A Sanctuary Born Out of the Woods
Lisa Gray and Alan Organschi set out to build their own sanctuary and found a place hidden along the Bantam River in Washington. A rooftop garden blends into the landscape.
Photos by Wendy Carlson
Nature surrounds the weekend home of architects Lisa Gray and Alan Organschi. Set near a winding dirt road in Washington, the unassuming modern house, with its earthy wood siding and its weathered, lichen-covered stone foundation, looks organic—as if it has grown out of the landscape itself.
On a hilly, untamed portion of the backyard, deer graze on the tall grass. A crop of black-eyed Susans dangle over the stone wall enclosing the lap pool, and succulents grow on a rooftop garden. On most days, the only sounds are the ebb and flow of the nearby Bantam River and fir trees creaking in the wind.
This perfect symbiosis of house and nature was what the couple envisioned when they first purchased the property in 1997. Originally, the land came with two dilapidated cottages, one of which was built on top of a 19th-century stone foundation. The structures were damp and leaky, but land was close to the river and the dirt road, which gave the property an authentic New England appeal.
It would be another two decades before they designed a new home that fully embraced their design philosophy: that housing should be a sanctuary for the human spirit.
In the meantime, the couple and their two children continued to use the cottages as a weekend retreat from their year-round residence in Guilford and as a place to escape their hectic work schedule. The two are the founders and principals at Gray Organschi Architecture in New Haven, where they met in the 1980s at the Yale School of Architecture. Since then, they have worked as a team, collaborating on projects around the world that range from private residences to institutions and public buildings. Lisa and Alan have both served as the Louis I. Kahn Visiting Assistant Professors at Yale, where Alan is on the faculty and runs the first year building project.
As the years rolled past and their practice flourished, the couple knew they would have to commit to a major renovation of the Washington property at some point. The breaking point came when Lisa discovered a nest of garden snakes living under the floorboards. When they finally began construction, they ended up razing everything except the old stone foundation, which they felt was worth saving.
“We were pretty sure it was the remains of an old ice house for the Shepaug Railroad that once ran through the property,” explained Alan. Since the railroad shut down in 1948, the foundation was the only connection to the area’s past, and they wanted to incorporate it in the new design.
The most difficult challenge, by far, was the rugged building site, which featured a rocky hillside that jutted steeply upward to the south. In all their projects, the architects work toward thoughtful, site-specific designs. They especially wanted the design of the Washington house to be carefully keyed to outdoor spaces, not just for the views, but in order to connect to all exterior levels of the house, Lisa explained.
To achieve that layered harmony, they designed a pair of gable-roofed, barn-like structures, building one over the old foundation, which they reinforced, and oriented them perpendicularly to each other.
The end result is a house with a rustic New England exterior, while the 3,200-square-foot interior with its open floor plan strikes a more modern pose. Wall-to-ceiling windows on each level brings the beauty of the outdoors inside.
Each of the four bedrooms, two on the upper level, a guest bedroom on the lower level, and master bedroom on the main level, invite even more of the natural world inside through skylights and sliding glass doors. An expansive living space opens onto a lap pool, edged with stone-filled gabion baskets and surrounded by an Ipe wood deck. Near the kitchen, a breakfast nook with a cushioned bench, which overlooks the meadow leading down to the Bantam River, has become one of the couple’s favorite spaces in the house.
Clear-finished ash wood flooring and stairs, and beached pinewood walls work to enhance the natural feeling of the interior spaces, complementing the painted brick fireplace and exterior stonework. The kitchen’s bleached wood cabinets were designed by JIG Design Build, a fabrication division of Gray Organschi Architecture.
And, over the years, the couple has decorated the house with a mix of eclectic mid-century modern furniture and family heirlooms, including a dining table of Wenge wood that Alan designed and fabricated and a set of chairs inherited from his uncle.
These days, with both of their children out of the nest, they’ve been spending more time in Washington. After more than 20 years, they’ve become part of the local community: in 2015, construction was completed on their design of the Henry David Thoreau Footbridge in Steep Rock’s Hidden Valley. More recently, they co-designed an extension to the Washington Art Association (WAA) with local architect and WAA chairman Peter Talbot.
In life, as partners and designers, “we disagree constantly,” laughs Lisa. “But we ultimately feel very strongly about the same values.”