This romantic confection of a house, complete with turrets, dormers, pointed Gothic arch windows and original interior details, comes with a quirky history worthy of a Washington Irving tale.
As it happens, the 1850s Gothic Revival style house at 76 North Broadway in Irvington, N.Y., is a 10-minute walk from the famed writer’s house. The municipality on the eastern banks of the Hudson River, once a small village known as Dearman, changed its name to Irvington in 1854 to honor the author — who was still living at the time.
The surrounding landscape was dotted with grand country estates, including Irving’s Sunnyside and Lyndhurst, the 1838 Gothic Revival castle designed by Alexander Jackson Davis. The arrival of the railroad in 1849 brought a building and population boom to the town.
The first owner of the North Broadway house, said to be John Thomas, built it well away from the sound and noise of the railroad tracks, just outside the center of town. Secondary sources give varying construction dates, ranging from 1850 to 1855.
There is little information on the first owner, although a John Thomas is credited as the builder of another circa 1850 Gothic-influenced residence — 42 Main Street, located in the Irvington Historic District.
John Thomas met with a tragic fate, according to local lore: death by lightning — which may or may not have involved a pitchfork. The first mention of the tale of woe we found was in Martha Lamb’s description of the house in her 1879 book, The Homes of America. While she waxes eloquently about the “turrets, points and eaves” of the house, she lays out the facts of death rather plainly: “It was built by a gentleman who was killed by lightning while standing in the front door.”
As with all good stories, the death tale was embellished over time. A blogger whose family owned the house from the 1920s to 1980s recalls a macabre (and somewhat funny) family tradition:
My great grandfather bought the house after the original owner was struck by lightning and killed on the front grounds. The pitchfork he was holding sat in the formal dining room at Strawberry Hill until the time that we sold the house. As children we would dare each other to go up and touch it and then we would run away screaming.
If John Thomas was indeed the builder and owner, he created a rather grand country home that closely reflects philosophies espoused by landscape designer and architect Andrew Jackson Downing. Before dying tragically young in a steamship accident in 1852, Downing produced two hugely influential books on country houses. Downing advocated “neat and picturesque” cottages and villas that were practical in design and suitable to the surrounding landscape.
Downing’s influence on the area was such that an 1850 auction map for “village lots and cottage sites” in town included sketches of Downing’s cottages to illustrate the development potential of the sites.
Whether the dramatic tale of Thomas’ passing is true or not, by 1858 a map of Irvington shows what seems to be the property labelled as belonging to “Mrs. Thomas” — making it most likely Mr. Thomas had died by 1858.
By the 1860s, the house had passed into the hands of John Earle Williams, president of the Metropolitan Bank of New York. It is with Mr. Williams’ tenure that the house seems to have gained the moniker “Strawberry Hill.” It is possible it was named after Horace Walpole’s home of the same name, the famous 18th century Gothic confection outside of London.
In an 1877 obituary for Mr. Williams, it was said that the house “was the pride of his life.” Williams made some alterations, according to the Winterthur Porfolio article “Castles of the Hudson” by John Zukowsky, but it is not clear how extensive they were. The article credits Edward Delano Lindsey as the architect.
The house changed hands several times after Mr. Williams’ tenure and by the early 20th century the acreage around the house was subdivided into smaller plots for additional houses. The original house now sits on just under 2 acres of land.
Despite the changes in ownership, it looks like the previous owners left many details intact, including numerous marble mantels, built-ins, doors and wainscoting. Everything could use a polish, but it is certainly a house to inspire an old-house lover.
In her rhapsodic account of the interior in the 1870s, Martha Lamb described the interior as being “the embodiment of refined common sense” yet paradoxically noted “long, rambling passageways lead everywhere and nowhere, and are most delightfully bewildering.”
The house is certainly spacious, with 11 bedrooms spread across 13,052 square feet.
Now on the market, the villa is listed for $1.995 million by Fran O’Toole of William Pitt and Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty.
There are six full and two half baths, although none are pictured in the listing. Neither is the kitchen, so it is hard to know what era it might represent.
It is doubtful the pitchfork (whatever its original role) has survived, but it might be an interesting decorative touch for a new owner to revive.
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