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December 12, 2011

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Natural Sanctuaries: Russel Wright's Manitoga

Posted by Brittany C. Brown, Senior Program Associate
View of house built into rock quarry, 2011
View of house built into rock quarry, 2011

On a brisk autumn afternoon in the Hudson Valley we made our way to Russel Wright’s Manitoga, a 75-acre property acquired by the designer in 1942. Wright built a modern house and studio in the 1960s by incorporating natural and industrial materials into the side of a former quarry that existed on the site (view slideshow). Manitoga encompasses the house, studio, and landscape (the house and studio are collectively called “Dragon Rock”) and it is one of the sites included on the 2012 World Monuments Watch.

During our visit, the trees surrounding Dragon Rock were displaying fall foliage and the waterfall cascading down alongside the house and studio was in full force. Our tour began by navigating our way through the brush and ascending a stone stairway leading to a breathtaking view of the waterfall, house, and studio. Each tree was strategically planted, each stone meticulously placed, and each plant species deliberately introduced, to create striking vistas and intimate outdoor rooms, sanctuaries of nature. My favorite of these was the “Moss Room,” a hidden hallway in a sea of green that ran parallel to the main path, consisting of a moss floor, tree-walls, and a canopy roof from the leaves overhead. Unfortunately, the moss cover on much of the ground surface is threatened by hikers unaware it is meant to be part of the visual experience at Manitoga. Aggressive insect activity has had a deleterious effect on the tree canopy, creating another challenge for maintaining Manitoga to best effect.

I was charmed by the spectacular natural landscape and found the rock floors, glass walls, and synthetic room dividers and light coverings in the house and studio surprisingly cozy. The open floor plan and transparent sides of the building made the modest square footage of the space seem infinite, as the interior elements connected with the outdoor space. The stone floor seemed to extend outside to the top of the quarry, the rock fireplace grew vertically up through the roof, and the windows in the studio offered a unique ground level vantage point to give the feeling of working in the earth. Wright used biological material, such as sticks and needles, to decorate the interior walls, as well as synthetic pieces of plastic and burlap to reflect the sunlight and manipulate the artificial light.

The property is peaceful this time of year (it is probably always peaceful, by design), and being the only two people in the house, with its large glass panes letting the outside in, took on a meditative quality. It was then, in Wright’s living room overlooking the graceful waterfall and towering trees, that I fully appreciated the genius of his designed landscape. There were no other signs of civilization outside aside from the small industrial remnants artfully hidden throughout the property (a design technique that pays homage to the site’s former use) and the only sounds were those of rushing water and rustling leaves.

In tune with his surroundings, Wright changed the interior décor based on the season, and planned walks through different parts of the property depending on the time of year. As I left the studio and crossed over the waterfall on the wooden footbridge, I looked up to admire the sun poking through the last of autumn’s leaves, and I couldn’t help but wonder what this place would look like in spring.

Note: Public tours run from May through October.