home of the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), that was originally sourced from Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders—and wisteria (a newly introduced Chinese exotic) adorned the cottage façades.[10] Irving planted groves of chestnut, black walnut, and butternut trees, and noted that “every year the groves grow more dense and stately” (view text). There were also Lombardy poplars, oaks, maples, black locust, horse chestnut, and tulip trees in the wooded areas of Sunnyside, and American elm and sycamore along the shoreline.[11] Irving planted a kitchen garden and flower beds during this period, and he acquired various plants and fruit trees from London, which his nephew Edgar, who worked in the New York Custom House, sent from New York up the Hudson River via boat up to Tarrytown, as well as plants from A. J. Downing’s nursery across the river in Newburgh.[12]

Fig. 3, Ward Carpenter & Sons, Sunny-Side: Property of C. A. and Sarah Irving, November 1871.

Irving made significant changes to the landscape along the riverbank that, as Toole has observed, “imparted a decidedly polished treatment to what was originally a more natural river edge.”[13] He cleared out the thicket of brush and rocks that covered the riverbank, surfaced it with grass, and erected a bulwark to prevent flooding and erosion. The bulwark also served as an important element of the landscape design; Irving wrote to a niece in July 1841 that it was “a great improvement to the place” and that he had installed “footpaths leading down to it, and seats under the trees” (view text). Writing about Sunnyside in 1841, Downing (1815–1852) praised the charming qualities of the “gently swelling slope” that connected the cottage to the riverbank and the newly installed “foot-paths ingeniously contrived so as sometimes to afford secluded walks, and at others to allow fine vistas” of the river (view text). These paths were part of a larger, complex system of walks that “directed movement and so defined the sequence from which the landscape composition was experienced.”[14] Paths ran along the shoreline, through the wooded glen, to the kitchen and flower gardens, and by the wooded belts that ran through the pastures. Irving’s paths connected with his neighbors’ paths to the north, east, and south of Sunnyside, so that visitors could meander onto adjacent properties without interruption, as can be seen in this 1871 survey map (Fig. 3].[15] In contrast to his neighbors’ gravel walks, however, Irving’s paths were surfaced with compacted dirt, reflecting his more naturalistic sensibilities and desire to keep costs low (view text).[16] T. Addison Richards (1820–1900) observed that this system of connected paths made Sunnyside feel much larger than its small acreage: “a pleasant deception greatly aided by that agreeable community of feeling between Mr. Irving and his neighbors, which has so banished all dividing walls and fences, that while you think you are roaming over the grounds of one, you suddenly bring up among the flower beds of another” ().

In 1842 Irving left Sunnyside to serve as the United States Minister to the Court of Madrid. While in Europe, he left the care of Sunnyside to his brother Ebenezer Irving (1776–1868) and urged him to consult the collection of books related to “gardening, farming, poultry, &c.” that he kept in his library (view text).[17] Upon his return home in 1846, Irving wrote, “I have found my little nest almost buried among trees and over run with clambering vines. My first move has been [to] cut down and clear away so as to make openings for prospects and a free circulation of air, my next to commence building an addition, so that I have my hands full of occupation” (view text). Facing a shortage of rooms to accommodate his nieces who often lived with him at Sunnyside as well as his staff, Irving built a three-story tower in what scholar Adam Sweeting has described as an eclectic “Chinese-Gothic” style. The structure, designed by Harvey and nicknamed the Pagoda, comprised a basement, three servants’ rooms, and a guest room and was connected to the main cottage by a one-story passage that contained a pantry and laundry facilities.[18] According to the scholar David Schuyler, during this second round of major renovations, Irving planted annuals, grapes, and figs he acquired from his friend Gouverneur Kemble (1786–1875), constructed a hothouse, and placed wren boxes near his cottage.[19]

Fig. 4, Evie Todd, Sunnyside. March 1866 [detail] from Leisure Hours sketchbook, 1866.

Irving made significant improvements to the more utilitarian features of the landscape during the mid-1840s as well. He enclosed the barn and stable area and made a large farmyard and poultry yard.[20] Irving also enclosed the 1 ½-acre rectangular kitchen garden and flower garden (with a coal house, a Gothic-style gardener’s cottage, and a storehouse) located in the northeast corner of the property on a hillside near the orchard.[21] To the west of the gardens, Irving erected a greenhouse.[22] Visitors entered the garden using Irving’s system of paths that connected with “a geometric arrangement of walks” within the enclosed garden.[23] Pastures were designed with aesthetics in mind, and Irving constructed “park-like glades, studded with specimen trees and thick woodland belts between them” that shaded the walks, as Toole has observed, rather than more efficient, clear pastures devoid of decorative landscape features.[24] This combination of practical and aesthetic considerations also characterizes Irving’s approach to other aspects of the landscape at Sunnyside, such as water sources, which Irving controlled and shaped in ways that were both useful and pleasing to the eye. In 1840 Irving constructed a picturesque Gothic icehouse, located on the shore of a cove [Fig. 4]. In 1847 he dammed the brook that ran through his property to form an ice pond, and just above that, a larger pond, which he shaped to resemble the Mediterranean. The “Little Mediterranean,” which was connected to the cottage through a system of lead pipes in order to provide the kitchen and laundry with water, also served as a reflecting pool. Both the icehouse and the ponds were necessary for the operations of the farm and cottage at Sunnyside, but they also served as ornamental features.[25]

Fig. 5, Unknown artist, Sunnyside from the Hudson, c. 1860.

