Three Churches of Sleepy Hollow & Tarrytown

A Photo-Essay on Washington Irving & His Predecessors

Three historic churches in Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, all on Broadway within walking distance of each other, reveal the rich legacies of religion and literature in the Lower Hudson Valley.

At the southern end of Upstate New York is the Lower Hudson Valley. It is a region of blended histories for its European settlers and their descendants, beginning with its initial exploration by Englishman Henry Hudson on behalf of the Dutch East India Company in 1609. Even after the English acquisition of New Netherland in 1664 and the formation of the United States in 1776, the regional population long remained predominantly Dutch. In the wider public imagination, the region’s Westchester County is especially notable due to the literary contributions of American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859).

Irving is renowned nationally and internationally for his short stories Rip Van Winkle (1819) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), which were featured in the collection The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. The Legend is the longest story of The Sketchbook, fundamentally influenced by the cultural-religious histories of what are today the modern Villages of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown in Westchester. Although The Legend became synonymous with hauntings and the supernatural, its themes also vitally consider the temporal, primal tensions found between homogeneity and the outsider as well as between tradition and change.

Irving’s life was spent in and out of both New York and the United States, but his initial, formative visit to Tarrytown, to escape a yellow fever outbreak in New York City, was as a teenager in 1798. Tarrytown was already a formal Village at the time, but the northern area where the Pocantico and Hudson Rivers meet was only colloquially known as Slapers Haben (Sleepers Haven), a name first given by Adrien van der Donck (1618–55). “Sleepy Hollow” was only popularized, and further formalized, much later because of The Legend. Three historic churches in Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown exemplify the seminal intertwining and proliferation, via Irving, of local culture into universal literature.

Old Dutch Church

Old Dutch Church is on Broadway and Devries Avenue in the Village of Sleepy Hollow.

The Old Dutch Church is the oldest extant church edifice in New York State. The Church and its Burying Ground are on land originally belonging to Lenape Native Americans, purchased by Dutch settlers in the 17th Century. The edifice was first built in 1685, designed and financed by Frederick Philipse (1626–1702), the Bohemian-Dutchman who became Lord of Philipsburg Manor in 1693. Philipse’s second wife, Catharine van Cortlandt Derval (1652–1730, married 1692), assumed the role of Church patron and is listed as the first member of the Church in its historic register. She eventually procured a pastor, which culminated in the Church being formally organized as Dutch Reformed in 1697 and enhancements being made to the edifice during 1697–9.

The Church and Burying Ground as seen from the west across Broadway. Its fieldstone walls are two feet thick, rimmed by a molded, wooden cornice at the roofline with clapboard above it on the principal facade.
The Church as seen from the southwest, with its bell-shaped Gambrel Roof following Flemish convention. Within the octagonal, wooden belfry is the original 1685 bell commissioned by Philipse’s first wife, Margaret Hardenbrook de Vries (1637–91), and likely brought over by her on one of her ships from the Netherlands. It is inscribed with the initials of Frederick Philipse and the Latin words of Romans 8:31. “Si Deus Pro Nobis, Quis Contras Nos?” (If God be for us, who be against us?)

The Church served the Manor until after the Revolutionary War, when the lands of the Philipse family were confiscated because they were Loyalists of the British Crown, leaving the Church without formal patronage. The New York Commission of Forfeiture deeded the Church to its Minister, Elders, and Deacons in 1787. Significant changes were made to the edifice after a fire in 1837, with the main portal moved from the southern facade to the western, the windows and portal reshaped with Gothic pointed arches, and the northern gallery removed for an expansion of the western one. Furthermore, the original ceiling beams and pulpit were replaced, but renovations for the Church’s 1897 Bicentennial reversed these changes, restoring the original ceiling and reproducing the design of the original pulpit.

Left & Right: The northern and southern facades of the Church.

The Church and Burying Ground are the principal settings for The Legend, which drew upon the existing local culture of lore that arose in light of the area’s unique position in the Revolutionary War. Most of what is now central Westchester County was known during the War as the Neutral Ground, a benevolent label for a veritable no man’s land between the British in the south and the Patriots in the north, vulnerable to sporadic skirmishes and unchecked raiding. This history manifestly influenced the concept of a headless, undead Hessian rider arising out of the Burying Ground.

