Just a little north of Manhattan, Manitoga beckons those looking for art off of Museum Mile and a refreshing walk in the woods outside the park. The final home—and landscape—of industrial design legend Russel Wright, Manitoga is an eco-architectural marvel and a living memorial to the modern design mastermind.
Though Russel Wright may no longer be the household name he was in the 1940s and 50s, a look at Wright’s Modern “designs for living,” most famously his ceramic dinnerware, will likely evoke a sense of “Haven’t I seen that?” Wright was, as they say, ahead of his time; the first designer to sell lifestyle-marketed products, paving the way for the Martha Stewarts of today. He pioneered the Ikea idea that beautiful design should be accessible, practical and for everyone. For Wright, life centered on the dinner table, and his designs emanated from there into other living spaces and landscape.
Wright was both fascinated by manmade materials, like the easy-to-use and hard-to-break melamine resin plastic, and reverent of nature. Dragon Rock and Manitoga, Wright’s Hudson Valley home and the carefully carved woodlands around it, are perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this duality: a manmade structure incorporating natural and synthetic elements, designed to blend into its “ecologically designed” landscape.
Wright called his “bungalow” home and pergola-connected studio Dragon Rock, named so for the nearby boulder his daughter Ann thought resembled a dragon. With grey wooden frames, green roofs and floor-to-ceiling windows, the structures sink into their surroundings, while the surroundings literally become part of Dragon Rock. Pine needles are embedded in the ceiling; stones from the adjacent quarry become doorknobs; a cedar tree trunk acts as the home’s principle column and anchor to a winding staircase; a boulder glides through the window to become a “sitting cave” of granite; butterflies and fern are captured between fiberglass in translucent panels; the colors of cabinetry and curtains alternate with the season.
Throughout Dragon Rock, Wright—who coauthored “Guide to Easier Living” with his wife—ensured his designs were livable and, in New York style, space efficient. The house’s two-way drawers and cabinets facilitated entertainment and cleaning; an adjustable lamp moved overhead in all directions. Wright was equally New York in his cunning sense of drama. He brought in his theater set designer past by creating a continual sense of surprise for his visitors. Summer vines covered the pergola to block the waterfall and quarry from immediate view.
Manitoga’s four miles of woodland trails maintain this sense of drama. Wright thought out every bit of landscape, carefully revealing the quarry through disparate gaps in the woodlands along the Quarry Pond Path. Wright intended this to be a sort of “best of” nature walk for busy urbanites, composing mountain laurel, mossy areas, ferns and clearings into a fifteen minute circle. While Wright created an ideal landscape out of what was once just a plot of forest and an abandoned quarry (he moved boulders to divert the stream, creating Manitoga’s pleasant-sounding waterfall and lake below), he made great efforts to follow the environment’s patterns, designing his paths around natural counters and animal tracks.
The Quarry Pond Path, Manitoga’s shortest, and most picturesque, path is accessible to only those on a Manitgoa/Dragon Rock tour. The rest are open to the public. For those looking to do a longer walk in the woods, one of the paths hooks up to the Appalachian Trail.
Tours of the house, studio and landscape run from May through October, Friday-Sunday. Times are limited, so check the schedule and buy your tickets ($15/adults, $13/seniors, $8/kids) in advance.
Aside from a water bubbler in the main office, you won’t find any sustenance at the Russel Wright Design Center. Pack snacks or walk (about fifteen minutes) to the Garrison Market, home to “Hudson Valley’s best pies” for local produce and of course, pie. Garrison Market also hosts seasonal farm to table dinners Fridays and Saturdays.
How to get there: Directions are on Russel Wright Design Center site: Take Metro-North railroad Hudson Line to Garrison Station (visit the MTA for schedules). Taxi service from RR station to Manitoga by prior reservation, call 845.265.8294.
Photos: Courtesy of the author