At this time of the year, when historic sites in the river towns take on the specter of All Hallows Eve, it is fitting to remember the church that lies at the heart of Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The Old Dutch Church, a Registered National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the oldest standing church in New York State. It attracts over 20,000 visitors a year who come to the church and walk the burying grounds to discover ancestors or reacquaint themselves with the sites and stories critical to the history of New York: Native American, Dutch and British settlements, the agrarian economy and the experience of enslaved Africans, the trade relationship with Europe and the Caribbean, and the Revolutionary War. These histories are all told in the story of the Old Dutch Church. And yet, access to this experience has been denied to people in wheelchairs or those with mobility constraints.
Mindful of its position as the stewards of the Old Dutch Church and Burying Ground, the congregation of the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns is embarking on a major fund-raising campaign to address the need for greater access to the historic church. The need for access has become more acute as an aging population demands barrier-free access for healthy aging and lifelong learning. Also, deteriorated outdoor elements are in need of preservation. The project also calls for the restoration of a path to Mr. Irving’s gravesite. While a popular tourist attraction, the church is also a cultural and educational resource, hosting school and community groups throughout the year. It is important to the economic development of an area that relies increasingly on tourism. Most importantly it must be preserved and made accessible to future generations of Americans.
The project includes elements that will address access and public safety issues and restore the historic landscape for the benefit and enjoyment of the public as follows:
• Restoration of the entrance to the 1867 configuration with stone stairs on either side of the doorway.
• Installation of a handicap ramp leading to the church and burying ground.
• Construction of a larger greeting landing between the church steps and the pipe rail, with plantings as an additional safety barrier between the church and Route 9.
• Installation of new railings for the stairs, landing and ramp.
• New outdoor lighting.
• Re-establishment of the cemetery pathways using ADA compliant materials.
• Landscaping with native plants to complement the new construction.
• Restoration and preservation of historic metal and ornamental ironworks.
• Repair and restoration of historic masonry.
Throughout the history of the Old Dutch, as she is affectionately known in the community, members have had to restore and repair the damages wrought by time, insects, weather and overall wear and tear on a building that is in continual use. This use goes beyond the Sunday services that are conducted in the warm summer months, or the weddings and funerals that require a church setting.
Inspired by a sense of Christian hospitality, the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns believes that the Old Dutch Church is a treasure to be shared with the greater community and accepts the responsibility to welcome and provide access to all people who seek out the church in its joint functions as a tourist destination, educational resource, cornerstone of the community, house of worship and even recreational uses like weddings. For most people getting married in a church isn’t something that goes through their mind, but with this lovely location, de church wedding can be turned into a magnificent outdoor wedding venue with just a few tweaks.
A generous bequest from the estate of Julia, Paul, and John Vydarney, life-long members of the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns and benefactors of the Old Dutch Church, provides a portion of the monies required for the access project. The church hopes to match this donation through a variety of fundraising opportunities beginning with the annual Old Dutch Fest held every weekend in October, including Columbus Day and Halloween. Members of the church will be on hand to give tours of the church and burying ground. Refreshments, souvenirs and publications will be available for purchase. All proceeds will go to the access project. Photo ops with the Headless Horseman and his steed, as well as participation in a scavenger hunt help round out the day’s entertainment. Visitors will also be able to attend a short prayer service on Sundays, beginning at noon.
On October 30th, the church congregation will gather for Reformation Day with two services (9:00 am and 11:00 am). These services will include a traditional liturgy, prayers of remembrance and Bach fugues played on the church’s Noack Tracker Organ. In between these services the public is invited to the installation of the memorial stone for the Vydarney family.
Supporting the access project is a fitting way to share the history of Old Dutch Church with those who have been previously denied the opportunity. Rev. Jeffrey Gargano says, “Just as we have been gifted this marvelous house of worship by previous generations, we now have an opportunity to enhance it for future generations.”