Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y. Washington Irving’s Sunnyside Home.


The Highlights
The legendary home of Washington Irving; a castellated mansion along the Hudson River, a unique riverside village with several very good dining choices, and lovely river views.

Places to Visit
A riverside museum displaying the works of the Hudson River School, a Georgian mansion, the estate of the Rockefellers, and concert and performance venues in Irvington village and nearby Tarrytown.

Bike rentals are available for the Old Croton Aqueduct at Endless Trail Bike Worx on 56 Main St., in Dobbs Ferry. Call 914-674-8567.

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Main Street Rip Van Winkle Statue

Click to Enlarge.

As you walk up from the Hudson River on Irvington-on-Hudson’s steep Main Street, the quiet of this pretty Westchester County village may come as a surprise to out-of-towners. You’re only a 29-minute drive to Manhattan’s West Side and a short drive to the Bronx border, but you’d swear you’re in some charming isolated New England hamlet.

The only action on Main Street occurs when a train to or from Manhattan pulls in at the train station and cars shuttle up and down to drop off or pick up a passenger. Serious crime is rare, and local police officers seem to spend most of their time directing traffic after a train pulls in or after church lets out. Irvington probably has more raccoons than people, and you have to watch for deer on the roads at night, even on Broadway (Route 9), the main thoroughfare through the village.

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The area that would later be named Irvington was considered a neutral zone during the war, sandwiched between the northern Westchester stronghold of the patriots and the southern Westchester domain of the English and the Tories. Both sides carried out raids in the area, bringing misery and economic hardship to what had been a thriving farming community since the arrival of the first Dutch settlers in the 17th century. British raiders disembarked from a ship in the Hudson River, partly burning the house of Wolfert Ecker, an early Dutch settler employed as a farmer and a cooper, and causing his relatives to leave behind all their possessions and run for their lives.

On this walking tour, you’ll visit the house they fled, a place that would later become known as Sunnyside, the historic home of noted American author Washington Irving (after whom the village was later named). In 1835, Irving purchased a portion of the Ecker farm, including the rectangular farmhouse that was burned during the war. The land, on the eastern bank of the Hudson River, abutted the property of his nephew Oscar Irving.

Washington Irving fell in love with Sunnyside because of its location: overlooking a section of the river called the Tappan Zee. “It is a beautiful spot, capable of being made a little paradise,’ he observed, “There is a small Dutch cottage on it that was built about a century since. I have had an architect there, and shall build a mansion upon the place this summer. My idea is to make a little nookery, somewhat in the Dutch style, quaint but unpretending.”

View of Manhattan from Irvington waterfront

View of Manhattan from Irvington waterfront. Click to Enlarge.

Using the talents of landscape painter and neighbor George Harvey, Irving remodeled and enlarged the home. He created a wisteria-covered, stepped gable entrance and added a Spanish-style tower and old weathervanes that had once sat atop various buildings in Albany and New York City.

Irving, who was in his early fifties when he bought the property, wanted to settle down after spending much of his life abroad. He had lived in Europe from 1815 to 1832, traveling in Spain, where he wrote the first English biography of Christopher Columbus, and working in England as a diplomat and in his family’s export business.

The author first achieved literary acclaim as a humorist. In 1809, he penned a satire poking fun at the Dutch settlers, Diedrich Knickerbocker’s A History of New-York. The satire was so well-read that the word Knickerbocker soon became synonymous with New Yorker, and today New York City’s professional basketball team, the Knicks, retains that moniker.

Ten years after Irving wrote his successful satirical work he published The Sketch-Book, a book that related England’s Christmas customs in great detail and inspired Americans to follow such tradition. The book contained legendary Hudson River Valley characters whom children and adults would discuss for generations: Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep and missed the Revolutionary War, and Ichabod Crane, who was chased by a Headless Horseman over the hills of Sleepy Hollow (see Experience 3, Rockefeller State Park).

On your way to Sunnyside during this walking tour, you’ll pass the home of millionairess Sarah Walker. Walker invented an anti-kink formula for the hair of black Americans, an idea that vaulted her from an income of less than $2 per day while washing clothes in 1907 to the status of wealthiest black woman in the world at the time of her death 12 years later.

You also will visit the gorgeous former riverside estate of railroad baron Jay Gould. A striking castellated mansion called Lyndhurst stands as the centerpiece of the estate and is open for tours. The mansion was build in 1838 by architect Alexander Jackson Davis, noted for designing villas with sweeping gardens in the Hudson River Gothic Revival style. The home’s first owner was General William Paulding; then it was sold to merchant George Merritt in 1864. Merritt, who gave Lyndhurst its name, hired Davis to expand the mansion while retaining its architectural integrity. In 1880, railroad tycoon Gould bought Lyndhurst as a summer home. Lyndhurst was his escape from the business world: He owned Western Union Telegraph as well as Union Pacific Railroad and the New York City elevated subway line.

On your return to Irvington from Lyndhurst, you can see the exterior of the architecturally renowned Octagon House. The five-story home is privately owned and visitors must stay off the property, but there’s plenty to marvel at from a distance. Constructed in 1860 by a family member of the Armour meat packing company, the house originally was built as a two-story house with a flat roof. In 1872, tea merchant Joseph Stiner bought the home and added an elaborate two-story dome topped by a cupola with many windows.

The cupola allows the home’s residents to peer over the surrounding trees toward the Hudson River. A wide wrap-around veranda encircles the outside of the house and there are a host of other fascinating architectural touches. The Octagon House is listed as a National Historic Landmark.

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