Architectural Digest: River House
Written by: Basil Walter | | Photography by: William Waldron | Original Article
You can’t go home again, the adage says, but a fortunate few do manage in one way or another to revisit places that hold cherished memories from their youth. Some, like Willa Cather and Mark Twain, do it through their art, describing remembered places in idyllic memoirs. For others the return is literal: For instance, the artist Jeff Koons bought back the farm in southeast Pennsylvania that once belonged to his grandparents and has been renovating it as a country retreat for his family.
I got the chance to go home again in a different way. In 2007 I was hired to design a modernist house along the Hudson River, in upstate New York, on the very farmland where my grandparents once lived. The farm had a historic pedigree. In the late 19th century it was the country estate of Frederick T. Adams, a successful financier and yachtsman who summered there with his family. Adams built a grand house at the highest pointn on the 140-acre tract, where a meadow meets a ridge, hence the property’s name, Meadow Ridge Farm. The spot affords sweeping views of the Hudson to the east and the Catskill Mountains to the west. On the farm’s western side, the meadow is filled with tall grasses and wildflowers when left fallow. At the opposite end, just beyond the forested ridge, are steep shale cliffs plunging to the river.
My grandparents, Gertrude and Jay Warner, were tenant farmers who lived in a two-story frame house on the estate. They had moved to the town of Coxsackie after the Great Depression, seeking work in the icehouses along the Hudson. But they eventually settled into tending Holstein dairy cows at Meadow Ridge Farm, which became their home for the next half-century.
Though I grew up mostly in Brazil, where my parents were teachers, I spent long periods at the farm. I even graduated from the local high school and made lifelong friends in the community. Then, after my grandmother died and my grandfather’s health declined, I interrupted my college studies and moved to the farm full-time to help him out. I stayed for three years, until his death, when the property was sold and out of my life—forever, I thought.
I have many vivid memories of time spent there, of baling hay with my grandfather, who liked to spout poetry to lighten the task, and of shoveling our way out of the snowbound farmhouse—a genuinely exotic experience for someone raised in Brazil. I came to know the landscape intimately, often sketching studies of it in charcoal or watercolor for classes at the local Woodstock Artists Association.
Several years ago, an old friend who lives in the area reached out to let me know that Meadow Ridge Farm was for sale. As fate would have it, one of my longtime clients happened to be considering a weekend getaway upstate and decided to buy it. He asked me to create a residence on the property for him, specifying that he wanted a home that was clean and simple, to contrast with his book-cluttered Manhattan apartment (he’s a writer), a space I also designed. The obvious place to build was the top of the ridge, the prominent spot where Adams put his big house, which had burned down in the 1990s. (A few of the other 19th-century structures remain, including my grandparents’ home, which my firm restored as guest quarters.) We decided, however, to put the new house by the river, above the shale cliffs and nestled into the woods, a location that offered superior views of the Hudson and greater privacy.
It was a familiar site, where decades earlier my brother, Matt, and I had imagined ourselves to be Mohicans, hiding behind trees and shooting plastic-tipped arrows at each other. The idea was to create a home informed by my connections to this place as well as by contemporary architectural considerations, among them green features such as photovoltaic panels, geothermal wells, and a passive cooling system. The design was also influenced by my childhood memories of visiting Oscar Niemeyer’s modernist buildings in Brasília in the early 1960s—when much of the city was still under construction—melded with mental pictures of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, Shigeru Ban’s floating slabs, and Barry Bergdoll’s notions about the 18th- and 19th-century roots of modernism.
The house was conceived as a visual metaphor for the old black-walnut trees that surround it. Clad in a skin of dark and weathered-looking concrete panels that almost resemble bark, the structure is lined on the inside with warmly finished wood, some of it reclaimed from the Coney Island boardwalk. Throughout the residence, recessed expanses of glass—topped by generous overhangs that shield the interiors from the hot summer sun—frame vistas of the fields, woods, and river, just as I framed them with my hands 30 years earlier for my sketches. Using cantilevers, I floated the main body of the house slightly above the grade, setting it lightly upon the landscape. From the entrance courtyard only a tantalizing sliver of the Hudson is visible, but a few steps up through the front door suddenly reveals views of the steep and dramatic drop to the fast-flowing river below.
During the planning phase and over the three years of construction, several other people in my office worked on the project. And I was incredibly lucky to have Poonam Khanna oversee the interior design and furnishings, and landscape architect Susan Wisniewski devise and implement changes to the grounds around the house. Returning to Meadow Ridge Farm today still provokes powerful emotions for me. But now those feelings have an added dimension: a sense of fulfillment at helping to shape a future for this beautiful piece of land, where a new family is already creating its own special memories.