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No Stone Unturned

Upstate NY, USA

Inspired by the historic boundary walls that criss-crossed its land, this Catskills home by Elizabeth Roberts Architects is naturally anchored to its surroundings

When you first see the exterior of this hilltop home in The Catskills, designed by Elizabeth Roberts Architects (ERA), you might think you were approaching a single-storey dwelling. In fact, it has been designed to deftly conceal its true scale (580 sqm over two storeys, with three bedrooms and three bathrooms), retaining a certain modesty that befits its rural lakeside setting. Upstairs there are panoramas of the lake and the wider landscape; while downstairs, mountain views unfold.

“The architecture is meant to build on traditional local forms and the classic mountain house with a gabled roof and chimney/stone wall. We wanted to expand on this in a contemporary, minimalist fashion,” says Roberts.

It was the site’s historic stone walls (once used to contain sheep) that provided a compelling starting point, according to Roberts. “When we begin evaluating a site, we always consider views, grade and anything else that can anchor our client’s desired structure to its surroundings,” she says. “In this case, the freestanding century-old walls, borne out of the natural terracing of the land, answered all of our questions.

“They inspired not just our palette of materials, but the schematic design and orientation of the home. We cannot overstate what a huge impact these walls had in shaping every aspect of the project, both figuratively and literally.”

The architecture is meant to build on traditional local forms and the classic mountain house with a gabled roof and chimney/stone wall. We wanted to expand on this in a contemporary, minimalist fashion

Inside, the same local bluestone has been used to create several of the walls, which rise up, rough and rocky, creating a highly textural backdrop that marries the external landscape with the interiors. Stonemasons worked for more than a year to complete this aspect of the project, and this handcrafted feel continues with the timber cladding, which acts as a smooth, warm counterpoint. “All other materials – white oak, limewash and clay plaster, glass, exposed concrete,and travertine – were meant to serve as an accent or, in some cases, counterpoint while maintaining the stone’s spite-specific and naturalistic qualities,” says Roberts.

This is ERA’s client’s second home, but it is no mere come-and-go holiday house, and needed to feel like a forever home, suitable for long-term stays. The living space is generous, with slouchy design-classic Togo seating from Ligne Roset (sourced from Design Within Reach), while the long timber Gather dining table is surrounded by comfortable fully upholstered Arch chairs (all also from Design Within Reach). The architects have also responded to the client’s request for a room that was “deafeningly quiet” where he could play music, or work peacefully without getting distracted by noise from elsewhere.

ERA took the lead on the interior design as well as the architecture. “Our aim was to curate a selection that – through the texture/weight of each piece, as well as its colour palette – evoked softness and warmth and in many cases balanced out the home’s heavier, more masculine attributes,” says Roberts. The house’s Vipp kitchen is a nice example of this balance: it’s made from black steel, yet the island is lifted up on legs, creating a certain airiness.

Vintage Moroccan rugs (from Carini in New York City) bring that same element of haphazard handcraftedness that the stone walls contribute to the architecture; the oxblood rug in the main living space delivers one of the house’s only hits of bright colour, with the rest of the palette chosen to calmly reflect the natural world outside.

A bathroom generously clad in monochrome travertine – a luxurious material whose opulence is toned down by its minimal detailing – seems to replicate the layered landscape beyond of land, trees and sky. Throughout the house, where the glazing is not full-height, the window sills all sit low, opening up those views still further.

From relatively humble first impressions, then, this house is in fact majestic, in its own way, with its soaring heights, simple yet beautifully crafted materials and generous glazing. “Discreet” isn’t quite the word, but maybe “powerfully subdued” nails it.