Hudson River School
Building her own weekend house, architect Kathryn McGraw Berry learned a lesson from the surroundings
Suzanne Slesin -- Interior Design, 7/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
When visitors gape in envy at the view, Kathryn McGraw Berry just smiles. Since the very first time that the New York architect and her lawyer husband, Charles, made their way through the tick-ridden thicket of a 50-acre lot near the upstate village of Tivoli, she knew that the property had hidden potential. "Friends who owned the land weren't planning on building there," Berry explains, "and no one else wanted it, because they couldn't see it was really on the river."
The river in question is the Hudson, wide, majestic, legendary. And demanding. Any new house overlooking the water—on one of the last remaining building sites in the 40 miles between Poughkeepsie and the town of Hudson—would have to stand up to some stiff competition, of both natural and man-made varieties. First, as noted, was the view. Second was such venerable architectural company as Olana, Frederic Edwin Church's Moorish fantasy, and Montgomery Place, a Federal treasure built by Alexander Jackson Davis.
The property itself posed historical challenges, too. Because it had once been part of the venerable Livingston family's holdings, Berry originally had a contemporary interpretation of an archetypal Hudson River villa in the back of her mind. "How to design a house on the Hudson when you have all these intimidating, varied, and, eclectic traditions to contend with?" she asked herself. But with an architecture degree from the Cooper Union and course work at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies on her résumé, she was well equipped to draw on a knowledge of architectural history and a personal predilection for modernism. "I decided on modernism but in a vocabulary that would be substantial and allow the house to blend into the landscape. Personally, I couldn't do anything too crazy—I'm really a traditionalist," says Berry.
Siting and materials were, needless to say, paramount. "The house had to complement but not impose itself on the landscape," says the architect. Nevertheless, the dramatically horizontal 3,700-square-foot structure draws on a precedent more often associated with the plains of the Midwest than the bluffs of the Hudson: the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. "With his juxtaposition of natural materials and the feeling of early modernism, Wright presented the vocabulary that felt right with the site," she explains. (Berry also attributes the horizontal thrust of the design to the influence of the New York loft where she lived for many years. The house and the loft happen to have the same square footage, too.)
Natural materials appear throughout, starting with the facade's Delaware River bluestone and treated cedar siding. "My idea was for the house to be pretty simple, not vernacular or pretentious," she says. One of the few flights of fancy—if one could even call it that—is an exterior fireplace that can be enjoyed in three out of four seasons, as she and her husband spend weekends there year-round, with visits from twin sons in boarding school nearby. Not only a fashionable touch, the fireplace is in keeping with the sophisticated rendition of a rugged, outdoor aesthetic.
The interior offers the same intriguing combination of modernism tempered by a strong dose of the traditional. A spacious foyer makes the house feel larger than it really is and acts as a formal introduction to the glass-enclosed main space. Benefiting from windows on four exposures, the two-story combination living-dining room faces tall trees to the north and offers wide views of the Hudson and the Catskills to the south and west. "You can see the sun rising and the moon setting on three sides," says Berry. She designed the sofa by the fireplace and had reproductions of Jean-Michel Frank chairs stained walnut to match the contemporary dining table by Chris Lehrecke. These sleek pieces are set off by an antique sideboard that once belonged to her grandmother. "It's all the things I love," says Berry, who, unsurprisingly, also loves to invite family and guests up to relax. "There's no point in having a house only to find yourself staring out the window all alone." No doubt that's a very rare occurrence.