Hudson Valley Architect Alexander Gorlin Renovates Stone Farmhouse in Catskill, Upstate NY
A noted architect mixes modernism and Catskill vernacular architecture to update and expand a simple stone farmhouse
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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 original stone house is now a large living room, comfortably furnished with twin mid-century modern dining tables matched with English Victorian chairs, and sofas by Baker. Fanciful touches include the vintage gramophone and cow-shaped weather vane
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.”