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Church Elder Helps Pave Way For Improved Access To Historic Church

Renovations are expected next spring to improve access to the historic Old Dutch Church in Tarrytown.
Renovations are expected next spring to improve access to the historic Old Dutch Church in Tarrytown. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Old Dutch Church

TARRYTOWN, N.Y. -- When contractors break ground on a project next spring to improve accessibility to the venerable Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, it will be the beginning of the end of a goal Aubrey Hawes has helped to lead for over 10 years.

The church, built in 1685, has badly needed to improve the entrance to the church to permit physically challenged people easier access. Construction of the new entrance and pathways will begin in the spring and is expected to be completed by June. According to Hawes to date $176,000 has been raised to fund the project; the half way point to the $350,000 goal.

The project has been particularly important for Hawes, an elder at the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns, the "parent" of Old Dutch and a member of the church since 1974. “The entrance has been a problem for many years,’’ Hawes said. “It’s something we’ve needed to improve for a long time.”

Hawes said historically, people needed to navigate just two small steps to enter the church. “Over the years, Route 9, the road in front the church, has been lowered by 10 feet,’’ Hawes said. “Today, entry requires scaling seven somewhat treacherously uneven steps. It has made access virtually impossible for people who are physically challenged.”

During a wedding in October, Hawes said a bridesmaid in the wedding party required a wheelchair and needed to be carried up the steps to the church. While primarily a place of worship The Old Dutch Church is a National Historic Landmark and is a very popular venue for weddings. It has been the site of a Hindu wedding, as well as a bar mitzvah, concerts, readings of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and other functions. It is a local treasure that welcomes all.

In October alone, the church had nearly 20,000 visitors during a monthlong "Dutch Fest" that attracted visitors from across the country. Visitors were invited into the church to listen to the history and role the church has played in the area over the past 331 years. Proceeds from the sale of food and souvenirs were part of the fund raising effort.

An architect’s plans have been approved by New York State and the Village of Sleepy Hollow to make the church more accessible. Joanne Tall, a principal of Kamen Tall Architects of Ossining, will oversee the renovation. “It was important to us that we stay true to the history of the church,’’ Hawes said. “Joanne Tall has a great deal of experience in historical renovations. Virtually everybody has applauded the plan. We looked back at some of the illustrations from the earliest days of the church that we tried to mimic. We’ve been very sensitive to the church’s history.”

Hawes said the project also involves a landscape architect with knowledge of indigenous plants, and that the finished product will be reflective of the early 1800s. A level pathway through the burying ground will allow people to enter the church without the challenge of a single step. Another path will lead to Washington Irving’s gravesite which overlooks the burying ground of the Old Dutch Church.

Hawes said his primary role from here on out will be as a “cheerleader” to help raise funds for the project. A former marketing executive, Hawes has served on the boards of several local organizations including The Rotary Club, Phelps Hospital, Elizabeth Mascia Child Care Center, Kendal on Hudson, The Historical Society, Friends of the Old Dutch Church and Burying Ground, the Robin’s Nest and Family YMCA at Tarrytown.

While the project took long to get started, Hawes said he’s used to slow-moving wheels. “Putting it in perspective the church has been here over three centuries,’’ he said. “This is the right time. You just have to keep pushing.”

He feels the project with the church harkens back to its Dutch roots, which promoted inclusion. “We abhor exclusion,’’ Hawes said. “People can’t feel welcome if they can’t enter. The church is a wonderful part of our history, and even though we don’t have a large Dutch population any more, it still speaks to our heritage. It’s an important part of who we are.”

Hawes noted “Direct mail and Go Fund Me efforts will be launched within the next few weeks. I hope readers will consider supporting our fund raising efforts to help make this local treasure more accessible to all, to the elderly, to the smallest child, the physically handicapped, whether, members of our congregation, our neighbors, or visitors from near or far.”

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