A Low Landscape Design Parallels the Mount Merino Modern Retreat

Mount Merino

Sitting by the peak of Mt. Merino near Hudson, NY, this contemporary home design serves as a weekend retreat for a young family living in the bustling city of New York. By maintaining low and simple architecture, Mount Merino Modern offers a comfortable living environment without interfering with the surrounding scenery.

The Landscape Architecture is a continuation of this style; low plantings and geometric forms complement the structure of the house while making plenty of space for the greater view to shine. Today, Landscape Architect Dale Schafer talks us through the Mount Merino Modern Project.

Mount Merino
Mount Merino

Can you introduce yourself?

Dale Schafer. Partner at Wagner Hodgson. I’ve been in practice for over 30 years. Currently in Hudson, NY, but prior to that – NYC, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego. I have both Bachelor and Masters degrees in Landscape Architecture.

What was the overall vision – look, feel and functionality – for this landscaping project?

The site is toward the top of a hill – Mt. Merino – just South of Hudson, NY. Before being commissioned for the project, the house was built by the owner/architect approximately 6 years prior. The house was sold to a new owner who did some renovations and added a guest house.

Both the main house and the guest house are very modern and minimal in design and materials. This is a weekend home for a young family living in NYC. The landscape program was determined to be simple, low maintenance, modern, and a place to relax from hectic city life. Maintaining views was also very important. 

Mount Merino
Mount Merino

What inspired you during the project design process?

When my clients purchased the property over 20 years ago, it was an abandoned property and mostly dirt with a few larger California Pepper trees and Pines. 

The original house was basically a tin structure out in a meadow, my job was to turn this painting studio into a sustainably focused property meeting my clients desires for horse, organic gardens, and an open/native oriented planted property.

The property sold after about 7 years and I reworked the property to fit the new owners. There was no interests in horses, so I expanded the organic gardens up to the equestrian rink and created a “Family Fun Zone” for the new owners that included a large outdoor kitchen with a pizza oven, trellised outdoor dining and lounge area, including a large lawn for playing games with family and friends. It went from a couples dream spa like home to a family home that used every inch of the property.

Mount Merino

What inspired you during the project design process?

Context. Two in particular – the site and the architecture. The site’s open views to the east and history of once being a Merino sheep farm led to a meadow-like concept. The house with it’s flat roof focusing on the eastern view toward the Berkshire Mountains suggested a very simple foreground that doesn’t distract from the greater view. The pool is positioned down-slope from the house to be out of the view.

It is also angled toward a specific view and made appear as a secret, secluded space away from the house. In the front of the house, the parking court – a simple gravel rectangle is screened by “hedges of ornamental grasses that both define the space and provide privacy from the road.

These grass hedges also provide a separation and definition for the guest house front front yard, screening parking from the guest house living room.

Mount Merino

In your opinion, how does this home celebrate the midcentury modern principle of integrating the outdoors with the indoors? What details were added to make spaces relate to one another?

The living spaces of the home have windows that extend from floor to ceiling providing commanding views of the pastoral views. A gravel apron extends around the base of the house providing seamless circulation around the perimeter. The visual result is that the house seems to “float” in a field.

The east gravel terrace extends into a flush lawn, the size of which is aligned with corners of the house. This lawn terrace steps down the hillside with lawn steps to the natural meadow. Lawn and lawn-steps are all framed by Corten steel.

How does the landscaping tie in with the architecture of this home?

By keeping the landscape low and plantings in geometric massed forms.

How does the landscaping fit into the surrounding natural environment? 

By emulating the natural meadows with more structure around the house, and allowing the view to take front seat.

Mount Merino

Which materials and plants were used and why?

Materials: Bluestone paving and steps, gravel pathways, steel edging, steel pergolas to match steel on the house.

Plants: Ornamental grasses (Sporobolus, Pennisetum, Panicum, Miscanthus, Carex); Sedum; Fastigiate Hornbeam; Buxus.

How long did the landscaping project last? Any major setbacks, and if so, what?

Multiple phases, approximately 4 years; and on-going. The major setback was not supplying a permanent irrigation system. The client wanted a drought tolerant landscape, which is what was planted. However, the gravelly soil, combined with strong winds would desiccate the north/west facing garden areas. Drip irrigation was added to those areas, and the plants have since flourished.

Mount Merino
Photos by Michael Del Rossi

What is your favorite detail of the landscape and why?

Ornamental grasses en masse. It’s a very powerful element; appearing ephemeral, seasonally dynamic, and very low maintenance.

What advice/recommendations would you give to someone looking to renovate their yard?

Things to consider:

  • Understand the context (both house and site) and what sort of landscape makes sense, and how that appeals to your sense of aesthetic. 
  • Low-maintenance doesn’t necessarily mean junipers and yews and having to overlook seasonal qualities.
  • Understand the scale of the landscape, both immediate to the house and the far “borrowed” view beyond. 
  • Don’t clutter up the landscape with lots of different plants. Plant in drifts or blocks of the same species to create an impact.
  • Landscape isn’t inexpensive. However, it can be phased overtime. A landscape architect or landscape designer can help you develop a master plan, so over time, the fully implemented plan makes sense and looks unified. Piecemeal never makes great “curb-appeal”.