Fred A. Bernstein

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Washington Irving Didn't Sleep Here

A developer recreates Sunnyside (or tries to)

Published in The New York Times, March 16, 2003

Washington Irving Didn't Sleep Here


SHOULDN'T the site director of Sunnyside -- Washington Irving's fabled Tarrytown cottage -- be angry?

A real estate developer, 25 miles away in Somers, has built another Sunnyside -- a 5,400-square-foot spec house with a swimming pool in place of Irving's beloved Hudson River. The stepped gables and pagoda-like tower of Sunnyside are all there, but they've been enlarged, the better to justify a $1.95 million price tag. It's Sunnyside on steroids.

''I've got bigger things to worry about, like getting ready for the season,'' said Dina Friedman, who manages Sunnyside for Historic Hudson Valley. (The house is open on weekends in March, and every day but Tuesday from April to December.)

Others are not so sanguine.

''Some of the interpreters,'' Ms. Friedman said, ''are up in arms.'' The interpreters are the guides who take people through Irving's cottage.

But Ms. Friedman is taking a long view. The house in Somers, she said, ''is part of a tradition of people looking to Sunnyside for inspiration.'' According to Ms. Friedman, Irving, author of ''The Legend of Sleepy Hollow'' and ''Rip Van Winkle,'' often wrote about his house, and allowed its image to appear on everything from ceramics to sheet music to cigar boxes. ''It was the Architectural Digest house of its day,'' she said.

''Irving, if you believe he's somewhere in the cosmos, is smiling,'' she added.

In the 1830's, Irving bought a two-room farmhouse overlooking the Hudson, and with the help of a neighbor, the painter George Harvey, turned it into what he called ''a little nookery.'' Irving combined Tudor chimney stacks, a Spanish-style tower with pagoda-like proportions and the Dutch gables that characterized the New York of his childhood.

Phil LaVoie, the developer, said he fell in love with Sunnyside on his first visit, more than 20 years ago. After he acquired 5.5 acres of farmland in Somers, he decided to pay homage to Irving's creation. That's when he and his son, Gregory, began visiting Sunnyside almost weekly, often wielding a tape-measure not too discreetly.

Ms. Friedman isn't thrilled about the measuring. ''I don't know how we missed that,'' she said.

Had she caught the LaVoies, she probably wouldn't have stopped them; architectural designs are rarely copyrightable, and this one would have long ago entered the public domain. Mr. LaVoie has himself recreated several other historic structures, none as famous as Sunnyside.

But this one is his favorite. ''Washington Irving would feel right at home here,'' he claimed in the kitchen of his replica, which has a cooking area of nearly 500 square feet. There is a two-drawer dishwasher, and a General Electric Advantium oven that can be set to cook specific types of food. Demonstrating, Mr. LaVoie set it to ''chicken nuggets.''

The real Sunnyside has Gothic revival outbuildings. This one has a garage, big enough, Mr. LaVoie commented, ''for six Suburbans.''

''We're paying tribute to Washington Irving,'' he said. ''Not stealing from him.''

Then it's off to the patio, where distinctive tripartite columns hold up a tent-like roof. At the real Sunnyside, the columns are carved wood. At this Sunnyside, they're molded Styrofoam, one of many synthetic materials used by Mr. LaVoie. The clay tile roof at Sunnyside would have cost $300,000 to replicate, according to Gregory LaVoie, ''so we used fiberglass.''

''And we used simboard, which is basically a kind of PVC plastic, for the window surrounds,'' he said. ''It costs more than wood, but it's better. It won't rot.''

It also won't age. ''It lacks patina,'' Ms. Friedman said, looking at photos in Mr. LaVoie's elaborate sales brochure.

But it will soon be covered with vines. During his trips to Sunnyside, he began picking up fallen wisteria pods, so that his house could have the same wisteria that Washington Irving planted.

Told of the pod picking, Ms. Friedman smiled. ''More power to them,'' she said.

Maybe she knows the ersatz Sunnyside is no competition for the real thing. Her Sunnyside is set on a stunningly landscaped hillside that tumbles down to the Hudson, and is first glimpsed, romantically, from a twisting pathway. The knockoff is on a flat and largely treeless plot. ''This is where Irving had the Hudson River,'' Mr. LaVoie said from the patio. ''We've got a gunite pool.''

At the real Sunnyside, the rooms are compact, and covered with ornament. At the fake Sunnyside, the rooms are very large, and, so far, very plain.

But that will change if and when the house is sold. Mr. LaVoie said he and his wife have put their own home, a four-bedroom colonial, on the market, and if that one sells first, they'll move to ''Sunnyside.'' And if ''Sunnyside'' sells first? ''I'll be very sad to see it go,'' he said.