Irving believed that the Dutch,
still influential in New York during his youth, formed
the true cultural mileau in which he was reared. Born
in 1783, Dutch architecture still dominated New York City
as Irving grew up and the cultural life of late 18th century
New York still bore the unmistakable stamp of the Dutch.
In his writing and in creating his "little nookery" Irving
incorporated styles, features, places and names of the
Dutch in New York claiming as his own the antique and
Irving paid Benson Ferris the amount
of $1,800 in June of 1835 for his two room farmhouse
and surrounding land. Shortly thereafter a relationship
was formed with George Harvey who became Irving's artistic
collaborator and foreman. Harvey's qualifications were
those of an artist and someone who had previously created
his own Romantic cottage in nearby Hastings. Originally
the site had been a part of the Manor of Philipsburg.
The plan for Sunnyside created through
the collaboration of Irving and Harvey was a typical
expression of the Romantic style. It is a subtle blend
of different styles, a mix and match of details and
features assembled into a pleasing visual composition.
Sunnyside contains elements that express the life of
Irving and his travels ranging from Dutch to Spanish
to Scottish. As well as being Americas most prominent
literary figure, Irving also spent extensive time living
in Europe and during the 1820s served as part of the
US legations in both Spain and England. During the 1840s
he served as the US's first Spanish speaking Minister
to Spain. All of these influences can be found in the
architecture and styles of Sunnyside.
During his lifetime, Sunnyside became
renowned as a symbol and icon of American domestic architecture.
Images and paintings of Sunnyside were widely distributed
and the fame of the home was further established in
Irving's "Wolfert's Roost", published in 1855, where
Irving wrote of a "little old-fashioned stone
mansion, all made up of gable-ends, and as full of angles
and corners as an old cocked hat."
During the mid-19th century the
"cottage" fad further enhanced the reputation of Sunnyside.
The concept of a "cottage", a personal expression of style,
was applied to all manner of products aimed at the middle
classes. Americans believed that an individual creating
his own environment, particularly in the form of a cozy
country home, was an ideal. Irving and Sunnyside epitomized
this ideal and images of Sunnyside were widely distributed
on all manner of commercial art. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes
said that Sunnyside stood "next to Mount Vernon, the best
known and most cherished of all the dwellings in our land."
Above all, Sunnyside was a home. It
was Irving's first and only permanent domestic residence.
Previous to his living at Sunnyside and during the early
years there, Irving traveled widely and lived extensively
in Europe. With the creation of Sunnyside however, he
had finally created a certain domesticity that he had
previously avoided. At Sunnyside Irving surrounded himself
by family and friends. His door was always open to visitors
and frequently his home was filled with guests and friends,
often causing his nieces to have to abandon their bedrooms
and move into the tower in favor of guests.
Irving died of a heart attack in his
bedroom at Sunnyside on November 8, 1859, at the age
of 76. Being a confirmed bachelor, the house was passed
to his brother Ebenezer and to Catherine and Sarah Irving,
maiden nieces who had served as his hostesses and housekeepers
at Sunnyside. The estate remained in the family's hands
until it was acquired by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in
1945. In 1947 it was opened to the public as one of
the first houses of this era to be preserved as a museum.
The home was restored by Rockefeller to its 1859 appearance,
requiring the removal of additions and extensions made
to the home during the tenancy of Irving's heirs.
The restoration of the estate was
facilitated by the contemporary images of the estate
as well as an extensive collection of letters of accounts
of visits to Sunnyside as well as the writings of Irving.
The house contains a large collection
of original furnishings and accessories owned and used
by Irving. Irving's study, or "workshop" is one of the
best documented rooms in America. All of the furniture
and most of the accessories in this room are original.
The dining room, drawing room and picture gallery as
well as most of the bedrooms are all open to the public
and contain much of their original furnishings.
The grounds, landscape and cutting
garden form an idealized creation of the Romantic movement;
a manipulated and controlled environment designed for
the development of vistas, the artful use of perspective
and the careful creation of spaces all aimed at the
enhanced discovery and enjoyment of the natural environment.
The landscape served as an object of contemplation and
a sentimental source of inspiration for Irving and his
guests. Irving wrote, "I have made more openings
by pruning and cutting down treas, 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 Voiltaire chair, on 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."