by Robert Kimmel
For decades, accessibility to the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow was challenging for handicapped walkers, people with carriages and the elderly. That challenge officially ended last month with a ribbon cutting that heralded the completion of a project that brings an ease of access to those whose entry had been a burden.
Old, uneven steps, labeled “treacherous” by some, leading to the Church have been replaced by a manageable ramp that only slightly alters the front look of the structure, a national landmark, built in 1685. A platform at the doorways has been enlarged and paths leading outward to the old burial grounds have been paved and improved.
“We have now made this historic property completely available to anybody who wants to come here, and it hasn’t been that way for the last 80 years, so that is really important,” Rev. Jeff Gargano said. “Because it has been a dream for so long for so many people, just having that dream fulfilled means a lot, and it is a sense of satisfaction and a sense that you’ve actually accomplished something when you work at it.”
Citing an example of easier access, Rev. Gargano noted that he had “just watched this morning a man pushing a stroller with his little grandchild in it and I thought, isn’t that wonderful. It is exactly what we hoped for.”
The congregation of the Reformed Church in Tarrytown uses the Old Dutch Church for worship on Sundays during the summer and on some holidays. Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow made the location famous with the appearance there of the Headless Horseman, and his supposed interment at the church’s Old Burying Ground.
The new access drew praise for its minimal change to the front of the church. “If I didn’t know what it looked like before, I wouldn’t know that anything has changed,” Rev. Gargano stated. “The architect and construction crew did such a marvelous job that it is really hard to tell where the old was and the new begins.”
Aubrey Hawes, President of the Friends of the Old Dutch Church, also commended the architect, Joanne Tall, of Kamen Hall Architects, for her work. “We insisted on getting an architect who understood the historical perspective, and we found Joanne Hall,” he said. “She is really exceptional, and she also did the restoration of the Hudson Valley Writer’s Center, winning a national award for it. She really has great sensitivity.”
Hawes recalled how Hall had “people come up and take photographs” of the existing stone in the pathways and walls so new the ones would match. “She was very sensitive.”
Hall stated that “making it look like it has always been” was one of the more difficult aspects of the work. “That was the toughest part,” she explained, noting the building’s status as a national landmark. “The path to the burial ground was also a challenge, to get something to look very natural.”
“We have thousands of visitors who come here…and now they can come here without encountering a single step,” Hawes noted. He lauded the local community for being “so very generous. Our target budget was $350,000, and so far we have $310,000. Not bad for a small community,” Hawes added. “It has been a labor of love.” He also said he did “some mailings,” to names once associated with community and received donations from persons in 30 states. “People have been very supportive…regardless of their religious affiliation.”
The newly built ramp originates at the entrance off Route 9, North Broadway, and goes up around a small set of existing stairs, to the entry platform. When built, the structure was closer to the road level, but the roadway was lowered, requiring stairs and small ramps to access the church whose original entrance was on the building’s south side.