A noted architect mixes modernism and Catskill vernacular architecture to update and expand a simple stone farmhouse
The Catskill Mountains must have looked gloriously scenic to the Dutch settlers who voyaged here from their flat homeland in the 1700s. One pioneering family chose a bluff with a particularly wonderful view to build their simple stone house. When it was done, they inscribed the date, 1761, on a tie rod. Generations of farmers lived in the house over the centuries and, whatever else changed, the mountains, fields, and Catskill Creek remained an unspoiled vista. Frederic Church, an artist who appreciated a good view, built his Moorish-style home, Olana, on the opposite side of the Hudson — you can see it in the distance. “It’s a majestic site,” declares the male half of the “very private” couple who bought the 200-acre property 10 years ago.
The couple “liked the age of the house,” they say, but it was somewhat dark and far too small. An addition was called for. “We wanted it to be comfortable, livable and welcoming, with enough room that we could have a lot of company,” notes the wife. “And it had to relate to the property and fit in with the area.”
They engaged architect Alexander Gorlin to come up with a plan. Gorlin, a Yale School of Architecture graduate who has worked with luminaries Richard Meier and I.M. Pei, is essentially a modernist whose designs include museums, performing arts centers, and synagogues — as well as residences ranging from the palatial to a halfway house for the homeless in the Bronx. Gorlin, too, was inspired by the setting. “I’ve done work all over the world on spectacular sites, but there’s something very special about this — a sense of the confluence of forces,” he says. “It’s breathtaking. You feel like Moses looking at the Promised Land.”
There was no question that a circa 1960s prefab addition had to go, but Gorlin quickly dispatched the idea of adding a wing on each side of the stone house. “That would have dwarfed it and compromised its special-ness,” he says. Instead, he designed three connected buildings in varying proportions off to one side.
“The strategy was to add pavilions to the stone house to maintain the scale of the house and not overwhelm it,” Gorlin explains. Exterior materials — tin roofs, painted-red wood or corrugated metal siding — matched the existing barns on the site, or reflected other farm buildings in the region. “Everything is simple, nothing to call attention to itself, to defer to the view,” he says.
The stone house itself was gutted and the low ceiling removed to reveal the beams and create one open, soaring space. “The upstairs wasn’t used — it was like a forgotten attic,” Gorlin remarks. “I’m surprised we didn’t find the Declaration of Independence up there. We did find old newspapers from the 1800s.”
The original house now forms an inviting great room. A single-story pavilion connected to it serves as kitchen and family room. It’s a bright, sunlit space that makes the most of the Valley views with three sliding glass double doors that open onto a patio. Next comes a two-story pavilion with a steeply pitched roof and vertical, corrugated-metal siding. This houses a den that opens onto a screened porch. Upstairs, a study with a terrace-balcony creates the illusion that you’re “almost suspended in space,” Gorlin notes. The master suite and three second-story guest rooms occupy the red, barn-shaped pavilion on the end. The total living space amounts to about 5,000 square feet.
The pavilions are joined at angles, with setbacks and jogs, and differently pitched roofs that give a contemporary feel. “It’s a modern rusticity,” Gorlin explains. “The picturesque rooflines create a kind of up and down that culminates in the barn. The different angles emphasize each building’s individuality, so that it looks like an accretion, built over time.”
Gorlin designed two other freestanding barns, one of which serves as a garage and the other as a workshop. Both have proportions that reflect the lines of the post-and-beam, Civil War-era hay barn nearby. The cluster of buildings together “creates the impression of a small village,” Gorlin notes.
As you approach, it’s unclear what, precisely, makes up the dwelling. The row of connected buildings presents an almost austere face, with few windows and deliberately small entrances that don’t interrupt the silhouette. The expansive vista is blocked. “Guests who come for the first time have no idea,” remarks the wife. “It looks like a bunch of barns, so when you walk in, it’s spectacular.”
Inside, the house feels spacious, with rooms that flow easily, and windows framing different panoramas. “Alex was very involved with sight lines,” remarks the wife. “There are about six places outside where you can see straight through the house to the view. It was exciting to work with him.”
The owners are also delighted with the interiors designed by Garrow Kedigian. “We’ve used some big-name designers in the past, but he was the best, and the most original,” says the owner. “Garrow was terrific,” the wife agrees. “It was a difficult job. We wanted the house to be comfortable and not stuffy. He followed our lead, and he had great ideas.” Kedigian, who describes his style as “streamlined classic,” is an architect by training who has a flair for eclectic, well-thought-out interiors that don’t look “decorated” or overdone.
He designed and selected all the trim work, floors, and ceilings. It was his idea to reuse the 250-year-old wood beams and boards taken from the stone house during its renovation. A couple of beams were used as banisters, some were incorporated as posts for the kitchen island, and others became the legs of a coffee table whose top is remilled floorboards.
Kedigian lined the vaulted ceiling of the great room with tongue-and- groove planks. “The beams are at different angles, so it was haphazard,” he says. “The wood ceiling gives the room some repeated patterning, some rhythm, and adds a sense of scale and proportion.” He made the windows in the great room appear larger by casing them in wood to the floor. Deep bluestone sills emphasize the thickness of the walls.
The designer seamlessly mixed modern furnishings with mid-century, Arts and Crafts, and rustic pieces, and used a palette of stone tones with splashes of barn red to connect the rooms and reflect the outdoors. Even interior vistas were thought out. The owners wanted to use part of the great room for more formal dining. “We wanted an unbroken view from the hallway into the great room, but how do you accomplish that with a big dining table?” Kedigian asks. The answer: two dining tables, one on either side of the expanse. “I found a near pair at Freddy Victoria, and had them touched up to match,” he says. “That was a happy accident.” Circa 1865 English chairs are perfect mates for the clean lines of the mid-century modern tables.
Designer, architect, and owners enthusiastically praise builder Eric Carlson of Norseway Construction in Catskill, whose work in bringing the plans to reality “was awesome,” as Kedigian puts it.
“Alex did a fantastic job of integrating the buildings with the property,” say the owners. “Between Alex and Garrow, the house is unbelievable. We couldn’t be happier.”