Just the name–Washington Irving III–hints of a great tale to tell. Writer, former actor and adjunct professor of English and the Humanities, Rip (referencing the famed character Rip Van Winkle) follows in the footsteps of his namesake, the celebrated nineteenth century American writer and beloved man of letters, Washington Irving.
Standing before a roaring fire in his father’s Irving plaid kilt, under a portrait of his sixth generation forebear, Rip’s trappings hint of an honored ancestry. Scottish, of course. The Irving clan hailed from the Orkney Islands, off the west coast of Scotland, and the name of their house was Quholme (pronounced home); it is respect for this ancestral seat which provided the name for Rip’s new home, his latest creative endeavor.
In the spirit of his distinguished ancestor, Rip has taken design inspiration from “Sunnyside,” the romantically charming cottage that was Washington Irving’s home in Tarrytown, New York, in the mid 1800s. Asked why he decided to build, the quick answer is, “after episodes of restoration with two earlier homes, I just wished to start with a house that was exactly as I wanted it.”
Without being a slave to recreating the exact structure, Rip borrowed elements from “Sunnyside:” the stepped gables (a design feature identified with Dutch colonial architecture); the portico; the crenelated dormer, (a detail borrowed from Irving’s friend Sir Walter Scott’s castle Abbotsford, in Scotland); stucco with ivy exterior, which provided the desired effect of the house appearing as though it were part of the landscape; and the slate roof.
Rip had another Irving descendant, his son Knick (Washington Irving IV, nicknamed after the beloved Irving character, Diedrich Knickerbocker) as fellow collaborator on this project. “He didn’t let me get away with anything (even insisting, correctly, on a re-design of the stairwell after it had been framed in), tutoring me in the architectural contributions of Edward Lutyens, whose English country ethos was relevant to our design goals (most obvious in the large, mullioned window in the kitchen, which adds such a note of drama to an otherwise prosaic room.)”
Knick also put his hand to the design of the stained-glass transoms over the door of the dining room and the entry hall. It fell to Newport architect Mohammad Farzan to draw up the plans, having been part of many brainstorming sessions with father and son. The final word—“this evolved into a natural aesthetic that not only works in Newport, with its storied diversity of architectural styles, but it is a design style that resonates for me,” Rip relates.
Rip was fortunate to be considering this project just at the time a rare real estate transaction was taking place in Newport. A ten-acre plot of prime open space, with grand and elegant trees that characterize this exclusive area of Bellevue Avenue, became available, complete with a set of preservation-grounded guidelines. Four lots were carved out, each with designated house footprints that would maintain the feel of open space and ensure the existence of the trees that are protected by deed. It is this spirit of preservation that is so integral to the defining sensibilities of Newport.
Even Rip’s garden contains ancestral horticultural treasures. His peonies are growing from rhizomes that were in his mother’s garden for thirty years, and before then, in his grandmother’s garden following World War I–making the rhizomes about a hundred years old! “And someday I may ask to take cuttings from the ivy at “Sunnyside” and plant it on my house. After all, Washington Irving took ivy cuttings for “Sunnyside” from Sir Walter Scotts’s castle, so mine actually would be from Abbotsford,” Rip relates with a smile.
References to the first Washington Irving’s living style abound. The sleeping nook in Rip’s office provides a nod to its counterpart at “Sunnyside.” “My little hermitage, my sanctuary, where I do all my thinking…writing…reading,” Rip says in an aside. “Winter is that season that so fits my lifestyle, where I can bounce between being a recluse and part of the community. There’s such good energy provided by living on a college campus, as I do now at Salve Regina. I’ve known and benefited from it for years, having grown up in Providence next door to Brown University.”
It’s a bitter cold January night. I’ve dropped by to chat about my book project and to catch up on Rip’s. Like a good host, all is in readiness for his celebration of Scotland’s greatest poet, Robert Burns, at a dinner the next night. Each room in Quholm functions as a repository of Irving family collections, none more so than the library, where a fire now blazes and casts shadows against the deep red walls, as rich as the finest merlot. Rip reminds me that it is in this library where, “the past coalesces”–leather-bound, gold tooled books, most importantly, the limited-edition collection of “The Works of Washington Irving”; his grandparent’s fur throw on the muted green leather chaise by the fireplace; the charming floral pillow on the down cushioned settee, needlepointed by his mother. Then Rip brings over a large, handsome, hand-made leather photo album, with “Sunnyside” tooled in gold on the cover. In one of the photographs is an image of Washington Irving’s last project at his beloved homestead…an evocative three story “folly,” one single room per floor, topped off with a swooping roof that ends with a center peak.
Many are the reasons that Rip himself would pursue such a project. For practical purposes, the building would provide a garage and additional guestroom, not incidental considerations. But it is the aesthetic reasons that may provide the final justification–the “folly” would add one more reference to the original “Sunnyside,” and be a compliment to his home’s crenellations.
This project would surely add to the sense of permanence that the first Washington Irving must have treasured…and now Rip can share, the feeling that this is a family home for the generations, in a town that is 375 years old.