An architectural tour is not the kind of cultural experience I would normally seek out. But a visit to Manitoga, the Garrison estate of the late designer Russel Wright, feels more like an outdoor art installation than a house tour. Just 10 minutes from Cold Spring, it’s the highlight of any day trip to this adorable river town.
Set on 75 acres above the Hudson River, a tour requires a walk through the woods as you travel relay-style to guides stationed throughout the property. Each one shares a different aspect of Wright’s life and his manipulation of the natural world in everything he built. It’s a fascinating story to get lost in, and as it unfolded, I was able to let go of the present for a moment, and connect instead with the beauty of Wright’s vision and the artists invited to exhibit around his woodland garden.
The public is always welcome to hike through the trails that Wright meticulously designed. (A $5 donation is suggested.) He purposely built each one to lead to the best vistas, including prime points to watch the sunset. Manitoga means place of great spirit in Algonquin, and the Algonquin term Osio, or beautiful view, is used throughout the network of trails.
But the real transporting experience happens during a tour, which you need to reserve and pay for in advance. Wright may not be one of the best-known American designers, but after a quick introduction to his work, you’ll recognize it each time you sit down to dinner. At the start of the 20th century, a proper dinner party called for 87 pieces of china, but Wright simplified things in 1939 with his American Modern line, which would become the most widely sold ceramic dinnerware in the country, and an influence for every colorful and modern place setting since (his palette still feels spot-on, with its dash of millennial pink). Not long after, he set his mind on building an estate along the Hudson River, a project that would take over 20 years in part because he picked a former rock quarry for the site.
The home and studio itself, which Wright called Dragon Rock, is both dramatic and zen. Influenced by Japanese architecture, and fixated on the idea of augmenting the natural world with man-made features, he found a myriad ways to bring the outside in, such as sprinkling pine needles into the plaster walls, using the bedrock as the living room floor, or an exposed tree trunk as the home’s main support.
Dragon Rock hosted many artists and performers when Wright was alive and today the foundation that now manages the home, the Russell Wright Design Center, carries on this tradition. This summer, they invited the British composer Pete M. Wyer to create an audio installation on the grounds called iForest. To experience it, you take a slight detour up and around a trail dotted with speakers that play Wyer’s choral arrangements, which emanate like ambient voices through the trees. I didn’t realize how starved I was for an art experience, but being in the presence of both Wright’s vision and Wyer’s immersive symphony made me grateful, and a little teary, to experience a moment of transcendence. Our lives have been lopped in half by social distancing and masks, and for a brief moment, this outdoor concert reminded me of the richness of life in full, surround sound.