The interior of the Church.
The vaulted wooden ceiling in detail.
Left: The Chancel within the projecting Apse, featuring a turned-wooden Balustrade, Lectern, Altar, and traditional, canopied Pulpit. Right: An angled perspective on the Chancel.
Left: The interior as seen from the Gallery. Right: The Organ Console within the Gallery, installed in 1991. Electricity was also contemporarily installed for the first time to power the Organ.
A reverse perspective on the interior of the Church.

The Burying Ground predates the Church, having already held 50 burials upon the initial arrival of Philipse in 1683. Among its notable burials are Philipse and van Cortlandt, though not de Vries whose burial location is currently unknown. The Burying Ground also holds Eleanor van Tassel Brush (1764–1861) and Catriena Ecker van Tessel (1736–93), who have both been considered as possible inspirations for Katrina van Tessel in The Legend. The former is considered by some as the personality prototype for Katrina, but the latter has been more popular among visitors. The Burying Ground is often confused with Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Irving is buried, as they are contiguous but separate entities with the latter incorporated in 1849.

Two headstones of the Burying Ground. Left: The new headstone of Hulda of Bohemia commissioned by the Friends of the Old Dutch, carved by Robert Carpenter who followed the 17th Century style of John Zuricher. A German-speaking denizen of the 1770s, Hulda was an herbal healer who had been denounced by the contemporary Church minister as a witch. In 1777 during the Revolutionary War, Hulda brought her musket to bear on British troops that were pursuing Patriot Militia. The latter escaped as the British were drawn away by Hulda, who perished in the firefight. It was revealed that she willed gold in her possession to the War widows of Sleepy Hollow. She was allowed to be buried in hallowed ground on the condition she not receive a headstone, which was corrected by vote of the Consistory and culminated in the headstone being installed in August 2019. Right: The headstone of Frederic van Wart, deceased only five weeks after his birth to Isaac and Rachel van Wart in 1790. The headstone was stolen from the Burying Ground, eventually found broken in the Sparta Cemetery in Ossining. It was restored by Robert Carpenter in the style of Solomon Brewer and rededicated on June 1, 2019, in a ceremony that included Van Wart descendants from Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Isaac van Wart’s nephew, Henry, later married Washington Irving’s sister, Sarah, eventually moving to England where Irving visited them in June 1818. During a nostalgic conversation with Henry about Tarrytown, Irving was struck by the inspiration that birthed Rip Van Winkle.

The Church remains a major tourist attraction and hosts special events during the Halloween season, but its own independent congregation declined with the passage of time. However, it remains an active house of worship owned and maintained by the growing Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns, which began as a branch of the Old Dutch. The congregation of the Reformed Church now serves as its successor, using the Old Dutch for Summers, Holidays, and special events.

The Sculpture of the Headless Horseman pursuing Ichabod Crane, located on the forested median between Broadway and Old Broadway in Sleepy Hollow.

Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns

Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns is on Broadway and Central Avenue in the Village of Tarrytown.

The Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns was first built in 1837 as the Second Reformed Church of Tarrytown, established as a branch expansion of the Old Dutch Church. The congregation of the latter became the First Reformed Church of North Tarrytown, which was the former name of Sleepy Hollow since formal incorporation in the 19th Century. Initially, the Second Reformed Church shared a single Minister with its mother congregation while maintaining its own Elders and Deacons, but became independent in 1851.

The Church as seen from the west across Broadway. Although it is not situated on the heights of Tarrytown, its steeple makes it the tallest edifice in the Village.
The Church as seen from the northwest, its principal facade framed by a porch with projecting entablature and pediment supported by four Ionic order columns.

The decline of the First Reformed congregation led to the merger of the two Churches, which became the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns on May 5, 1991. The Church has experienced a notable increase in membership under its incumbent Pastor, The Reverend Jeffrey Gargano, who has served the congregation for the past decade. In light of the popular legacy of the community, North Tarrytown was renamed Sleepy Hollow in 1996. Beyond common cultural history, the two Villages have shared a school district and other services, with a potential merger often discussed, but difficult due to the Villages legally belonging to different Towns.

Left: A rocking chair, side table, and Bible in the Narthex of the Church. Right: The clockwork at the southeastern corner of the Narthex, controlling the clock and bell in the steeple.
Left: The Organ Gallery above the Narthex. Right: The Tiffany Window featured in the vestibule of the Church Office, dedicated to Rev. Dr. John Knox Allen, Minister of the First Reformed Church for 50 years during 1870–1920. Originally featured at the former edifice of the First Reformed congregation, it was moved to the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns as a condition of the congregational merger. The Window was designed by Agnes F. Northrop, who worked in the Ecclesiastical Department of Tiffany Studios under the auspices of inaugural Design Director Louis Comfort Tiffany. Tiffany devoted himself to developing new techniques for colored glass that would mimic the aesthetics of oil or watercolor without the need for paints or enamels.
The Sanctuary of the Church.
Left & Right: The southern and northern walls of the Sanctuary.

