An Ulster County Retreat Welcomes the Whole Family
A Hudson Valley couple creates the ideal multi-generational country home.
View points: The owners enjoy different views of the river from each of the house’s four levels. Because the lower level, built into the bank, is not visible from the approach, the spacious, T-shaped dwelling looks more modest than it is. Low maintenance cedar siding helps it blend well into its setting
Photographs by Michael Polito
In what might be a real-estate-sale record, Patricia Carlin decided to buy her country house in Marbletown about a minute after she arrived there with her agent. “We went down the driveway, the evergreens were all covered in snow like a scene in The Nutcracker, and then the view hit us,” Carlin recalls. “Roy [her husband] and I wanted something on the creek, in the woods where you couldn’t see anybody, and it was perfect. It didn’t matter what the house looked like. I’d have bought a tent.”
As it was, the house, overlooking a curve in the Rondout Creek, had some charm of its own. “The man who built it was a writer, and there was nothing ugly in it,” Carlin recalls. It was a simple building, with a good-sized living room, a bedroom and a bathroom, and a large room downstairs, set into the riverbank. The writer had also built himself a small, separate studio, just right for Carlin, who is a poet and a professor at the New School in Manhattan.
It was 1988, at the height of the Hudson Valley real-estate frenzy. Patricia and Roy, a lawyer, had looked at several properties in Ulster County, only to have other buyers snap them up. Those lost deals involved more substantial houses, but none matched the lovely setting that captivated Patricia. “I couldn’t reach Roy — he was out west, skiing until the crack of midnight,” she recalls. “But I knew he would love it.” She insisted that the agent contact the owner in North Carolina to settle the deal. “I said, ‘I won’t leave until I get this house.’ ” She bid full price, and before the day was over, signed a binder and put down a deposit. “I’ve never been so excited,” she says.
Mission accomplished: Patricia chose Stickley Arts and Crafts-style furniture for the main room’s sitting area because its scale suited the large space. “The chairs are like sculpture,” she says. The hearth is raised so that anyone working in the open kitchen at the other end of the room has a view of the fire. Lights in the vaulted ceiling provide task and ambient light to avoid the clutter of lamps. Oak floors, pine trim and cherry cabinetry add to the country mood
“The cabin had everything I wanted,” Patricia recalls. “I really liked it.” The one drawback was that it wasn’t big enough for other people to visit comfortably. “We always planned to add on,” she continues. “But we didn’t want to do that until we knew if the kids would come.” When the Carlins bought the place, their son John was in high school, and their daughter Jennifer was at Vassar. Over the next decade or so, Jennifer visited often, John came with friends, and both got married. In 2002, with the prospect of grandchildren in the air, the Carlins knew the time had come to create more space.
They engaged Cliff Appeldorn, an engineer and architectural designer, to help come up with plans; and Gary Schulte, a builder and contractor, to execute them. Roy wanted to build a new house from scratch. Patricia resisted, but the first plans for an addition were soon scrapped. “Gary told us it would never be right if we added on, and it wouldn’t be cheaper, either. He talked us into tearing the old cabin down,” Patricia says. After Roy discovered a crack in the foundation, the decision was easily made. Still, Patricia was bothered about demolishing a place she was so fond of, so the couple donated it to Epworth, a retreat center on the opposite bank of the Rondout. “They dismantled it and used all the parts, so it didn’t wind up in the dump. It’s nice to know it had a reincarnation,” she says.
Nature study: Blue herons and bald eagles are among the many birds the Carlins enjoy watching from their kitchen deck. Although the house was designed with children, grandchildren, and guests in mind, “we can be here alone and feel good, too,” says Patricia
The Carlins wanted their new house — like the cabin — situated toward the river, with plenty of windows and sight lines in all four directions to blur the distinction between indoors and out. They wanted it to blend in with its woodland setting, with a screened porch and doors in every room leading to a deck or patio. They wanted a living/dining room with an open kitchen so that communal activities would take place in one large space. (“Quite the trend now,” notes Patricia.) And they particularly wanted to be able to accommodate their son and daughter, along with their spouses, and offer privacy for everyone. Patricia even planned for then-nonexistent grandchildren. “I knew that grandchildren would have different needs at different ages, so the rooms had to be flexible,” she explains. A big downstairs room, similar to the one in the cabin, could serve as a playroom, or for sleepovers. “Then when the kids were teens,” she goes on, “they would want to take over downstairs, so we gave them their own entrance and bath.”
Once accommodations for the family were established, the plans grew more idiosyncratic. “I wanted a separate sitting and insomnia room, for when I get up in the middle of the night,” says Patricia. Roy was determined to have a tower with a widow’s walk. “An act of madness,” he admits. “My thought was if we went high enough, I could see both the Catskills and the Shawangunks. The trouble is, it needed to be 100 feet higher.” Still, the view’s pretty good. “And in the proper light, you can see to the bottom of the creek, about 20 feet deep,” he adds. Another mad idea was the fireman’s pole Roy pictured himself using to descend from the tower. “Gary drew the line at the fireman’s pole,” Patricia notes wryly. “He was very firm on that point.”
Appeldorn, she reports, “was truly collaborative with me and Roy. I can’t recommend him highly enough. He was so patient.” “There must have been 50 plans,” Roy adds. It took about a year to build the house, which was completed in 2004. The result is a four-level dwelling (counting the tower) that’s more than three times the size of the cabin, although thanks to its T-shaped design and thoughtful siting it looks quite modest from the approach.
Personal space: A rustic stairway leads from the main house down to Patricia’s writing studio, where she can hear the sound of the river. Spiral stairs, made in Maine, go up to Roy’s tower
The living-dining room occupies roughly the footprint of the cabin (“like a ghost,” Patricia notes). An expanse of windows overlooking the river gives it an outdoorsy feel. A wing holds the library/TV room with a futon for guests, who have a bathroom across the hall. Further down the hall, there’s the master bedroom and bath, and Patricia’s insomnia-sitting room. Upstairs, on the way to Roy’s tower, is a guest room with its own bath and deck. “We thought we might sleep there sometimes for a different view of the river, but we haven’t done it yet,” says Patricia. In the spacious downstairs room, there are bunk beds and a convertible sofa, along with yet another bathroom.
Schulte helped the Carlins choose everything for the interior from flooring to the doorknobs, or — when it came to kitchen design and lighting — steered them to the right professional. “Gary has a great aesthetic sense, and he’s a perfectionist who takes true pride in what he’s doing,” Patricia says. “The house is a gem structurally, but he did so much more than a builder will usually do. I loved working with Gary.”
Un-cabinlike conveniences include radiant heat, central air, and a central vacuum system. Roy had an elaborate sound system installed that allows different music in each room, as well as in the outdoor areas. “That was one of our few disagreements,” Patricia remarks. “I thought it would interfere with the sound of the birds and the river, but it’s actually nice to be able to listen to the radio outside.”
The Carlin’s long-range plans have fallen into place. Their first grandchild arrived before the house was finished, and recently they hosted their granddaughter’s 11th birthday party. She and her seven girlfriends slept downstairs, her brother slept in the library, and Jennifer and her husband were in the guest room. “Everyone was comfortable and private,” Patricia says. So comfortable, in fact, that one little guest in the downstairs “suite” was heard remarking, “This could be our country house,” Patricia reports. “Perfect!”