Russel Wright's Manitoga

Russel Wright's Manitoga

October 8, 2010
Photo by: Manitoga

Russel Wright (1904-1976) was among the first generation of American industrial designers, and he is best known today for the first personality-driven lifestyle products in the US.  His simple, practical style and love of nature, promoted in his tabletop collections, textiles, and furnishings, many of which are sought-after collectibles today, and his bestselling “Guide to Easier Living,” helped Americans embrace Modernism in the 1930s, and 1940s, and 1950s.

In 1942, Russel Wright and his wife Mary purchased 75 acres of second-growth woods -- what he called “a nondescript piece of land”-- along the lower Hudson River. In those days, the river was so polluted that fires spontaneously flared up on the water, and a good share of the Hudson Highlands was laid waste as second-growth forest. Nonetheless, it was here that Wright began his crowning achievement: His modernist house and studio, Dragon Rock, and his ecologically sensitive garden, Manitoga, which evolved along ecological principles. The making of Manitoga and Dragon Rock brought together the many threads of his career. Seen together, everything from the dishes and meals Wright designed, to the house and garden he created, emerge as an expression of total design.

Long before “getting back to nature” became a rallying cry of hipsters of the 1960’s and 70’s, Wright championed the call to “live in harmony with nature,” and working with friends and family (including his cousin, Carol Franklin, now a leader of American landscape architecture), began the herculean effort to resuscitate the land.  His reliance on native plants, the eradication of exotic species, and the restoration of a forest raped by logging and quarrying were decades before their time. Drawing on his early experiences as a sculptor and a set designer, he carefully cleared trees and boulders to expose their sculptural presence and lead meandering paths to open to theatrical vistas.  Gradually cutting away at the woods, exposing boulders, cliffs, ravines, giant trees, and river vistas; adding native shrubs--including  mountain laurel and dogwood-- and  wildflowers; and  encouraging the ferns and mosses already in place, he rewrote the site to make its forms, meanings, and history clear.  During the process, he cut four paths through the woods that coursed over four miles. Being sure to give each path a theme —the morning path leads toward the east as the sun breaks through the trees, the spring time path shows off drifts of wildflowers—he set each with stone. Natural and of-the-place, the stone paths also conjure up the gardens of Japan, which Wright visited on several occasions, just like Wright’s low-hung house and studio reflect the earth-bound architecture of Southeast Asia.

In its call to return to nature, Manitoga revisits the American pastoral tradition. Built into the woodland, it calls to mind the transcendental ruminations of Emerson and Thoreau, just as it evokes the picturesque views of the Hudson that echo the paintings of the Hudson River School which originated here along the river in the mid- 1800s. In its own way, Manitoga also offers an alternative view of modernism. Rather than a minimalist treasure, it upholds a reverence for the abundance of nature that leads back to the roots of America’s romance with the garden.

Originally entrusted by Wright to the Nature Conservancy, his house, studio, and garden are today overseen by the Russel Wright Design Center in Garrison, New York. Listed  as a National Historic Landmark in 2006,  Manitoga is among a small handful of modernist house and gardens to receive such a designation. But today the Manitoga woodlands are beset by wooly adelig, which is destroying hemlocks across the native forests of the Northeast, which in turn threatens the understory of plants. In addition, the trails that Wright designed through the woods are also in much need of repair. In 2006, The Cultural Landscape Foundation, listed Manitoga as one of  the most endangered landscapes in America.

Come visit and see how you can help save one of America's Treasures.