A House Grows in Gallatin: Susan Orlean and John Gillespie
On Sunday the writer Susan Orlean (“The Orchid Thief” and a biography of Rin-Tin-Tin that is in the works), will be among the featured authors at the weekend-long Berkshire WordFest, at The Mount in Lenox. Orlean and her husband John Gillespie recently gave Rural Intelligence a tour of their amazing property. Photographs by David Winton.
It could have been a cake or a casserole, but as luck would have it, the cover of Sunset Magazine that month “in 2002 or 2003,” as best John Gillespie can recall, featured a house by the Bainbridge Island, Washington architecture firm Cutler Anderson. At the time Gillespie and his wife, the New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, were living in Boston, where he was gradually winding up a career in financial services, while she was completing a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard. A year or two before, they had purchased fifty-five spectacular acres in southern Columbia County and by the time Gillespie spotted the Sunset cover in the Salt Lake City airport, they were actively seeking the right someone to design a weekend house for them.
That someone turned out to be the architect James Cutler, who is famous for designing exciting yet minimally-intrusive houses in spectacular settings, such as the one he did for Bill and Melinda Gates in Medina, WA.
Cutler describes the land in Gallatin as “a collage of rolling hills, forests, pastures.” But what particularly struck the Pennsylvania born-and-bred architect when he finally saw the quintessentially New England site were the old stone walls that not only mark the boundaries of present pastures and planting fields, but also snake through woodlands—a pentimento of former farmland, long since reforested. These inspired the gesture Cutler used to root the house firmly to its place: Stone walls begin at the road and follow the contours of the drive through the woods, gaining height and authority as they approach the house, where a narrow stone-walled passage leads from the car park to the front door. A first-time visitor might wonder, how small is this place? Is it buried in the woods? Stone continues into the small, subdued entry. Only in the adjacent space, a burst of height and light that contains the kitchen-dining-living room, does the stonework and the cool, woodsy feeling it imparts give way to expansiveness, indoors and out. A high, warm, wood ceiling angles even higher to meet a wall of glass overlooking massive sky and an idyllic fifty-mile view.
Built by Prutting & Company of New Canaan with stonework by Mark Mendel of Monterey Masonry in Sheffield (who recessed the mortar so deeply, the results appear to be dry wall), the house is at once magnificent and cozy, with public and private wings separated by a courtyard that serves as an outdoor living room.
It’s the sort of place that would be difficult to tear oneself away from at the end of a weekend. “Every Sunday, I found myself hating to leave; wishing we could spend more time,” says Orlean. Fueling that feeling, in part, were changes in what architects call “the program.” When the house was designed, it was to be a getaway for two adults with offices elsewhere. But, when he sold his company in 2006, John, who while at Harvard had been an editor on the Lampoon, began writing again. After co-authoring with his wife a script for a romantic comedy (as yet unproduced), he went on to write a well-received business book Money for Nothing with his friend David Zweig. But even given all that, Gillespie’s career switch was the least of it. “By the time construction was underway,” says Susan, “I was pregnant.” Before their son Austin turned three, the couple had given up fighting those Sunday afternoon blues and moved to Gallatin full time.
Built-ins beneath the windows—book-and-wine storage and cushioned window seats with backrests—extend the length of the dining-living room. The beech cabinet at left divides the kitchen and dining area.
These days Susan, John, five-year-old Austin, who goes to Indian Mountain School in Lakeville, Austin’s Columbian au pair, a Welsh springer spaniel, two cats (plus a stray who hangs around outside), seven chickens, and a small herd of young black angus cattle share the property. This population explosion has occasioned a building boom, including a couple of additions to the former weekend house—a tv room now bumps out on the non-view side, a carport has been converted into a mudroom, complete with dog shower. There have been developments outdoors, as well. John and Susan now each has an office (John’s, above) in a separate structure away from the house. Near the pond, there’s a “folly,” an outdoor room with a built-in fire pit where they grill or, as they did last winter for Austin’s birthday skating party, have a bonfire. The chickens are housed in a structure of their own, and there’s now talk of a guesthouse. In the meantime, Cutler Anderson is working out the details of a tree house in the woods.
A gargoyle, the head of a dragon, spews rainwater clear of the house.
For more on the Orlean-Gillespie house, see Elaine Louie’s 2006 piece in The New York Times