Taking a kid's-eye look at Sunnyside
July 30, 2004
WHAT: Tours of Sunnyside From a Child's Perspective.
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays in August.
WHERE: Sunnyside, home to Washington Irving, West Sunnyside Lane, Tarrytown, N.Y. (914) 591-8763 or hudsonvalley.org.
HOW MUCH: $9, seniors and children 5-17 $5, under 5 free.
Washington Irving never married and didn't have children of his own. Yet his quaint cottage and garden overlooking the Hudson in Tarrytown often echoed with the laughter of the author's many nieces and grandnieces who spent extended vacations with him.
Writing about his grandniece Fan in 1852, Irving says:
"She is sprite, full of fun, very inventive, and really enlivens the house. She comes down the stairs in the evening rigged out in all kinds of finery from the rummage of her mother's wardrobe and dances to the music of the piano."
Such passages help bring the home to life for young visitors during Tours of Sunnyside From a Child's Perspective, Thursdays in August. Before and after the tour families are invited to picnic on Daffodil Hill, where children can participate in period games, dress up in vintage clothing, or join in parachute-making workshops using guidelines from a 19th century "Boys Own Toymaker" book. Throughout the day guides will read children's stories under the shade of the hemlock tree. In the event of rain, activities will take place under a tent in the courtyard.
Following are highlights of the house tour.
A miniature cast-iron stove with tiny pots and pans placed in front of the fireplace would have been popular toys with children at Sunnyside. They wouldn't have played with the set in the dining room, though.
In fact, "Kids wouldn't have spent much time in this room at all," Friedman said.
"If they did eat in here they had to be on their best behavior."
Adults turned to Catherine Beecher's book, "American Woman's Home," for tips on the proper etiquette.
"It is desirable to train children when at table with grown persons to be silent except when addressed by adults," Beecher wrote.
This was the room where children were free to play games, read, sing, play the piano, and dance. The piano in this room is authentic to the house and was purchased by Irving for his nieces Catherine and Sara. In a letter to her father in 1854, Irving's grandniece, 9-year-old Katrina Van Tassel Irving, also known as "Little Kate," wrote: "Aunt Kate commenced last week to teach me on the piano and I like it very much."
There's a delightful history lesson here, which always raises a few eyebrows. Young guests learn that Irving was born in 1783, at the close of the Revolutionary War, when George Washington wasn't yet president. An illustration on the bedroom wall represents one of the most memorable experiences of Irving's childhood.
It depicts Gen. George Washington with his hand on the head of a young boy.
"When Irving was around 5 years old he and his Scottish nanny followed General Washington into a store," Friedman said. "She introduced him to the general and told him that the child was named for him."
Irving, she said, loved to tell the story of how he received a blessing from Washington. A friend made this illustration for him.
Little Kate's bedroom
Belinda, an 1850s doll with a porcelain head and shoulders, sits in a tiny rocker. The dress she's wearing along with her other outfits laid out on the bed are similar to those worn by the guides.
"She's like the Barbie of the time - a fashion doll," said Dina Rose Friedman, site director and co-creator of the children's tour. The doll belonged to a member of the Irving family.
Guides will be in costume in rooms throughout the house. "Children always want to know if the tall men are playing Ichabod Crane [schoolmaster in Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"] and if the women are playing the roles of Irving's nieces," Friedman said.
Here, a framed needlepoint of a shepherd and shepherdess with four fluffy sheep and a dog takes center stage. It's said to be the work of one of Irving's nieces. Needlepoint was something that all girls would have learned, Friedman said.
In a letter in 1854 to his grandniece Kate Storrow (daughter of Sara Storrow, and not to be confused with Little Kate), who was living in France, Irving wrote: "I have just received the slippers which you have been so very good as to work for me. Having put them on I sit down to tell you how well they fit me; how much I admire the colors you have chosen; how much I am astonished and delighted with the needlework. I assure you I take great pride in exhibiting the specimen of the taste and skill of my Parisian niece, and if I were in Paris should be very much tempted to go to court in them."
The letter is one of Friedman's favorites.
"What kid wouldn't want to get a letter like that from their grand-uncle?" she said.