The construction of a causeway for the Hudson River Railroad in 1847 negatively affected the landscape at Sunnyside by separating the brook that ran through Irving’s property from the Hudson River [Fig. 5]. It also necessitated the damming and eventual draining of the small cove, which exists today only as a marshy depression.[26] As Toole has observed, the railroad “seriously diminished Sunnyside as the ‘beau ideal’ A. J. Downing had described” in the 1844 edition of his treatise (view text).[27] Irving was greatly disturbed by the presence of the railroad, which he described as a “constant calamity,” but, like other property owners along the Hudson, he accepted compensation and resigned himself to its existence.[28]

Fig. 6, William Wade, Wade & Croome’s panorama of the Hudson River from New York to Albany [detail], 1846.

Transportation developments helped to make Sunnyside more accessible—and also more familiar—to the general public. Daily steamship service between Manhattan and Albany, started in 1808, opened up the Hudson River Valley as a tourist destination. Members of “the traveling class” used guidebooks and binoculars to view the estates along the Hudson River [Fig. 6]. Artists turned their attention to Sunnyside in the middle and late 19th century, and the estate reached a wider audience through the publication of prints. Prints also accompanied articles about Sunnyside that were published in general-interest illustrated periodicals or in travel literature, such as the well-known descriptions written by “propagators of the Romantic style,” according to Clyde, including Richards and Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–1867) (view text).[29]

Following Washington Irving’s death in 1859, Sunnyside remained in the Irving family and its appearance was largely preserved. The first substantial changes came in 1897, when Washington Irving’s great-nephew Alexader Duer Irving (1842–1911) added an addition to the north side of the cottage and replaced Irving’s original farm buildings and gardener’s cottage with new structures. Alexander Irving also made several significant modifications to the landscape at this time, eliminating public access to Sunnyside Lane, separating the old farm pond from the brook, and rerouting several driveways and fences. In 1945 John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874–1960), purchased Sunnyside to save it from demolition and soon thereafter opened the estate to the public. By 1960 the cottage and kitchen yard had been restored to appear as they did in Washington Irving’s time. A car park was added on the site of the old kitchen and flower gardens to accommodate visitors, and the entrance to Sunnyside was rerouted from Sunnyside Lane. Visitors now approach the cottage from the east, a route that was never used during Washington Irving’s lifetime. Sunnyside’s present appearance represents a combination of Washington Irving’s original design, Alexander Irving’s late 19th-century landscape alterations, and 20th-century changes made to accommodate the visiting public.[30] The estate is now run as a historic site by Historic Hudson Valley.[31]

Lacey Baradel


  • Irving, Ebenezer, June 1, 1835, in a letter to his nephew William Irving (quoted in Cater 1957: 134)[32] back up to History
“We are to get possession of it in a day or two and shall then determine what improvements to make. We shall clear away all the old outhouses, fences and rubbish and have a clear green lawn.”

  • Irving, Ebenezer, June 30, 1835, in a letter to his nephew William Irving (quoted in Cater 1957: 134)[32] back up to History
“But your uncle and all are more pleased than ever with the place. He purposes enlarging the house, preserving its present old Dutch style, and making it an inviting and comfortable nook for the family. It can, at a small expense, be made a charming little place. The road down from the turnpike to the house winds beautifully along the little brook, and is capable of being made really beautiful.”

  • Irving, Washington, August 24, 1835, in a letter to his brother Peter Irving (Letters 2:839–40)[33]
“The workmen are busy upon my cottage, which I think will be a snug little Dutch nookery when finished. It will be of stone, so as to be cool in summer and warm in winter. The expense will be moderate, as I have it built in the simplest manner, depending upon its quaintness rather than its costliness.”

  • Irving, Washington, April 28, 1836, in a letter to his sister Catharine Paris (Letters 2:869)[33] back up to History
“I wish the Cottage was ready, and then there would be no difficulty, but it will be some time in June before it is habitable—if then. We have good workmen and they are getting on well—but there is always a world of finishing that one never calculates on
“I have been busy out of doors from morning until night ever since I have been up here Setting out trees &c &c.”

  • Irving, Washington, May 18, 1838, in a letter to his nephew Pierre M. Irving (Letters 2:928)[33] back up to History
“We are all cosily quartered at the Roost, and very comfortable. The season is coming out in all its beauty, and we are in the midst of birds and blossoms and flowers. I look forward with pleasure to the prospect of seeing you and Helen at the cottage in the course of the summer, and showing you what a capital florist and horticulturalist and agriculturalist I am becoming. I beat all the gentleman farmers in my neighborhood, for I can manage to raise my vegetables and fruits at very little more than twice the market price.”

  • Irving, Washington, October 24, 1838, in a letter to his sister Sarah Van Wart (Letters 2:939)[33]
“The girls live very much in the open air. The retired situation of the cottage, with its secluded walks, quiet glens and sheltering groves, enable them to rove about without fear of restraint. They have lately been busily employed in nutting; my place abounds with fine chestnut, black-walnut and butter nut trees; and this year they are completely laden with fruit.”

