The Real Story of Sleepy Hollow

Editorial Staff Art

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.

  • Fig. 1. Despite the fic­titious date high on the wall, Washington Ir­ving (1783-1859) ac­tually designed Sunny­side in the 1830s in collaboration with his friend and neighbor George Harvey (1799-1880). All photographs courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley.


  • Fig. 2. Union Church of Pocantico Hills, de­signed by Ludwig W. Eisinger (c. 1875-1935), 1921-1922. During the 1950s and 1960s, members of the Rockefeller family commissioned stained glass windows by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Marc Chagall (1887-1985) for the church. Photograph by Bryan Haeffele.


  • Fig. 3. Montgomery Place, in Annandale-on-Hudson, is the northernmost property belonging to Historic Hudson Valley, the only one not in West­chester County


  • Fig. 4. The house at Van Cortland Manor in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, was expand­ed c. 1750, probably by Pierre Van Cortlandt (1721-1814). Photo­graph by Mick Hales


  • Fig. 5. Costumed interpreters at Philipsburg Manor. Haeffele photograph.





    Fig. 6. Philipsburg Manor and Mill in Sleepy Hollow, New York. In the 1680s Frederick Philipse (1626-1702) estab­lished the property as a provi­sioning plantation operated by enslaved Africans to supply the Atlantic World’s vast trade net­work. The garden seen here is planted with North American equivalents of vegetables and other plants traditionally grown in Africa. These are the crops the slaves at Philipsburg grew for their own consumption and for sale, and the medicinal plants they used.


  • Fig. 7. Mill at Philipsburg Manor by William Rickarby Miller (1818-1893), 1869. Signed and dated “W. R. Miller 1869” at lower left. Oil on canvas, 21 ¼ by 29 ½ inches (framed). In the mid-nineteenth century Americans considered Philipsburg Manor a romantic relic of colonial days.


  • Fig. 8. The working gristmill at Philipsburg Manor is a replica constructed in the 1960s on the pilings of a colonial era mill. Haeffele photograph.


  • Fig. 9. Adolph Philipse (1665-1750), Frederick’s son, inherited the plantation from his father. Based in large part on the inventory taken of Adolph’s estate, this bedroom on the second floor is furnished to represent his roles as gentleman, businessman, and slave owner and trader. Haeffele photograph.


  • Fig. 10. Last year a new inter­pretive installation that helps place the story of the Africans who lived and worked in Phil­ipsburg Manor opened in the New York State Underground Railroad Heritage Trail Re­gional Interpretive Center, at Philipsburg Manor. Haeffele photograph.


  • Fig. 11.The installation in­cludes a facsimile of Adolph Philipse’s estate inventory, at the top of which are listed twenty-three enslaved Africans.


  • Figs. 12, 12a. Another Side by Al­lyza Lustig, 2006, inspired by the advertisement for runaway slave Mark Edward placed in the New-York Gazette, February 16, 1761.


  • Fig. 13. The 1750 inventory pro­vided the basis for furnishing the parlor, a room in which members of the gentry would have con­ducted their business. Haeffele photograph.


  • Fig. 14. Adolph Philipse’s in­ventory included “one pr hand kuffs,” represented by these reproduction manacles on the window sill in his bed­room. Haeffele photograph.


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.

HHV drew on many sources. They estab­lished an African-American advisory board to help advise them and implement change, and it continues to take an active role in the life of Philips­burg Manor. The monthly meetings of the advisory board and HHV staff “were intense and cathartic,” Stillman says. “We forced ourselves to discuss inti­mately what no one wanted to address. The all-white paid staff and the African-American volunteers asked much of each other, sometimes too much, and yet each side delivered beyond all expectations.” Overtime, there were long, often difficult training sessions and discussions, but the work paid off.

There were two principal goals: First, to educate people-including hordes of schoolchildren who come to the site-about slavery in the North. Second, to discuss cultural diversity, the relationships between Africans and European tenant farmers, and the entanglements of international commerce. A vital issue is the dispelling of myths about slavery and about enslaved people. Lynda Jones, who joined the advisory board early on and later also became HHV’s director of human resources, says, “We wanted to make sure that they were shown as individuals. They were intelligent, they had families, they loved their children. We’re trying to get people to understand that.” Thom Thacker, the site director of Philipsburg Manor and Union Church as well as the program director at Kykuit, says, “History often portrays enslaved people as objects, the things done to them. We shifted object to subject, what they did.”

As important as the information that the interpret­ers (guides in period costume) present is the way in which they do so. When they speak of the enslaved individuals at Philipsburg Manor, they refer to them by name-Ceaser, Abigal, Dimond, Susan-and that specificity both vivifies and gives enormous weight to the narra­tive. The interpreters know the names because the 1750 inventory of Adolph Philipse’s property listed each enslaved person (see Fig. 11), just ahead of such holdings as oxen, sheep, and silver spoons. When an interpreter in the manor house picks up a delicate eighteenth-century cup and asks quietly, “What was it like for Massy to make cocoa for Mr. Philipse?” your heart drops. In that instant, you understand that Massy probably never savored such luxury, chocolate, that she never drank from anything so exquisite. Move on to the fully functional gristmill (Fig. 8), newly recon­structed but based on excellent documentation, and you can marvel at the thought of Ceaser, the master miller, who ran highly complex machinery and, as Jones points out, “had to understand higher mathemat­ics and other languages of tenant farmers.”

