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Rolling with the Rock

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Here in the land of more is more, it’s nice to find a new house for a family of five that measures a mere 3,600 square feet. Garrison architect Robert Rhodes designed it for a young couple with three small children, one large poodle, and two rescued cats. The couple wanted something innovative, respectful of the landscape, family friendly, and easy to maintain. They weren’t interested in space for space’s sake, nor did they wish to obliterate the physical boundaries separating public from private, or children from parents.

Another thing they didn’t want: monolithic proportions that leave nothing to the imagination. “I’d always admired Mediterranean architecture, where there are separate spaces for family members, but where everyone is connected by a central courtyard,” says the husband. “The question is, how do you do that in a temperate climate?” The wife’s main objective was more easily met. “I just hate overhead kitchen cabinets,” she says with a laugh. Clients and architect collaborated on a house where indoors flows easily into outdoors, and where imaginative spaces play an integral part in the design.

In the middle of the last century, America’s great industrial designer Russel Wright built a quirky modernist home in Garrison that incorporated elements of the site in its design. He called the house Dragon Rock, and named the craggy property Manitoga, the Algonquin word meaning “place of great spirit.” Rhodes, a protégé of modernist Louis Kahn, has created “a place of great spirit” for these clients. Like Wright, he listened to the site — a steep, rocky slope amid woods and wetlands — and the site told him what to do: Respect the rock.

Rhodes could have blasted out the rock and created a flat surface with truckloads of dirt and gravel. Instead, he found inventive ways to bend architecture to the rocks’ dimensions. “There are some magnificent outcroppings,” he remarks. He brought in Walter Heitmann, of Heitmann Builders in Hopewell Junction, to help deal with the site’s complexities, and landscape architect Brian Higley to give final shape to the plan. The project took two years from conception to finish, and nobody got in a fight.

The blueprint called for an L-shaped house of sorts, nestled into the sloping rock ledge, mostly on one floor but with steps connecting different levels, and a master bedroom separated by a full flight of stairs. Along the east side — the private side of the house, bounded by woods — windows and doors open onto the only naturally level surface, a small mesa that feels like an outdoor room. Here the family can gather around an old-fashioned campfire, protected from wind.

On the west and south sides, landscaper Higley raised the ground level to create a terrace, now planted with grasses and defined by two semicircular stone walls. From this side, one sees the steeply sloped front lawn, where tall spruces and fir trees mark the original location of the driveway. Higley planted blueberry bushes and flowers along the edge of the lawn. There’s an expansive view across the Hudson Valley (the river’s visible in winter from the crow’s nest off the master bedroom) to the Hudson Highlands — a view that reminds the couple of their childhood homes in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

The many roof lines of the house are nearly flat, and made of a strong composite material that can withstand sleet, snow and flying tree limbs. It’s a commercial product, but in a custom color. “We were playing around with a bunch of samples,” the wife recalls, “and we didn’t like any of the colors. But when Bob put them all back into a blue folder, we said, ‘What about that shade of blue? That would be a nice color for a roof.’” The color is so distinctive that the couple suspects it’s become a coordinate for helicopter drills at West Point. “OK: Blue roof, turn left,” the wife says with a laugh.

The couple’s interior designer, Eric Stark, is not just a decorator — he’s the curator of the New School’s art collection, and a furniture historian, especially interested in 18th-century American Federal and French Directoire styles. He chose the couple’s antique furnishings, with an eye for clean, pared-down lines. Where no antique would suffice he designed new pieces. He’s responsible for a handsome refectory-style dining table, with its gold-leafed, bridge-like arched legs, and also designed the room’s conversation piece, a polished walnut sideboard inlaid with a brass grid and flanked by glass shelves, where a grandmother’s shell collection is on display.

Stark can barely suppress a sigh when the tour reaches the playroom, whence the couple’s plush furniture was banished. “Yes, Eric is always trying to civilize us,” says the husband. “He keeps trying to get his hands on the music room”— so-called because it’s where the couple blast the stereo —“but we won’t let him.”

There’s a relaxed flow to the way the rooms connect, more European in flavor than American. From the front hall you can go into a mud room, lit by a round skylight, or a small bathroom, also lit from above. Or you can go into the kitchen, where everything is a short lunge away, and take a plate into the adjoining breakfast room overlooking a wide deck with views west. (The garage is hidden in the hillside beneath this deck.)

From the breakfast room, a few steps lead to the high-ceilinged living room, made cozy by the addition of a TV nook. Stark chose a geometric 19th-century Persian carpet to go in front of the fireplace, and placed a matching set of Louis XVI settees on either side. The living room gives onto the comfy music room, with its gallery of family photos and portraits dating back to early Colonial America. Upstairs, the master bedroom opens onto another west-facing deck — with a comprehensive view of blue roof. Architect Rhodes cantilevered a step-down tub and shower off the master bedroom, which makes for a truly indoor/outdoor experience.

The children’s wing is separated from the living room by an enclosed “bridge” that spans an outcropping from which a large tree has somehow managed to grow. (The angle of the bridge was partly determined by the tree, which you see as you pass through.) The two boys share a bedroom, and sleep in bunk beds, a real throwback. The girl’s room, also modest in size, has a twin bed smothered in stuffed animals. At the far end of the children’s wing is the playroom and a door leading onto another small deck.

It’s an easygoing design, guided by a landscape of rock and woods. Both inside and out, there are places where a child could make a fort, or a grownup could sit with a book. And on a rainy day, there’s the soothing sound of falling water: the gutterless roofs are pitched so that rain converges and falls onto stones near the entrance.

As the couple says, “Not much about this house is traditional.” It’s one of the many reasons they love it. â—

Captions:

The bridge (left and above) serves as a gallery (and a sunny spot for a catnap). Stark designed the refectory-style walnut dining table (lower left). In the breakfast room, a Saarinen table and Sprite chairs from Knoll contrast well with the antique Chinese cabinet and Stark’s Asian-style zebra-wood console with its limestone top

Rooms with a view: Windows instead of overhead cabinets make the kitchen feel expansive, while a bank of cabinets provides ample storage. The master bath’s cantilevered shower and tub create the illusion that you’re bathing outdoors, say the owners. Simplicity reigns in the master bedroom, where designer Stark added a console by Antoine Shapira, who built all the custom furniture in the house. In the living room with its TV nook (opposite top), Stark mixed modern pieces and streamlined antiques

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