Fig. 7, Benson John Lossing, Residence of Washington Irving, Esq., in Family Magazine or Monthly Abstract of General Knowledge 6 (1839), 135.
  • Lossing, Benson J., 1839, describing Sunnyside (1839: 135)[34]
“The grounds about it have been cleared, the thick copse that concealed the ‘Taappan Zee’ from view has been levelled, and Mr. Irving has rendered it one of the most delightful summer residences in the country.” [Fig. 7]

  • Irving, Washington, November, 25, 1840, in a letter to his sister Sarah Van Wart, about their niece Sarah Paris (Letters 3:61)[35]
“Ever since my return to the United States Sarah has been peculiarly my companion; taking the strongest and most affectionate interest in all my concerns, and delighting me by her frank, natural, intelligent, and social qualities. She is especially identified with the cottage and all its concerns, having been in all my councils, when building and furnishing it, and having been the life of the establishment ever since I set it up. How I shall do without her I cannot imagine, or how I shall reconcile myself to her entire absence from a place where every path, tree shrub and flower, is more or less connected with her idea.”

Fig. 8, A. J. Downing, “Residence of Washington Irving, Esq. near Tarrytown, NY,” in A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1849), 409, fig. 59.
“There is scarcely a building or place more replete with interest in America, than the cottage of Washington Irving, near Tarrytown. The ‘legend of sleepy Hollow,’ so delightfully told in the Sketch-Book, has made every one acquainted with this neighbourhood, and especially with the site of the present building, there celebrated as the ‘Van Tassel House,’ one of the most secluded and delightful nooks on the banks of the Hudson. With characteristic taste, Mr. Irving has chosen this spot, the haunt of his early days, since rendered classic ground by his elegant pen, and made it his permanent residence. The house of ‘Baltus Van Tassel,’ has been altered and rebuilt in a quaint style, partaking somewhat of the English cottage mode, but retaining strongly marked symptoms of its Dutch origin. The quaint old weathercocks and finials, the crow-stepped gables, and the hall paved with Dutch tiles, are among the ancient and venerable ornaments of the houses of the original settlers of Manhattan, now almost extinct among us. There is also a quiet-keeping in the cottage and the grounds around it, that assists in making up the charm of the whole: the gently swelling slope reaching down to the water’s edge, bordered by prettily wooded ravines through which a brook meanders pleasantly; and threaded by foot-paths ingeniously contrived so as sometimes to afford secluded walks, and at others to allow fine vistas of the broad expanse of river scenery.” [Fig. 8]

  • Irving, Washington, July 13, 1841, in a letter to his niece Sarah Storrow (Letters 3:112)[35] back up to History
“I never have seen it look more beautiful—and I think the little domains about the cottage have been more beautiful than ever—The trees and shrubs and clambering vines that have been transplanted within the last year or two, have now taken good root and begin to grow luxuriantly. If vegetation goes on at this rate we shall before long be buried among roses and honeysuckles and ivy and sweet briar. All the groves too about the place are magnificent this year. Most of the forest trees you know, are young, and scare any past their prime; so that every year the groves grow more dense and stately. The new walks are very popular especially that to the fallen Chest-nut tree, which is one of the most shady cool and delightful resorts of a warm sunny day that you can imagine. I was never more conscious of the sweetness of the country than this season.
“I have nearly completed my bulwark along the foot of the bank. It will not merely be protection against the encroachments of the river, but also a great improvement to the place—I shall have the slope bank finished off and in some places sloped down to the wall, with footpaths leading down to it, and seats under the trees. The shore of the river is cleared of all the rocks and stones that encumbered it and the whole aspect of the place along the river is changed.”

  • Irving, Washington, July 18, 1841, in a letter to his niece Sarah Storrow (Letters 3:133)[35]
“The sweet briars which you and David planted, and which you inquire about, are flourishing finely—You need not fear that they will not be taken fear of. We value too highly every thing that reminds us of you. All our clambering vines have been very luxuriant this season, and are gradually clothing the cottage with verdure. Some of the trumpet creeper too begins to flower; and by another year we shall have the east wall quite gorgeous.”

  • Irving, Washington, February 17, 1842, in a letter to his brother Ebenezer Irving (Letters 3:183–84)[35] back up to History
“I now abandon the care of the place entirely to you. You will find, in my little library, books about gardening, farming, poultry, &c., by which to direct yourself. The management of the place will give you healthful and cheerful occupation, and will be as much occupation as you want. . . . Try if you cannot beat me at farming and gardening. I shall be able to bestow a little more money on the place now, to put it in good heart and good order.”

“At Tarrytown, is the cottage residence of Washington Irvings, which is, in location and accessories, almost the beau ideal of a cottage-ornée. The charming manner in which the wild foot-paths, in the neighborhood of this cottage, are conducted among the picturesque dells and banks, is precisely what one would look for here. . . .
“The cottage itself is now charmingly covered with ivy and climbing roses, and embosomed in thickets of shrubbery.”

  • Irving, Washington, February 5, 1846, in a letter to Flora Foster Dawson (Letters 4:13–14)[38]
“As to myself on my return to America I built me a pretty little cottage on the banks of the Hudson in a beautiful country, and not far from my old haunts of Sleepy Hollow. Here I passed several years most happily; my cottage well stocked with nieces and enlivened by visits from friends and connexions, having generally what is called in Scotland is called a house full, that is to say a little more than it will hold. This state of things was too happy to last. I was unexpectedly called from it by being appointed Minister to Madrid. It was a hard struggle for me to part from my cottage and my nieces but I put all under charge of my brother and promised to return at the end of three years. I have overstaid my time. Nearly four years have elapsed; I understand my cottage is nearly buried among the trees I set out, and over run with roses and honeysuckle and ivy from Melrose Abbey, and my nieces implore me to come back and save them from being buried alive in foliage.”

