How to stage a historic house


Friday, 3/30/2012 9:10am


Some sure signs of spring: blooming flowers, chirping birds, and “for sale” signs dotting the residential landscape.
At a historic house museum like Washington Irving’s Sunnyside, our sure sign of spring doesn’t  say “for sale” but instead “open for the season.”

In preparation for all those who drop in, our houses get scrubbed clean during the winter and, to borrow a word from real estate parlance, staged.

Home staging is the last step in prepping a house for viewing. It happens after deep cleaning, de-cluttering, and minor repairs. Staging is the art of setting the right mood to make a home appeal to potential buyers. In our case, the “buyers” are visitors who we hope to charm and delight.

Thus, part of Historic Hudson Valley’s winter work is deep cleaning our houses. We vacuum carpets and press curtains. We strip the bedding from beds and make sure it’s washed and ironed. We dust all surfaces (everything from fireplace mantels to door linels).

At Sunnyside, perhaps the most time-consuming task is inspecting and cleaning every single piece of china, stoneware, and glassware right down to the tea cup on Washington Irving’s desk. That iconic partners desk, which visitors can see in the study, gets a lot of attention during winter cleaning. We examine it for new nicks, scratches and dings, apply Butcher’s Wax and test the hardware to make sure drawer pulls are secure.

After this thorough cleaning we move on the fun stuff — staging the house for the season’s visitors. We take this opportunity to look at the way the rooms are arranged with a fresh eye. Is it time to change up the objects on the dining room table? Do we want to leave the canopy off in Irving’s nieces’ bedroom so we can talk about the rigors of keeping a house in the 1850’s clean and fresh, or should it appear as if the maid just finished making up the room? 

Home stagers stress that you must depersonalize a home so that potential buyers can imagine themselves living there. For us the opposite is true, we must personalize the house in order to tell our stories.

Washington Irving understood all too well that his home was good for the local real estate market and the value of location, location, location. In 1835, he says of Sunnyside. “It is a beautiful spot, capable of being made into a little paradise.” Later in 1840, in a letter to his sister, Sarah Van Wart, he tells her she would hardly recognize the area, which had become quite bustling.  “My residence here has attracted others; cottages and country seats have sprung up along the banks of the Tappan Sea, and Tarrytown has become the metropolis of quite fashionable vicinity.”

In the 1920s, real estate brokers knew the Irving name was still bankable, and used it to lure in buyers. The Fish Marvin Firm in New York City proudly stated they were offering a lovely mansion, “In a region made famous by Washington Irving.”

As recently as 2003, a developer in Somers built another Sunnyside, complete with stepped gables, red tiled roof, tower with pagoda hat. Though it’s not on the Hudson, it does have a large gunite swimming pool. The price tag in 2003 was $1.95 million.


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