The Real Story of Sleepy Hollow

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2012 |

Washington Irving could spin a tale so well that even Charles Dickens was in his thrall. "I don't go upstairs to bed two nights out of the seven," the English novelist said, "without taking Washington Irving under my arm."* Irving's success was long in coming, but it enabled him to move to a delightful house, Sunnyside (Fig. 1), in the Hudson River valley, the area that had helped put him on the international literary map.

Filled with handsome furnishings, many of them original to the house, Sunnyside is open to the public. Stand in the book-lined study, and you can easily conjure up Irving, happily writing there. What is harder to figure out is the architec­ture. It looks Dutch, which is regionally appropri­ate, but also vaguely Scottish. Large numbers set into the west wall, just under the steeply sloping red-tiled roof, indicate that the house was built in 1656. That, it turns out, is just another deli­cious bit of fiction from the creator of Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle: Irving designed the house himself in the 1830s.

Historic Hudson Valley, a nonprofit organization founded sixty years ago by John D. Rockefeller Jr. as Sleepy Hollow Restorations, oversees in part or in whole a necklace of beautiful properties strung along the Hudson River. They range from the homey Sunnyside at the southern end to the grand Montgomery Place, a nineteenth-century estate nearly eighty miles to the north (Fig. 3). In between are the crown jewel, Kykuit, a stone mansion that John D. Rockefeller Sr. built for his family a cen­tury ago (see frontispiece); Union Church of Po­cantico Hills, which has a relatively plain interior but is studded with stained-glass windows designed by Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse (Fig. 2); and Van Cortland Manor, where visitors can chart the lives of an early American family (Fig. 4).

The least imposing but most fascinating HHV property is Philipsburg Manor, Upper Mills (Fig. 6), a woodsy living-history museum in Sleepy Hollow, where a visitor may well be greeted by one of the resident chickens. Established in the 1680s by the staggeringly rich Dutch-born Frederick Philipse, it was a provisioning plantation-part of more than fifty thousand acres that he owned in the area-that produced flour, hardtack, and other goods for domestic and international consumption and operated until shortly after the death of his son, Adolph, in 1750. The site has been open to the pub­lic, on and off, since 1943, but until recently the story that visitors heard there was, in one critical way, as fictitious as an Irving tale or the date on Sunnyside's wall. Focusing on the Philipse family or their tenant farmers, HHV was not falsifying history, but com­mitting a sin of omission. Now, it has conscien­tiously corrected that through exploring and exposing the most painful component of Philipsburg Manor's past. The story told today, one that is by turns devas­tating, enlightening, and moving, centers on the people who labored in the manor house, the mill, the dairy, and the gardens. They were Africans, twenty-three enslaved men, women, and children who enriched the Philipse family, who skillfully ground the grain of the tenant farmers, and who, after 1750, were sold and their families torn apart. Unlike Adolph Philipse, who was based in Manhattan and stayed at Philipsburg Manor only intermittently, they lived there year-round.

Slavery north of the Mason-Dixon Line is something that smug northerners often know nothing of, or would like to ignore, but it existed throughout the colonies. New York State did not abolish it until 1827, just thirty-four years before the Civil War began. Historic Hudson Valley began to think about address­ing the issue in 1999. "The impetus to change came gradually," the organization's president, Waddell W. Stillman, says. "In bringing the enslaved Africans forward we were reaching for relevance to contempo­rary American culture. We came to see that the lega­cy of slavery was racism, and that racism was also at the root of other social ills. Addressing slavery would be within our museum mission if it arose authenti­cally from the site, as it does. It helped us also to understand that the African-American history of Philipsburg Manor was American history, not just African-American history, and getting over that hump made us see our story as both unique and mainstream."

* Charles Dickens, Speeches: Literary and Social (London, 1870), p. 25.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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