  • Irving, Washington, October 19, 1846, in a letter to Madame Albuquerque (Letters 4:101)[38] back up to History
“I have found my little nest almost buried among trees and over run with clambering vines. My first move has been cut down and clear away so as to make openings for prospects and a free circulation of air, my next to commence building an addition, so that I have my hands full of occupation.”

  • Irving, Washington, November 8, 1846, in a letter to Sabina O’Shea (Letters 4:105)[38]
“In fact I have so completely slipped back into my old rural habits and occupations, that I can scarcely realize, as I go dawdling about trimming and planting and transplanting trees and inspecting the poultry yard, that so short a time has elapsed since I was playing the Courtier and treading the saloons of Royal palaces.”

  • Irving, Washington, August 27, 1847, in a letter to his niece Sarah Storrow (Letters 4:144)[38]
“My own place has never been so beautiful as at present. I have made more openings by pruning and cutting down trees, 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 Voltaire chair, of 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.”

  • Irving, Washington, September 9, 1847, in a letter to his sister Catharine Paris (Letters 4:150)[38]
“I have, however, just finished my last job, making a new ice pond in a colder and deeper place in the glen just opposite our entrance gate: and now I would not undertake another job, even so much as to build a wren coop; for the slightest job seems to swell into a toilsome and expensive operation.”

“The fact is on my return home my whole thoughts and exertions were suddenly turned into a new channel which has almost ever since engrossed them. I found my place very much out of order, my house in need of additions and repairs and the whole establishment in want of completion. I set to work immediately, and kept on at all times and seasons, in defiance of heat and cold, wind and weather and as I was pretty much my own architect; project and landscape gardener, and had but rough hands to work under me, I have been kept busy out of doors from morning until night and from months end to months end until within a week or two past, when I brought my labors to a close, or rather relinquished them, finding I had spent all <my> the money in my pocket and fagged myself into an irritation of the system which has rendered me almost as lame as I used to be in Madrid.”

  • Irving, Washington, December 18, 1850, in a letter to Henry Lee Jr. (Letters 4:237)[38]
“A rural retreat when it is a mans own, and of his own formation produces a new set of pleasures and interests and ambitions, and every tree he plants awakens a new hope and attaches him to the spot which he has improved. I speak from experience having never been happier than in my present little country nest, where the house is of my own building, the trees of my own planting the garden of my own cultivating and where my continual blunders give me continual occupation in rectifying them.”

  • Irving, Washington, May 20, 1851, in a letter to Moses H. Grinnell (Letters 4:255)[38]
“Sunnyside is possessed by seven devils and I have to be continually on the watch to keep all from going to ruin. First, we have a legion of Women Kind, cleaning and scouring the house from top to bottom; so that we are all reduced to eat and drink and have our being in my little library. In the midst of this our water is cut off. An Irishman from your establishment undertook to shut up my spring as he had yours, within brick walls; the spring shewed proper spirit and broke bounds and all the water pipes ran dry in consequence. In the dearth of painters I have employed a couple of country carpenters to paint my roofs and it requires all my vigilance to keep them from painting them like Josephs coat of divers colors. Your little man Westerfield is to plaster my chimneys tomorrow and your plumbers and bell hangers to attack the vitals of the house. I have a new coachman to be inducted into all the mysteries of the stable and coach house, so all that part of the establishment is in <a> what is called a halla baloo. In a word I never knew of such a tempest in a teapot as is just now going on in little Sunnyside[.] I trust, therefore, you will excuse me for staying at home to sink or swim with the concern.”

  • Irving, Washington, July 15, 1852, in a letter to his niece Sarah Storrow (Letters 4:317)[38]
“I wish you could see little Sunnyside this season, I think it more beautiful than ever. The trees and shrubs and clambering vines are uncommonly luxuriant. We never had so many singing birds about the place and the humming birds are about the windows continually after the flowers of the honey suckles and trumpet creepers which overhang them.”

