Heaven On The Hudson

The mansions of Sleepy Hollow are legendary indeed

Author Washington Irving, railroad baron Jay Gould, and oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller may have had little in common. But each found serenity about 25 miles north of New York City, in a region known through Irving's tales as Sleepy Hollow. Indeed, the land where Irving's Ichabod Crane encountered the headless horseman sparkles in autumn, and one of the area's great pleasures is a visit to the homes of the three men--Irving's Sunnyside, Gould's Lyndhurst, and Rockefeller's Kykuit.

Drive from New York to Sunnyside via the Saw Mill River Parkway to the Tarrytown exit, or take a Metro-North train from Grand Central Station or ferry from Manhattan to Tarrytown. From the train station or ferry pier, you can hail a taxi for the three-mile ride to Sunnyside, on Route 9. Irving was sent to the Hudson Valley as a young teen in 1798, to escape New York's yellow fever epidemic. It made such a lasting impression on him that he penned The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle in his late 20s from distant shores in England. (This fall, 180 years after Irving wrote The Legend, three movies based on the story are scheduled to be released in theaters and on TV.) After spending his midlife in Europe, Irving settled in Sleepy Hollow in 1835, at age 51.

From the visitors' center, follow a path shaded by sycamores and specimen trees planted by Irving to the house, which overlooks the Hudson at nearly its widest point. (At three miles across, the river was dubbed the Tappan Zee--or sea--by the Dutch, after the Tappan tribe that once lived and fished on its banks.)

Irving transformed his 17th century Dutch farmhouse into what he described as "a little old-fashioned stone mansion, all made up of gable ends, and as full of angles and corners as a cocked hat." Sunnyside's steep gables reflect a Scottish influence, weather vanes add a Dutch touch, and one tower is definitely Moorish. Wisteria above the front door came from mentor Sir Walter Scott's home in Abbotsford, Scotland.

Inside, Irving's stacked bookshelves and centerpiece desk, a gift from publisher G.P. Putnam, highlight his east-facing study, the first room a visitor encounters. The "goodliest scenes of the mighty Hudson," however, can be enjoyed from the dining room, parlor, and covered porch. In the parlor, look for the portrait depicting the 26-year-old Irving in 1809, the year his fiancee, Matilda Hoffman, died of tuberculosis. He never formed a family after that, instead "living most cozily in this dear, bright little home" with older siblings and their children. "I fancy it is the happiest," he wrote, "when a man has a family for his world, books at his elbow, and his pen for amusement."

DARK SHADOWS. There's no such lightheartedness at Lyndhurst, a half-mile away. But it's worth the visit for its early Gothic-revival architecture, stained-glass windows, and wonderful grounds. Built in 1838 by famed architect Alexander Jackson Davis, Lyndhurst was made into a castle during the Civil War by inventor George Merritt. Like Sunnyside, it sports asymmetrically placed turrets, gables, and spires. But the effect is much more aloof. In look and feel, Lyndhurst so resembles a Newport "cottage" that Reversal of Fortune, the movie about Claus Von Bulow's travails, was filmed here. Inside, Lyndhurst's opulent trappings include Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps and ornate Herter Brothers furniture similar to that in the homes of the Morgans and the Vanderbilts.

The castle is set off by rolling lawns shaded by beeches, magnolias, oaks, and maples. A fragrant linden tree, which gave the property its name, frames the house's south side. In fall, the palette is in full display, although it may be muted by this year's drought.

Kykuit (kye-cut)--Dutch for lookout--sits a few miles north of Tarrytown and two miles back from the river. Rockefeller came to the area in 1893, at age 54, when he was winding down his responsibilities at Standard Oil. But it took 20 years before completion of the six-story stone house, with its crowning eagle, sculpted gardens, and stunning vistas. The world's wealthiest man wrote fondly of the area, describing it as a place where "the fine views invite the soul and where we can live simply and quietly." Indeed, while Kykuit was being built, Rockefeller was content to reside nearby in a relatively modest home until it burned down in 1902.

Kykuit finally became home to four generations, through grandson Nelson Rockefeller's death in 1979. Surviving brothers Laurance and David still live elsewhere on the property, but the family bequeathed Kykuit to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1979, along with a $40 million trust for upkeep.

FABLED FOUNTAINS. Reflecting Rockefeller's Baptist modesty, Kykuit's interior was "entirely removed from the elaborate and overdone schemes often found in the homes of American millionaires," House Beautiful stated in 1909. But Nelson, an enthusiastic art collector, introduced some 70 pieces of modern sculpture, mostly nudes, to the classically designed property. On the front porch Alberto Giacometti's sleek bronze Headless Woman faces the granite-bowled Oceanus fountain. In the garden, Aristide Maillol's alluring Bather Putting Up Her Hair stands on a pedestal between two pools and among five trickling fountains. Inside the house, in the music room, Joan Miro's surrealist Hirondelle/Amour (now a replica, with the original at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) mingles with Ming dynasty ceramics.

If you have time, an hour's drive north are Franklin D. Roosevelt's Hyde Park and Vanderbilt homes, as well as the Culinary Institute of America's restaurant. You'll find an abundance of country inns, where you can savor your impressions of what Irving described as the Hudson Valley's "treasures of jolly autumn."

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