In parallel to the local congregational shifts were larger institutional changes for Dutch Reformed Christianity in the United States. During 1628–1819, Dutch Reformed Christians were organized as the North American branch of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands, thereafter independently incorporated as the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church and finally renamed the Reformed Church in America (RCA) in 1867. RCA maintains a presbyterian polity and is in full communion with Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

The Chancel of the Church.
Left: The larger Pulpit on the northern side of the Chancel. Right: The smaller Lectern and Baptismal Font on the southern side of the Chancel.
The Altars in detail.
A reverse perspective on the Sanctuary.

The cultural history between the Villages has certainly been elevated in the wider public imagination because of Irving’s work. However, he was merely honoring the communities he came to love as a relative outsider, because he was neither a Dutchman nor a Christian of the Reformed persuasion. Rather, he was of English-Scottish extraction and, in 1848, became a prominent member of Christ Episcopal Church in Tarrytown. This period, between 1846–59, was the last stage of his life, spent in Westchester at his Tarrytown estate of Sunnyside, which is now maintained by Historic Hudson Valley.

Signage on Broadway and Pierson Avenue in Sleepy Hollow for visitors seeking the true Bridge of The Legend.

Christ Episcopal Church

Christ Episcopal Church is on Broadway and Elizabeth Street in the Village of Tarrytown.

Christ Episcopal Church was founded as a collaboration between Nathaniel Holmes and Dr. William Creighton (1793–1865). Holmes, a former bookseller who had just retired to Tarrytown in 1835, convinced Creighton, former Rector of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, to establish a new church. With formal incorporation on August 8, 1836, Holmes became Senior Warden and Creighton became inaugural Rector of the Church.

The Church as seen from the east across Broadway. Beyond the predominant red brick, the edifice also consists of limestone and sandstone. The signage at the right makes reference to the San Marcos Mission, the Church’s Spanish-language ministry formed in 1993.
The Church as seen from the northeast, with its Tower and smaller Turrets all castellated.

The edifice was built in 1837 with the conventions of Early English Gothic Revival to resemble the quaint parishes of the English countryside. The ivy growing on the facade was Irving’s gift to the Church from Sunnyside, but was itself originally a gift to Irving from the Abbotsford House of Sir Walter Scott in England. The Church has further preserved Irving’s Pew, featuring it as part of the Memorial to him within its Sanctuary.

The Nave of the Sanctuary. It is intersected by an asymmetrical Transept, its northern half forming the Baptistery niche at the right and its southern half forming St. Mark’s Chapel at the left. The Sanctuary’s current iteration, featuring Byzantine style conventions, is dated to renovations during the 1890s.
The stained glass windows on the northern wall of the Nave. Left: The Healer Window, dedicated to Frederick K.G. LeRoy, M.D. It depicts St. Luke as patron saint of physicians at the left, Jesus knocking on the door of the soul at the right, and Jesus as miracle healer in the center. Right: A window from the 1890s, dedicated to Elizabeth Waldron Temsch, who remains unknown to parish records. It illustrates the chorus of the contemporarily popular hymn “Angels of Jesus, angels of light, singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night.”
Center: The Baptistery and its Victorian Font in the northern half of the Transept. The Baptistery Window is in a style consistent with the 1950s, but is officially undated. Left: Irving’s Pew with the Dorchester stone Memorial to him, featuring columns of Aberdeen granite and Caen stone, on the western wall adjacent to the Font. Beyond mere membership, Irving also served as a Warden of the Church and represented it as a repeat Delegate to the Convention of the Diocese. Right: The Memorial to Dr. William Creighton, founding Rector, on the eastern wall adjacent to the Font.

Most of the years before Irving’s 1846 return to Sunnyside were abroad in Europe. Following the 1819 breakthrough of Rip Van Winkle while in London, Irving had notably long stays in England and Spain. These stints were both personal and professional in nature, the latter on behalf of the American Government with Irving appointed as Legation Secretary in London (1829–32) and Minister to Spain (1842–6).