Fig. 9, W. R. Miller (artist) and Richardson & Cox (engraver), Irving’s Residence, Sunny-Side, in Homes of American Authors; Comprising Anecdotical, Personal, and Descriptive Sketches by Various Writers (1853), 35.
Fig. 10, W. R. Miller (artist) and Richardson & Cox (engraver), Irving’s Residence, Sunny-Side, in Homes of American Authors; Comprising Anecdotical, Personal, and Descriptive Sketches by Various Writers (1853), 50.
  • Tuckerman, Henry T., 1853, describing Sunnyside (1853: 50–52)[39]
“It is approached by a sequestered road, which enhances the effect of its natural beauty. A more tranquil and protected abode, nestled in the lap of nature, never captivated a poet’s eye. Rising from the bank of the river, which a strip of woodland alone intercepts, it unites every rural charm to the most complete seclusion. From this interesting domain is visible the broad surface of the Tappan Zee; the grounds slope to the water’s edge, and are bordered by wooded ravines; a clear brook ripples near, and several neat paths lead to shadowy walks or fine points of river scenery. The house itself is a graceful combination of the English cottage and the Dutch farm-house. The crow-stepped gables, the tiles in the hall, and the weathercocks, partake of the latter character; while the white walls gleaming through the trees, the smooth and verdant turf, and the mantling vines of ivy and clambering roses, suggest the former. Indeed, in this delightful homestead are tokens of all that is most characteristic of its owner. The simplicity and rustic grace of the abode indicate an unperverted taste,—its secluded position a love of retirement; the cottage ornaments remind us of his unrivalled pictures of English country-life; the weathercock that used to veer about on the Stadt-house of Amsterdam is a symbol of the fatherland; while the one that adorned the grand dwellings in Albany before the revolution, is a significant memorial of the old Dutch colonists; and they are thus both associated with the fragrant memory of that famous and unique historian Diedrich Knickerbocker. The quaint and beautiful are thus blended, and the effect of the whole is singularly harmonious. From the quietude of this retreat are obtainable the most extensive prospects; and while its sheltered position breathes the very air of domestic repose, the scenery it commands is eloquent of broad and generous sympathies. . . .
“And here, in the midst of a landscape his pen has made attractive in both hemispheres and of friends whose love surpasses the highest meed of fame, he lives in daily view of scenes thrice endeared—by taste, association, and habit;—the old locust that blossoms on the green bank in spring, the brook that sparkles along the grass, the peaked turret and vine-covered wall of that modest yet traditional dwelling, the favorite valley watered by the romantic Pocantoro, and, above all, the glorious river of his heart.” [Figs. 9 & 10]

  • Irving, Washington, May 27, 1853, in a letter to Mary E. Kennedy (Letters 4:406)[38]
“The grass is growing up to my very door,—the roses and honeysuckles are clamberinga bout my windows, the acacias and liburnums are in full flower, singing birds have built in the ivy against the wall and I have concerts at daybreak almost equal to the serenades you used to have at Washington.”

  • Anonymous, April 1855, describing Sunnyside (New York Quarterly 4: 66, 75, 77)[40]
“In a sequestered rural retreat, some twenty-five miles from the din of city life, half-hid among thick foliage through which gleams the silvery expanse of the Hudson, stands a grotesque-looking, antique edifice—half-Dutch, half-Elizabethan in style, and so snugly nestled amid shrubbery and evergreen, as to elude the ken of the casual passer-by. It is an enchanting little nook, charmingly diversified with upland, lawn, and dell, and so rife with picturesque beauty as completely to fascinate the eye and hold it spell-bound to the spot. This emparadised retreat, with its leafy recesses and antique structure, is the home of the great American essayist and historian—Washington Irving. There is an air of singular quaintness and rural elegance about the scene—every thing that refined taste could devise, and diligent culture effect, is here indicated. . . .
“We perambulated the beautiful grounds of Sunny-Side, which extend over some six or eight acres, a second time, and as we luxuriated over every fresh variety of ornate landscape, Mr. Irving pointed out some of his favorite walks, and indicated to us some of his fine trees, in which he evidently takes pride and pleasure. From a rising knoll on the banks of the river, we caught a glimpse of the roof and turrets of the house, the rest of the edifice being embosomed in foliage; the scene was singularly effective and beautiful. As an evidence of the social and amiable character of Mr. Irving, it may be mentioned that no 'boundary line' is marked by hedge or by fence, diving his from his neighbors' grounds—an instance somewhat remarkable, since such distinctions are rarely disregarded. The kitchen garden is a perfect model for neatness and taste, and its lavish provision showed that utility as well as ornament entered into the calculations of his gardener. The only thing that seemed wanting was water, there being but a small rivulet here and there. . . .
“The radiant summer sunset was now streaming its liquid gold through the windows, tempting us out upon the lawn again, to feast our gaze with the splendors of the scene. A new phase of beauty was now given to these delectable grounds, the leaves and flowers were luminous with the golden rays of the declining sun, and the quiet waters of the Hudson served as a broad mirror reflecting the brilliant and blending tints of the bending skies, rendering the scene one of exquisite loveliness. . . . The dark shadows of the clumps of forest-trees afforded a rich contrast to the gorgeous hues with which the other portions of the landscape were decked.”

