Does Our 1890 Woodstock Cottage Contradict My Thesis?

To be near our daughter and son-in-law, and because we were charmed by the town of Woodstock, New York, we found a cottage first built in 1890 in almost an acre of forest with a creek on either side and a seasonal pond. It’s walking distance into town, like Walden with some delightful neighbors.

When Iris Litt purchased this house in 1970, it was pre-christened “Mountainside.” Iris was a copywriter and a poet, a young widow of just-grown boys, and she lived at Mountainside off and on for 52 years. Here’s the way she described her acquisition:

Five years ago on a flawless Fourth of July

I sauntered forth on Woodstock’s Main Street

to buy a T-shirt. (I consider Woodstock the

Groovy T-shirt Capital of the World.)  I came

upon a photo in a real estate broker’s window

of a forlorn little cabin on a heavily-wooded

acre for $8,500 with little cash required.

Telling myself I had no intention of buying

a house, I went to see it.

Mountainside (the crooked sign over the sagging

porch told me that was the house’s name)

obviously needed someone like me to love it.

As I stood in the sun in the clearing surrounded 

by towering trees, lines from William Butler

Yeats—bastardized to fit the times and my life-

style—flowed through my head:

I will arise and go now and go to Mountainside

This is the photo she included with her list of 1,050 items necessary for a retreat home in the Catskills, headed by “Sensualities: grass, rolling papers, pipe…[booze], orthogynol, Do Not Disturb sign.” She wondered how Yeats did it:

“William Butler Yeats simply said, ‘I will arise and go now and go to Inisfree,’ and with that he arose and went.

What did William pack?”

So, the seeming contradictions:

There’s the hackneyed, and not entirely accurate, title that came with the house, which is mildly at odds with my campaign for authenticity. Iris lovingly joked that Mountainside was Appalachia-in-the-Catskills, but why do we retain its inauthentic “Appalachian” appellation?

For one thing, mountain people do live close to the land. Read Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead for a tribute to living off the land in Appalachia.

It’s important to me to honor Iris and whoever preceded her, even if it’s not exactly on the side of a mountain. The day before the close of escrow, we saw the crooked sign over the porch, but when we returned, keys in hand, the sign had vanished. In relating this story to the neighbors, asking them if they knew who would have absconded with the sign, we learned that the real estate agent had given it to a neighbor as a memento in case we would rip it down and toss it.

The house makes no architectural statement, but we like folding ourselves into the old neighborhood, a dog-walking, pedestrian lane of interesting and creative people. We never knew we would appreciate community as much as we do–and proximity (walking distance) to culture (music, art, Golden Notebook booksellers) and the hardware store.

The precious, gingerbread exterior will stay for much the same reason. While the houses on the lane into town are not identical, they all share a vernacular continuity. Even the red color–Iris painted it red with white trim at some point to blend in with the historical Woodstock cottages and to stand out against the winter snow.

Our homage to history won’t prevent us from remodeling inside; Mountainside has undergone at least five additions. In 1890, when Edith Wharton might have ridden by in a one-horse sleigh, Mountainside was two rooms, heated by a woodstove, which was also where any cooking took place. Byrdcliffe Artist’s Colony, founded in 1902 up the side of the mountain by Jane Byrd McCall and Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead with colleagues, Bolton Brown (artist) and Hervey White (writer). Our backyard borders Lower Byrdcliffe Road, and the Byrdcliffe Theatre and studios are a short walk up the hill.

A kitchen, bathroom, and front door were attached to the outside wall before Iris’s arrival, and she added the studio, attached to the house by a glass causeway (pictured below), then a spacious bedroom with windows on three sides, then a carport and storage shed, and finally a barn, which Greg is converting to a shop.

The kitchen is pocket-sized, the entry small, and we’re tall people who crave space and connection, so Greg immediately set to opening the wall between the kitchen and original front room. Beneath the sheetrock, he encountered the original exterior shiplap! Many neighbors share similar stories; one said they found a shingled roof between their first and second stories.

Greg’s handy work (above): open pass-through complete.

I’ve advocated built-in furniture and/or furniture designed for the home by, or in concert with, the architect. At Mountainside, we came to a completely empty cottage and no architect that we know of. But the Hudson area has a tradition of estate sales, many of which “estates” are contemporaries with one or another of the Mountainside remodel episodes. And many pieces appear to be hand-hewn of native pine or other indigenous woods, or, like the slate I combed from the creekbed, right at hand.

Or Greg just made a piece to match (see the mirror self below; he also made a headboard and countertop for the pass-through). Notice the window refelcted in the mirror and shown close-up on the right. That’s from the 1890 exterior.

Some elements we would choose to maximize the connection to the natural worldI just needed to be revealed. Underneath years of grime we discovered glowing wood floors. The forest, creeks, and wildlife (deer, black bears, foxes) as well as northern and southern light are framed by the generous windows, especially once I washed them and opened the curtains.

Mountainside is not a house for concerts and grand scale entertaining, but we had a cocktail party for about 20 neighbors and new friends, who drifted easily between the kitchen, front room and sitting room, and their conversation and lively laughter made us feel at home.

So, no, I don’t think our Woodstock project contradicts my thesis in At Home: A Client’s Appreciation for Authentic Architecture, except that we are simply owners, not clients. Mountainside reflects another side of ourselves, the side connected to our new town, family, and each other. We feel welcome and creative in this town and this space.

There is a timelessness to both the Lapp RiverHouse, in its uniqueness, its integration into the landscape; and to Mountainside, as it has blossomed with additions, like snow flowers on the forest floor.

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