There are few things as reprehensible or as cruel as enslavement, but some visitors at Philipsburg Manor are still stunned that it existed there. They may go on to insist, Thacker says, “that slavery was kinder and gentler in the North. But there were plenty of punishments besides whipping, including burning at the stake. Brutality was not only physical-a family could be separated and sold away at the whim of the owner.”

HHV also made significant tactile changes. Like most museums, it is not keen to use reproductions, but saw the merits of doing so here, particularly in the rooms where the enslaved persons worked and in two rooms that are portrayed as bedrooms, though the 1750 inventory had suggested were empty. Kathleen Eagen Johnson, a lecturer and museum consultant who was the longtime curator and director of collections at HHV, says, “It’s good for experiential learning.” To convey the breadth of goods that the Philipses traded, they filled the two rooms with exact reproductions of items that were inventoried in the warehouse spaces of Adolph’s New York City house, as well as things cited in business documents or found in archaeological digs at Philipsburg Manor. Consumer goods and bales also fill the rooms. “I have seen kids actually quiver when they see the hands-on reproductions arrayed on the table for them to touch,” Johnson says.

Because the Philipse family sided with the British during the American Revolution, they lost their property after it. The furnish­ings in the house are not original to it, but they are very fine, of the period, and reflect the 1750 inven­tory, right down to the manacles on the window sill of Adolph Philipse’s otherwise beautifully equipped bedroom. The harder thing, Johnson says, “was to find artifacts of high quality that would represent enslaved people’s lives. It’s easier to deal with the rich because things survived. Trying to re-create the slave world was a challenge.” The items that represent the slave world are telling: a broad-brimmed straw hat, for instance, or a violin, since fiddle-playing was a common practice. “We wanted to have objects that let people know that there were mothers and fathers and babies here,” she says. “If you have little shoes, people imagine a child wearing them.” Other items are reminders of the roles various individuals would have had. “We made one woman a healer,” so in a chest we have medicine vials, things wrapped in paper, to show her skills and knowledge.”

The biggest commitment overall is clearly to edu­cation, which comes in many forms. On a typical day, Philipsburg Manor hosts about 120 schoolchil­dren. Before they take a tour, they have an orientation in a large room where wall displays vividly portray the history of slavery in the North. Of par­ticular interest are the New York newspaper adver­tisements about runaways. Though invariably shocking, they reveal a lot about both slaveholders and the escapees and they are also the basis for an imaginative HHV project. In an annual art contest, “Pretends to Be Free: Imagining Runaway Slaves,” high-school students choose an advertisement as an inspiration for an artwork and write accompanying statements. For adolescents who often ask why someone who was enslaved just didn’t take off, this can be a particularly good learning ex­perience. HHV keeps the best work for its permanent collec­tion, and the best is extraordi­narily powerful and imaginative (see Figs. 12, 12a).

A particularly important ongoing project is a series of dramatic vi­gnettes that Michael A. Lord, the site manager at Sunnyside, wrote. High-school students, after months of train­ing, present them regularly at Philipsburg Manor. “In the proper context, you understand a bit how complicated the situation was,” Lord says. The African-American advisory board worked with him, and Jones admires the ways in which Lord’s pieces subtly convey the intricacies of slavery. One, for instance, depicts the ways in which enslaved people negotiated for the rights to do something-visit a sick relative, for instance-by bargaining with the only things they had: skills and labor. At the end of every performance, students step out to take questions from the audience, which puts them in the role of educators.

“We are constantly looking for ways to engage with high school students,” Thacker says. Until funding dried up, a youth conservation corps, working mostly at Philipsburg Manor and at Sun­nyside, cleared land. For seven summers, Rocking the Boat, a nonprofit organization, sent kids from the South Bronx to Philipsburg Manor where they built colonial-era boats. There are numerous hands-on programs that are tailored for various age groups, and ones aimed at students from the large numbers of immigrant families who have recently moved to the area. HHV also provides extensive materials to assist teachers both before and after their visits and is expanding tech­nologically to help educators and students who cannot get to Philipsburg Manor. “We are looking at being the go-to place for teachers about slav­ery in the North,” Jones says. “We want to convey our mes­sage beyond our borders. It is the story of America, it is the story of the world.”

History is fluid, and HHV continues to develop Philipsburg Manor and to work on address­ing highly charged issues. “We set out to reinterpret Philips­burg,” Stillman says, “but the unintended result is that the reinterpretation changed our museum. The visitor experience is different because we’re talking not only about social history but about individuals, whom we honor if we rep­resent them with fidelity. Visitors are asked whom they identify with or what they would have done in similar circumstances. This has given a new moral dimension to our work that energizes the museum and engages the visitor. We didn’t antici­pate all this at the outset, but it has been a great gift to everyone.” Few institutions get or take the chance to reinvent themselves. It is difficult, it is sensitive, it is full of pitfalls. And, at Philipsburg Manor, it works.