“It is a sweet scene of rural simplicity and comfort which is disclosed to us by either approach; as the open sunlit lawn, so affectionately embraced by its protecting trees and shrubbery, which, though permitting little peeps here and there from within, deny all vagrant observation from without. One can scarcely believe himself as thickly surrounded as he really is here by crowding cottage and castle, so entire is the repose and seclusion of the spot. Year ago, when Mr. Irving first took up his abode at Sunnyside, he was all alone by himself, yet now every inch of the adjacent country is gardened, and lawned, and villaed, to the extreme of modern taste and wealth; yet all so charmingly under the rose, that you always stumble upon the evidences unexpectedly, as you dreamingly pursue the thicket-covered and brook-voiced wood-paths. It is like the discovering of birds'-nests amidst forest leaves. Seen from the opposite shore of the river, the whole hillside is glittering with sun-tipped roof and tower, but like the Seven Cities of the Enchanted Island, it all vanishes as you approach.
“The cottage, with its crow-stepped gables and weathercocks, overrun with honey-suckle and eglantine, with the rose-vine and the clinging ivy, is a wonderfully unique little edifice, totally unlike any thing else in our land, but always calling up our remembrances or our fancies of merrie rural England, with a hint here and there at its old Dutch leaven; in the quaint weathercocks, for instance, one of which actually veered, in good old days gone by, over the great Vander Heyden Palace in Albany, and another on the top of the Stadt House of New Amsterdam. A lady would be apt to call the Sunnyside cottage ‘the dearest, cosiest, cunningest, snuggest little nest in the world.’ Mr. Irving describes it as ‘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,’ he continues, ‘to have been modeled after the cocked hat of Peter the Headstrong, as the Escurial was modeled after gridiron of the blessed St. Lawrence.’ . . .
“Before the intrusion of the railroad, which has profaned so much of the river shore, the quiet beach, with its little cove, into which a rural lane debouched, was one of the sweetest features of Sunnyside. This part of the domain is beautifies by a sparkling spring, draped, like all the region round, as we shall see by-and-by, in the fairy web of romantic fable. . . .
“The acres of Sunnyside, all told, are not many; and yet so varied is their surface, so richly wooded and flowered, and so full of elfish winding paths and grassy lanes, exploring hillsides and chasing merry brooks, that their numbers seem to be countless; a pleasant deception greatly aided by that agreeable community of feeling between Mr. Irving and his neighbors, which has so banished all dividing walls and fences, that while you think you are roaming over the grounds of one, you suddenly bring up among the flower-beds of another. . . .
“The woodland of Sunnyside is very happily varied, offering every variety of sylvan growth, beech, birch, willow, oak, locust, maple, elm, linden, pine, hemlock, and cedar; while on the lawns are evergreen and flowering shrubs; and, trailing over the vagrant walls and fences, honey-suckle, rose, trumpet-flowers, and ivy. The latter plant, which is very abundant, is of the famous stock of Melrose Abbey. The garden, which in keeping with its surroundings, is watched by a favorite retainer, for whom Mr. Irving has built a snug cottage, fronting the lawn in the face of his own mansion. This little edifice is especially interesting, from its having been designed by Mr. Irving himself; his only venture, he once told us, as an architect. . . .
“Separated from the lawn around the cottage by the belt of trees in which stands the gardener’s dwelling, is another open area occupied by a pretty lakelet ‘expansion’ of the brook—an echo of the great bay beyond. The painter gives unity, and harmony, and force to his picture by distributing throughout the work its leading sentiment or story and its prevailing color; so, in the artistic composition of Sunnyside, its chief feature, the great ‘Mediterranean’ of the river, as Mr. Irving calls the Tappan Bay, with its fleet of white sails thick as the passing clouds, is repeated by the little ‘Mediterranean’ of the brooklet and its fleet of snowy ducks. . . .
“The air of graceful simplicity and cozy comfort which so strongly marks the exterior of the Sunnyside cottage, is felt quite as vividly within doors. It is cut up into just such odd, snug little apartments and boudoirs as the rambling, low-walled, peak-roofed, and gable-ended outside promises. The state entrance is by the porch at the south end; the household exit is from the drawing-room, across the piazza, to the lawn on the east or river front. It is on this side of the cottage that the family chat or read the news of the great world, away, on summer days and nights. On the north side of the drawing-room there is a delightful little recess, forming a boudoir some six or eight feet square, the whole front of which is occupied by a window looking across the lawn, and through the up-river vista chronicled in our portfolio. It is, in summer, neatly matted and furnished with little stands of books, and flowers, and statuettes, and the low-toned walls are hung with drawings and sketches by Leslie, Stuart Newton, and others—mementoes of Mr. Irving’s sojournings and friendships in England—with some of Darley’s admirable etchings from Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It is a little nook which you would set down at once as under special female guardianship. . . .
“The graceful simplicity which marks the appointments of this Lilliputian sanctum is seen through all the furniture and adornments of the mansion. The spirit throughout is that of refinement without affectation, elegance without display, comfort without waste.”

