Manitoga’s paths put you in touch with nature

Russel Wright at his design studio in New York City about 1940, two years before he bought Manitoga. (Reproduced with permission of Carol Franklin)

Russel Wright at his design studio in New York City about 1940, two years before he bought Manitoga. (Reproduced with permission of Carol Franklin)

Russel Wright, America’s first renowned industrial designer, affirmed in all his work, whether designing dinnerware, furniture, or landscapes, that “My desire is to add to American culture an intimacy with nature.” At Manitoga, Wright’s hillside second home in the Hudson Highlands, he created a notable landscape from monotonous second-growth woods, a fully fledged invitation to explore the outdoor world, a place he called the Garden of Woodland Paths.

The paths there oblige walkers not only to see the trees for the forest but to touch the tough textures of their bark as well. Fallen trees have been notched to step through or left across paths to climb over, crawl under, or walk beside. Springy log bridges, stepping stones across streams, and corduroy roads imprint their natural origins through the soles of visitors’ feet.

Wright was intent on attracting more than just woodland walks—he wanted his family and guests to engage the outdoors directly and in multiple ways. “At the next bend in the path,” he wrote, “I have widened [the path] to encourage the natural carpet of white violets that grow here, and to reveal a small waterfall, a large area of flat rock, and a small clear, clean pool just large enough for one person to bathe in. This opening is an ideal setting for a picnic. Overhead I have cut a large grapevine so that you can grab it and swing out over the brook.”

Wright’s narrow paths regularly require walkers to brush up against ferns, shrubs, tree trunks, and boulders.

Wright’s narrow paths regularly require walkers to brush up against ferns, shrubs, tree trunks, and boulders.

The invitations start as soon as you leave the parking court encircled by trees and fern-draped cliffs walking toward the low-slung house and studio. Near the house entry, a cluster of boulders lifts a planting of perennials and groundcovers to eye level.

From the house, Wright fashioned an introductory trail intended to invite his weekend guests outdoors and allow them to experience in 15 minutes much of what they would experience on the longer trails across the entire 30 hectares/75 acres. The trail circles the quarry below the house, which serves as both its trailhead and terminus.

The trail curves around the upper corner of the studio, offering mystery and attraction. Then it splits from another, wider trail heading uphill, an invitation to a later, longer walk. The short trail becomes a log and plank bridge across a stream that Wright diverted there to splash down the quarry wall to the pond below. The water’s sounds follow you up through the trees. You climb through one room after another, openings filled here with moss, there with laurel, each carefully created by Wright to look nature-made, each closed off from the next by trees, shrubs, or boulders just wide enough for a single walker, each natural portal beckoning touch and closer examination.

The trail steps down from its highpoint above the quarry over a jumble of rocks, like a granitic dragon’s tail that prompted the house name, Dragon Rock, which is visible across the quarry from a mossy plateau below the stairs. Colorful flowers cover the slope below the house. The path continues around a knoll that hides the house, down toward the water.

Stepping stones across the top of a dam put you at the pond level next to its fish, underwater plants, and reflections. The rising slope to the house is now close by, covered with butterfly weeds sprinkled with daisies and Queen Anne’s lace.

Steps that appear cut into the quarry wall start to climb. Suddenly, the house heaves into view above, and the stone steps flatten into a terrace that flows under sliding glass doors as the living room floor, inviting you, and nature, back indoors.

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