A Tale of Two Houses
Treasures from Bali blend into a traditional setting at Tamara and Michael Lang’s
by Mary Forsell • Photographs by Thomas Moore
It’s a bit of a conundrum when you pull up the winding driveway at the Ulster County farm-ette of Michael and Tamara Lang. Two stone houses sit adjacent to one another; where to knock?
Mystery solved when Tamara appears on the upper landing of the smaller house, looking rather Shakespearean from on high with her corkscrew curls. Accompanied by her preschooler Harry — who is spending a rare day apart from twin brother Laszlo — she extends an offer of tea and a comfortable couch in the living room of the other, larger house. Now you’re beginning to get really confused. > > >
“Let me tell you how this place evolved,” she says, settling in with her tea while her son takes sips in between playing the harmonica, happy to be sitting with the grownups. Just as she’s getting started, husband Michael arrives home from the gym. He is surprisingly soft-spoken for a man who, as a precocious promoter in his early twenties, boldly masterminded the 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Festival (yes, that Woodstock), and later staged revivals of the event in 1994 and 1999.
Between the two of them, the story of the 1920s-era residential compound unfolds. It’s a tale of two offbeat brothers from New York City who wanted a place in the country. “One was a doctor. I don’t know what the other one did,” says Tamara. “But I do know they were musicians, too. They had a pipe organ in this room that was donated to a church in Kingston, along with all their original, handwritten composed music — now gone,” she says with regret.
Aside from building houses side by side, the brothers erected a greenhouse (still intact) that supplied orchids to local churches. They also constructed a gazebo on a bluff that you pass as you approach the houses. Local historians say it was the site of many a neighborhood concert.
The brothers built their homes of more or less the same size. In the 1960s, a new owner added a long wing to one of the houses. “It gave it a California look,” says Michael, who acquired the property (which he’d been eyeing for years) in 1979, the same day it came on the market. The cantilevered addition, he explains, sat on thin columns, so he added stonework to ground it and tie it visually to the other house.
The Langs used the main, larger house as their primary residence, but after the twins came along in 2001, things changed. With many rooms (and nine bathrooms), the house proved too rambling for a pair of rambunctious toddlers. “There is just no way to put up gates,” explains Tamara. So the family moved to the second, smaller house — for now. “We’re having work done in this house since it’s the ideal time, when we’re not living here,” says Tamara, who met Michael when she worked as an administrator in his New York City offices during preparation for the Woodstock ‘94 festival.
Still, the Langs concur, the real challenge of making the property livable lay outside. The mostly wooded 100-acre spread, bordered by two pristine streams, was a lot to tackle.
“We wanted to bring the whole property together,” explains Michael. “Originally, there were hedges around each building, making it very formal, very English, so it cut off the buildings from their surroundings.” An asphalt driveway that separated the houses has been replaced by a stone courtyard.
“We had certain goals,” adds Tamara. “We needed to keep a dog in; we also wanted to do something creative. We had to create a way of unifying the houses to the barn, and to create privacy.”
Olivebridge-based garden designer Virginia Luppino, who also works in conjunction with the Phantom Gardener in Rhinebeck, provided the solutions to make the property flow.
“I’ve gardened at many beautiful places over the years,” says Luppino, “but there is a unique beauty to Michael and Tamara’s.” By removing the formal hedges around the houses and replacing the driveway with the courtyard, Luppino gave the property a much more natural feel. “I initiated drastic changes in the landscape. I felt vistas needed to be opened up from the house. I bravely moved trees.”
There’s a romance to her vision. In spring, hellebores and fritillaria bloom. The shrub border along the original entrance driveway contains a mix of amelanchiers, redbuds, and viburnums, the ground beneath carpeted by forget-me-nots. A striking line of espaliered fruit trees defines the long lawn, punctuated by a pond that Michael put in 15 years ago. On a small island in its center, a brushed metal sculpture, created by Michael, provides a focal point. In the distance, sheep and donkeys graze, while hens and chicks peck about.
“When I come out here, I feel like I’m in a blend of Bali and Ireland,” says Tamara.
“Ireland is one of the places we traveled to together. Ever since that trip, I’ve really felt like I lived there. I never left.”
The emerald lawn does conjure the look of the Irish countryside, but there’s an Asian rice paddy aesthetic here, too. After a trip to Bali in 1999, the Langs decided to fill a shipping container with Indonesian finds to bring back to Ulster County. Among their treasures: a massive, sandstone carved-and-cast “table” (it has the undeniable look of a sacrificial altar) decorated with images of monkeys and goats. The animals reflect Michael and Tamara’s Chinese zodiac signs, respectively. “That’s me and Michael etched in stone,” says Tamara dryly. Created from an antique slab, the monumental piece sits wrapped in a cocoon of tarps all winter long (since harsh temperature changes are unknown in Bali, and the native sandstone doesn’t take to freezing and thawing).
Another Balinese treasure is a wooden pavilion from the Ubud area. “Each area does its own special thing,” says Michael. “And Ubud is known for its wood carving. The assembly instructions it came with were photos of them building it.” An architect friend on the island, Amir Rabik, oversaw its creation. The pavilion features a cool pop-up table, but when that’s flat, it’s a cushy place to escape the sun’s rays while lying on top of a few queen-size mattresses. Come nightfall, lights strung around the pavilion cast a festive glow.
Perhaps you’d prefer to lounge under a sumptuously printed Moroccan Berber tent, a much-used poolside sanctuary. Michael had a yen for his own tent since he traveled in northwest Africa years ago. Eventually, he found an importer in New York City. “A lot of stuff comes through traveling,” Michael observes — though he also admits to a weakness for domestic collectibles, from a piece of a vintage amusement park ride to several old horse-drawn carts.
The pool, of course, is at the heart of their summer entertaining — whether the two large gatherings they host each year (nothing on the order of Woodstock, mind you!) or the more intimate get-togethers with friends from the city. Tamara’s family sometimes travels from the Washington, D.C., area to visit. (She grew up in Takoma Park, Maryland, before coming north to attend New York University, where she majored in journalism.)
To further dress up the spot, the Langs replaced an old chain-link fence that once surrounded the ’50s-era pool with rebar rods usually used to reinforce concrete. “It rusts quickly and looks like it’s been there forever,” says Michael. Ornamental grasses, including varieties of Miscanthus and blue arctic willow shrub, soften the effect of the steel rods.
Wired for sound, the pool area has an eclectic playlist. “It goes from classical to jazz,” says Michael. Tamara also indulges her taste for avant-garde Arabic tunes and oud masters. “I’m passionate about music,” she says. “It’s a big part of a writing project I’m working on right now for children, a comic book and screenplay. It’s been years in the development.”
Tamara’s taste for multiculturalism has also influenced Michael’s work. One of his latest concert projects, AmsterJam, featured a cross-section of musical genres, from gypsy to Baltic brass.
He is also making forays into film. A member of the advisory board of the Woodstock Film Festival, he is credited as associate producer of Bottle Rocket, the debut film of director Wes Anderson. He is also developing a film version of Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire of Soviet life, The Master and Margarita. Though written earlier in the 20th century, the book had a cult following in the 1960s and is said to have provided fodder for the Rolling Stones’ anthem “Sympathy for the Devil.”
In Michael Lang’s case, it inspired the moniker for the couple’s hulking black cat, Behemoth, named for a character in the book. But more significantly, it takes him back to his youth, an era when anything seemed possible.