  • Willis, N. P., August 1857, describing Sunnyside (quoted in American Publishers’ Circular and Literary Gazette 3: 530)[42] back up to History
“With the horticulture and arboriculture of ‘Wolfert’s-dell,’ Mr. Grinnell has been singularly successful; and, as we were to make the rounds of the shrubberies and the hot-houses before the sun should be fairly vertical, we were now admonished that it was time—Mr. Irving at once taking his straw hat to accompany us. A remark upon the beauty of the verdure near his door, drew from him a most poetical outburst as to the happy superiorty of our climate . . . .
“While we were still in the immediate grounds of Sunnyside, I observed two remarkable triplets of the tulip tree—superb growths of three equal shafts, tall and of arrowy straightness, from each root—and in these fine specimens of the cleanest-leaved and healthiest-looking of trees, he said he took great pleasure. A squirrel ran up one of them as we approached, and, upon this race of depredators, he had been obliged to make war this summer. They were a little bit more destructive than their beauty was an excuse for. With another class of destructives, however, he did not know so well how to contend, the visitors who drive into his grounds and tie their horses to the trees.
“The well-shaded ravine which has Sunnyside sitting on one of its knees—(once called ‘Wolfert’s Roost,’ and long used by that famous Dutchman as the covert-way between the river and his haunts)—is conveniently and gracefully intersected with paths; but I remarked to Mr. Irving that they were somewhat of the outline character of ours at Idlewild. Yes, he said; on his side of the dell, they were merely dug out and walked hard; but as they communicated with those of his rich neighbor, he was very often lucky enough to get credit of the smooth gravel-walks, too! And he presently gave another of his crayonesque touches to his neighbor, assuring us, very solemnly, while were were wondering at the growth to which the transplanted trees had attained in so short a time, that ‘it was done by Mr. Grinnell’s going round at night, himself, with a lantern and water-pot, to see that the trees did not oversleep themselves:’—a fact, (seen through Irving spectacles,) as Mr. G., engrossed all day with his business in the city and only at home at night, sometimes takes a look at his gardener’s work, by the aid of a lantern.
“At the door of the hot-house, Mr. Irving said it was warm enough for him outside. He preferred to stand under a tree and wait for us—particularly as he had seen the grapes before and hoped to see some of them again. Astonished as my own wilderness-trained eyes were, of course, with the wonderful fecundity of those glass-covered vines, I was more interested in the visit to Mr. Grinnell’s sumptuous stables. . . .
“As we strolled slowly through the grounds, we came to two dwarf statues—grotesque representations of ‘The Spendthrift’ and ‘The Miser’—and Mr. Irving gave us a comic history of their amusing a party of friends by playing at ‘tableaux,’ the other day—stopping in their walk, and dressing these figures up with the shawls and bonnets of the ladies. Our walk was varied with incidental questions of landscape gardening, as we came to points which commanded the river-views more or less effectively; and Mr. Irving made one remark which, I thought, embodied the whole science of wood-thinning, in ornamental grounds—that ‘a tree is only to be cut down when the picture it hides is worth more than the tree.’”


