In 1997, Lisa Gray and Alan Organschi bought six and a half acres off a dirt road that winds through the undulating hills and former large dairy farms of northwestern Connecticut. The landscape— speckled with ash and cherry trees on the banks of the Bantam River—was relaxing and inviting. However, the two cramped, poorly built, and barely winterized 1970s-vintage wooden houses, one of which was where Gray, Organschi, and their two young children slept, definitely were not.
The real selling point for the pair, who are the principals at Gray Organschi Architecture in New Haven, Connecticut, was an early 20th-century foundation supporting one of the structures. The wall—its rounded stones coated in a patina of lichen, dandelions peeking through its mortar—was of mysterious provenance. Because the Shepaug Valley Railroad once chugged through the property on its way to New York, they initially speculated that the wall had been part of an old depot. But a vintage photograph revealed that the local station, called Smoke Hollow, sat a bit closer to the river, leaving Organschi and Gray to wonder whether the wall might have been part of an old ice house.
Whatever it was, it was special. And when the pair finally set about designing an open, contemporary house to replace the old ones (garden snakes had forced the issue by taking up residence in the floorboards), there was no question that the stone foundation would be a launchpad for the new design. “It’s a little junky, in a great way,” Gray says. “The kind of texture and character of this wall you could never, ever get again, so we were completely committed to saving it.”
“I think if we’d have torn it down or even reproduced it, we would have lost some of the links to the land,” Organschi adds, noting that most of the area’s large dairy farms have disappeared and the railroad was abandoned in 1948. “It’s almost one of the last connections to what this place was, and I think we felt protective of that.” It was clear, though, that the foundation wall’s load-bearing days were long gone. “We poured a reinforced concrete wall behind it and pinned into it to lock it all together,” Organschi says. “It was a sort of historical preservation act, even though all it was, really, was the foundation.”
Gray and Organschi designed a pair of gable-roofed structures, one of which sits on top of the old stone wall, and oriented them perpendicularly to each other. Inside, the kitchen, dining, and living areas all commingle, encouraging relaxed weekend living while offering arresting floor-to-ceiling views of the river. A north-facing deck that was part of the original setup—and an incubator for many happy family memories—was re-created in the new design.
Construction began in the fall of 2008 but ground to a halt the following summer, when a builder they had hired to frame the house was gravely injured in a motorcycle accident. The couple then turned to Andy Fowler, who literally set up camp on the property, sleeping in a tent at night (until he woke to six inches of snow in December and moved inside) and supervising construction by day as five of his chickens roamed the meadow. “Andy muscled through the winter and got it all enclosed,” Organschi says.
Since construction wrapped in the fall of 2010, Gray and Organschi have made the drive of just over an hour from their home in Guilford, near New Haven, most weekends—sometimes to reunite with their children, Hanna, 19, who is at college, and August, 16, who attends a nearby boarding school, and to spend unhurried time connecting with friends.
“It’s a private place for us to be because our kids have moved out, so we seem to coalesce there on special weekends,” Organschi says. “Lisa and I go up there as much as we can; we’ll spend the night or even do work up there and access the Steep Rock Preserve”—a nearly 1,000-acre expanse of hiking trails where Gray and Organschi are designing a timber footbridge over the Shepaug River.
Replacing the old houses with something more livable was part of the plan from the beginning for the couple, who married in 1991 and started their firm in 1994. But the house benefited from a long gestational period as Gray and Organschi got to know each other better as designers, and as partners.
“If we’d tried to do this in the mid-’90s, it would have been a disaster, I think, because we didn’t know each other nearly as well in terms of working together,” Gray says. “I think it’s pretty standard stuff about couples even if they don’t work together. By the time you get to be 20, 25 years in, you really know each other and you’ve probably changed each other to some degree.”
The collaboration produced a roomy house that is at once modern and in harmony with the old New England barns and farmhouses that surround it and inspired its shape. “It’s a new house—it’s very contemporary—but it feels like we’ve been here forever,” Organschi marvels. Indeed, their weekend home reflects a feel for the landscape that Gray and Organschi say they could not have gained without their decade of weekend visits—and the 100-year-old wall beneath their feet as a weathered link to the trains, livestock, and people that came before them.