The Chancel in detail. It was remade as a recess when the Church was lengthened in 1857, an influence of the Ecclesiology movement within Anglicanism.
The Altars in detail. The Altar Window depicts Christ flanked by angels with scrolls bearing the words “Blessed are the dead — they rest from their labors.” (Revelation 14:13) The Window appears strikingly new due to its high craftsmanship, but likely dates to the renovations of the 1890s.

The years apparently took their toll on Irving. In a May 1844 letter to Thomas Wentworth Storrow (1779–1862), Irving viscerally outlined his fatigue and disenchantment. “The last ten or twelve years of my life,” Irving wrote, “passed among sordid speculators in the United States, and political adventurers in Spain, has [shown] me so much of the dark side of human nature, that I begin to have painful doubts of my fellow man; and look back with regret to the confiding period of my literary career, when, poor as a rat, but rich in dreams, I beheld the world through the medium of my imagination and was apt to believe men as good as I wished them to be.”

Two perspectives on St. Mark’s Chapel in the southern half of the Transept, from a parish in Beekmantown that was merged with the Church in 1951.
The Chapel in detail. At the left is the Bethany Window from the end of the 19th Century, which features Jesus visiting friends Mary and Martha at their Bethany home. It ironically features the words “Give her of the fruit of her hands, let her own works praise her in the gates” (Proverbs 31:31) even though the window depicts Jesus praising Mary for listening to him while rebuking Martha for busying herself with dinner preparation.
Left: The Chapel Altar, featuring a polychromed, wooden Triptych bought at an antique store in Tarrytown. It is thought to be a century old and an emulation of original artwork. Right: The Organ adjacent to the Chapel. Above it is a Shield bearing the Eastern (Suppedaneum) Cross. It is one of many Shields featured throughout the Sanctuary, each bearing a different symbol.

Although most of the public may only ever know Irving for his fictional works, his later years saw a sustained shift toward historical scholarship, likely a result of the disenchantment he was feeling. Irving’s altered focus resulted in historical biographies on, among others, George Washington, Oliver Goldsmith, and even Prophet Muhammad. Irving died of a heart attack at Sunnyside on November 28, 1859 and, according to legend, his last words had earlier been “Well, I must arrange my pillows for another night. When will this end?”

Left: The Rose Window above the inner portal to the Church, believed to be original to the edifice. Right: The ceiling of the Nave before the inner portal in detail.
A reverse perspective on the Nave of the Church. The small southern window at the right, dedicated to Charles and Georgiana Vanderbilt, is from the 1960s. The eastern windows are painted rather than stained and, like the Rose Window they flank, also believed to be original to the edifice.

Irving was six years old when, by a happenstance encounter in New York City, he met his namesake George Washington, who blessed him. In turn, Irving blessed national and international publics with stories that stir emotions and imaginations primordial to all of humanity. Nothing is diminished by his use of supernatural fictions, for such literature has, in parallel to revelations arisen from religion, compelled human hearts to honor and cherish the temporal nonfictions of life that would otherwise be forgotten. Together, religion and literature have long formed an essential framework for human selfhood, a dualistic foundation of lore that has made human civilization a product of both faith and history.

In memory of Washington Irving and his Predecessors.

These photos were taken on three nonconsecutive days utilizing both a wide angle lens and a standard zoom lens. Lighting differed between days due to weather, with the second day of unbroken cloud cover proving advantageous for exterior photography of the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns. Divergences between other exterior photos curated were circumstantial due to partial obstructions on the first and third days, notably parked cars and event decorations respectively, at Christ Episcopal Church. The headstone of Washington Irving was photographed from afar because his lot is restricted from public foot access.

Acknowledgments and gratitude go to Dorothée Caulfield, Christ Episcopal Parish Administrator, as well as Stephanie O’Dea and Deborah McCue, Reformed Church Congregants and Old Dutch Church Docents. Dorothée promptly followed up on the personal inquiry regarding the Chapel Triptych. Stephanie kindly allowed the photography from the restricted Organ Gallery at the Old Dutch. Deborah, as Chief Docent, shared a great wealth of information via conversation and her blog, further graciously reviewing the draft of this photo-essay. Deborah proudly served as a Deacon when the Consistory voted to give Hulda of Bohemia a headstone.

Additional thanks go to The Reverend Susan Copley, Christ Episcopal Rector, and The Reverend Julia Doellman-Brown, Reformed Church Pastor to Children and Youth, for their warm greetings during my visits.

Cheers to the Black Cat that crossed my path during October in Sleepy Hollow.

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