Other Resources

Historic Hudson Valley

Library of Congress Authority File


  1. Irving purchased the house and ten acres of land from Benson Ferris in 1835. Shortly after, he acquired an additional eight acres from his nephew Oscar Irving, who owned an adjacent property, and an additional three acres from another neighbor. Although additional parcels were bought and sold, these twenty-one acres comprise the core of Irving’s land holdings at Sunnyside. Robert M. Toole, “An American cottage ornée: Washington Irving’s Sunnyside, 1835–1859,” Journal of Garden History 12, no. 1 (January–March 1992): 55, view on Zotero. At its largest, Sunnyside was twenty-seven acres. Kathleen Eagen Johnson and Timothy Steinhoff, Art of the Landscape: Sunnyside, Montgomery Place and Romanticism (Tarrytown, NY: Historic Hudson Valley, 1997), 22, view on Zotero.
  2. Harvey immigrated to the United States from England in 1820. Debra Lynne Clyde, “Crayonesque Aesthetics in Prose and Architecture—A Chapter in the Formation of American Culture” (PhD diss., Drew University, 1986), 159–60, view in Zotero; May Brawley Hill, Furnishing the Old-Fashioned Garden: Three Centuries of American Summerhouses, Dovecotes, Pergolas, Privies, Fences & Birdhouses (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998), 54, view on Zotero. Irving also apparently asked the New York architect Calvin Pollard (1797–1850) to draw up plans for the remodel as well. Pollard’s plan, entitled “Proposed Alterations to the Property of Washington Irving, Esquire” and dated July 1835, survives in the collection of Historic Hudson Valley and shows a strong influence of the Greek revival style. Clyde 1986, 161–63, view in Zotero.
  3. Irving was the author of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., often referred to as The Sketch Book, a collection of short stories originally published in 1819–20. George Harvey, Harvey’s Royal Gallery of Illustration . . . A Descriptive Pamphlet of the Original Drawings of American Scenery. . . . (London: W. J. Golbourn, 1850), 17; quoted in Clyde 1986, 161, view in Zotero. As Clyde has observed, from existing written correspondence between Irving and Harvey from 1835 and 1847, it appears that Irving would typically express his wishes (and occasionally draw a rough sketch), which Harvey would then translate into more detailed architectural drawings that Irving would either approve or revise (164–65).
  4. Adam W. Sweeting, “‘A Very Pleasant Patriarchal Life’: Professional Authors and Amateur Architects in the Hudson Valley, 1835–1870,” Journal of American Studies 29, no. 1 (April 1995): 40, view on Zotero. Toole similarly argues, “Architectural critics have tried to classify Irving’s cottage design, but in fact it is unique.” Robert M. Toole, Landscape Gardens on the Hudson, a History: The Romantic Age, the Great Estates & the Birth of American Landscape Architecture (Hensonville, NY: Black Dome Press, 2010), 85, view on Zotero.
  5. Hill 1998, 54, view on Zotero; Clyde 1986, 14–15, view in Zotero.
  6. Clyde 1986, 176, view in Zotero.
  7. Irving, with the assistance of Harvey, created the design for Sunnyside, but he employed various gardeners and hired hands to care for the property and help carry out his many renovations and landscape improvement projects. Toole 2010, 85, view on Zotero. It is known that by the 1850s Irving employed a gardener named Robert. Harold Dean Cater, “Washington Irving and Sunnyside,” New York History 38, no. 2 (April 1957): 147, view on Zotero.
  8. According to Toole, Irving visited Wye Valley and the Welsh and Scottish Highlands, as well as the landscape gardens at Hagley and The Leasowes near Birmingham. Toole 1992, 54, 66, view on Zotero. Clyde notes Irving’s distaste for formal geometric gardens: “Once in Bordeaux he had observed an extensive formal garden ‘laid out in the told taste of clipd walks alley arbors &c’ and noted his distaste. ‘It has a pretty effect on the eye for the first time, but then there is a degree of sameness in the walks &c that soon grows tiresome.’ He preferred the English vision . . . ,” Clyde 1986, 147, view in Zotero.
  9. Johnson and Steinhoff 1997, 21, view on Zotero.
  10. Johnson and Steinhoff 1997, 19, 25, view on Zotero; Clyde 1986, 154, view in Zotero.
  11. Toole 1992, 69, view on Zotero; Toole 2010, 87, view on Zotero.
  12. Clyde 1986, 176–77, view in Zotero; Toole 2010, 89, view on Zotero.
  13. Toole 2010, 86, view on Zotero.
  14. Toole 1992, 68, view on Zotero.
  15. Although produced after Irving’s death, this map is the best known representation of the landscape plan as it likely appeared during Irving’s lifetime. According to the National Park Service report, there were “no substantial changes made to the property” between 1859 (the year of Irving’s death) and 1896. Sunnyside (Home of Washington Irving) (National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1978), item 7, 2, view on Zotero.
  16. Toole 2010, 87, view on Zotero.
  17. James Claudius Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Agriculture (1835), Encyclopedia of Gardening (1840), and Encyclopedia of Plants (1841) are among the books that Irving is known to have owned. Clyde 1986, 180, view in Zotero.
  18. Sweeting 1995, 40, view on Zotero; Cater 1957, 145–46, view on Zotero. Schuyler describes the Pagoda as “in vaguely Spanish style.” David Schuyler, Sanctified Landscape: Writers, Artists, and the Hudson River Valley, 1820–1909 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), 53, view on Zotero.
  19. Schuyler 2012, 53–54, view on Zotero.
  20. Irving connected the kitchen yard to the porch by constructing a small room that could be accessed from the parlor, which he used as a small plant conservatory. Clyde 1986, 181, view in Zotero; Cater 1957, 146, view on Zotero.
  21. Toole 1992, 69, view on Zotero; Cater 1957, 146, view on Zotero.
  22. Sunnyside (Home of Washington Irving), item 7, 2, view on Zotero; Cater 1957, 154, view on Zotero.
  23. Toole 1992, 69, view on Zotero.
  24. Toole 2010, 87–88, view on Zotero.
  25. Toole 2010, 89, view on Zotero; Cater 1957, 154–55, view on Zotero; Sunnyside (Home of Washington Irving), item 7, 2, view on Zotero.
  26. Sunnyside (Home of Washington Irving), item 7, 2, view on Zotero.
  27. Toole 1992, 62, view on Zotero.
  28. Johnson and Steinhoff 1997, 12, view on Zotero; Toole 1992, 62, view on Zotero.
  29. Clyde 1986, 134, view in Zotero. For an analysis of the role that images played in spreading the association of Sunnyside with Romantic ideals during the 19th century, see pages 142–47.
  30. After Washington Irving’s death, Sunnyside passed to Ebenezer Irving and, upon Ebenezer’s death, to the family of Ebenezer’s oldest son. Irving’s nieces continued to live at Sunnyside until 1875. Toole 1992, 64–65, view on Zotero; Sunnyside (Home of Washington Irving), item 7, 2, view on Zotero.
  31. Sleepy Hollow Restorations, which was the preservation entity endowed by Rockefeller in 1951, changed its name to Historic Hudson Valley in 1986. For a brief history of the organization, see http://www.hudsonvalley.org/about/our-story/evolution.
  32. 32.0 32.1 Cater 1957, view on Zotero.
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 33.3 Washington Irving, Letters, Volume II, 1823–1838, ed. Ralph M. Aderman, Herbert L. Kleinfield, and Jenifer S. Banks (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979), view on Zotero.
  34. Benson J. Lossing, “Residence of Washington Irving,” Family Magazine 4 (1839), view on Zotero.
  35. 35.0 35.1 35.2 35.3 Washington Irving, Letters, Volume III, 1839–1845, ed. Ralph M. Aderman, Herbert L. Kleinfield, and Jenifer S. Banks (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982), view on Zotero.
  36. Andrew Jackson Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America, 1st ed. (New York and London: Wiley and Putnam, 1841), view on Zotero.
  37. Andrew Jackson Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America, 2nd edn (New York and London: Wiley and Putnam, 1844), view on Zotero.
  38. 38.0 38.1 38.2 38.3 38.4 38.5 38.6 38.7 38.8 38.9 Washington Irving, Letters, Volume IV, 1846–1859, ed. Ralph M. Aderman, Herbert L. Kleinfield, and Jenifer S. Banks (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982), view on Zotero.
  39. Henry T. Tuckerman, “Washington Irving,” in Homes of American Authors; Comprising Anecdotical, Personal, and Descriptive Sketches, by Various Writers (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1853), view on Zotero.
  40. Anonymous, “Washington Irving; His Home and His Works,”New York Quarterly 4, no. 1 (April 1855), view on Zotero.
  41. [T. Addison Richards], “Sunnyside: The Home of Washington Irving,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 14, no. 79 (December 1856), view on Zotero.
  42. Quoted in “Washington Irving at Sunnyside,” from N. P. Willis’s letter in the Home Journal, American Publishers’ Circular and Literary Gazette 3, no. 34 (August 22, 1857), view on Zotero.

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