One of my favorite authors of all time is Judy Blume, and one of my most-beloved books by her is Otherwise Known as Sheila The Great. I have no idea how many times I’ve read and loved this book, and I plan to re-read it again just as soon as the copy I requested arrives at my local library branch. In this book, Sheila Tubman (nemesis of Peter Hatcher of Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing and Superfudge fame), and her family leave NYC for the summer and go to Tarrytown, NY. She meets a girl who lives in Washington Irving’s old house. The house is full of secret passages, low doorways, and rambling hallways that fascinated me when I was younger.
I had heard of Washington Irving, read some of his stories, and seen the Disney cartoon of Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but the fact that someone lived in his house just blew my mind. When I moved to Providence, I saw a flyer for Halloween festivities in the Historic Hudson Valley, which included Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s estate. Since the Hudson Valley is beautiful in the fall, and there’s that Sleepy Hollow connection, this makes sense. My long-dormant fascination re awoke, and I began scheming ways to get me to Washington Irving’s house.
Jewish Friend loves a superfunliterary adventure AND she went to college in the Historic Hudson Valley, so we packed up the car and took to the highway. Of course, Sheila Tubman’s friend doesn’t really live at Sunnyside–it’s a tourist attraction purchased and restored by John D. Rockefeller in 1945 and opened to the public in 1947, but I’m not mad at Judy Blume for leading me astray. I could never be mad at her .*
Upon arriving at Sunnyside, I saw a Halloween-colored cat wandering in the parking lot. It had tags, looked completely at home, and when I indicated it should let me pet it, it graciously wandered over and spent equal time with me and Jewish Friend. After a few more cars arrived, it scuttled under the fence and wandered in the garden.
We followed a long downhill path to the house and found another cat hanging out on the low stone wall. As we were petting this one, two ladies came down the hill and one exclaimed “Oh! There’s Eloise!” Apparently, these two cats live at the house and wander around greeting guests and hanging out with the groundskeepers–nice life.
Sunnyside is a guided tour, and they only allow ten people at one time because the hallways and stairways are so narrow. There were two other people on our tour, which was actually perfect because we they seemed to be (almost) equally enthusiastic about literary tourism, and had had a really good tour when they went to The House of the Seven Gables (which means Jewish Friend and I should probably try again). Bethany, the tour guide, wore a hoop skirt and told us that she had been working there for thirteen years. This girl knew her stuff, which was awesome, and she encouraged us to ask lots of questions even saying at one point, “This is your tour, so please, ask me anything you like.” I don’t know why, but just hearing her say that, made me really happy. She seemed to really enjoy her work, and our asking questions, which made the whole experience that much more fun.
Washington Irving never married, but he loved being around people. Sunnyside, was originally 28 acres (now 10), and Irving along with a few friends designed it to be a romantic, flawless destination where a person could commune with nature. He encouraged the people of the town to stop by to visit, or just walk the grounds. He constructed a road that came up practically to his front door and fans would stop by and ask for autographs.
The house itself, was designed by Irving, and was originally a groundskeepers cottage which he expanded. Since the original structure was so small, and he had so many visitors, there are six tiny rooms sort of jammed in, narrow hallways, and small passages. He lived in the house with his brother, and five nieces, but always had friends come to stay, and served formal dinners from 3-8pm daily. It’s rather amazing he found time to write anything.
It’s hard to pick favorites among sites of literary significance, but Sunnyside is very high on the list. I would go back there tomorrow, and possibly again the following day. I would also pack a picnic lunch as guests are encouraged to picnic, wander the grounds, and enjoy the garden–sigh.
*Upon re-reading OKASTG, it turns out that her friend didn’t live in WI’s old house, just in one where he slept. Judy Blume did not lead me astray–I remembered it wrong! All is right with the world.