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Dorothy Riester House and Studio

Cazenovia Town, Madison County, NY

The Dorothy Riester House and Studio (Hilltop House at Stone Quarry Hill Park, 3883 Stone Quarry Road) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document, [‡]

The Dorothy Riester House and Studio is located in the Town of Cazenovia, two miles southwest of the Village of Cazenovia, in Madison County. Located on the west side of Stone Quarry Road, the house and studio are located within the Stone Quarry Hill Art Park, a 104-acre sculpture and nature park located just one half mile south of the Route 20 corridor. The park land is 1400 feet above sea level, while the house and studio are sited on a hilltop that rises 1600 feet above sea level. The land is characterized by wooded forest, hedgerows, open meadows and an active agricultural field cultivated seasonally for hay production. The house and studio are sited at some distance from the road, on the northeast edge of the hilltop plateau at the western boundary of the property. The house and studio buildings are separated from each other by an asphalt paved driveway. Two small created ponds are also located on the property, just south of the house and studio on the hilltop plateau. The parcel is defined as the 23 acres originally purchased by the Riesters and contains three separate buildings: the house and its additions, the A-frame studio with connected barns, and an equipment storage barn. Also counted as a contributing resource is the surrounding site and landscape, which includes a pottery kiln structure, a non-historic pressure-treated lumber stage known as the amphitheater, as well as many free-standing sculptural works, some of which were created by Dorothy Riester.

The Dorothy Riester House and Studio is a highly intact example of a mid-twentieth century modern house and artist studio located in the Town of Cazenovia that reflect the artistic vision of the well-known regional sculptor, Dorothy Riester. Designed and constructed in 1959-60 by its owners, Robert and Dorothy Riester, with the help of local contractors Dan McCabe, Gordon Bowers, and Sam Flatt, the building exemplifies mid-century house design with its use of common, ready-made materials and prominent front-gable massing, large expanses of windows, and open interior plan. However, unlike a typical mid-century house, the building also incorporates elements of Dorothy Riester's sculptural background and her desire to integrate nature into her art. Personally involved in the hands-on design and construction of the house, Riester approached the building as a sort of large-scale, livable sculpture. While the basic house form is typical for many mid-twentieth century houses, elements such as the sculptural concrete fireplace wall, textured barn board interior walls, and a sand cast wall with embossed patterns and embedded trinkets are highly individualistic and relate directly to Dorothy's artistic viewpoint. Originally conceived as a pastoral summer retreat, the house became the Riesters' primary residence in 1965. In addition to the residence, the Riesters also added a studio building and library, both individualistic expressions of Dorothy's artistic perspective. The period of significance for the Dorothy Riester House and Studio begins with the initial construction of the house in 1959 and concludes with the erection of the last building associated with the property as a private residence, the ca. 1970 Art Barn. While Dorothy continued her sculpting career until relatively recently, the period of significance also corresponds to her most productive era, at a time when the property was their private residence.

Locally significant artist, Dorothy Riester was born in 1916. As an active sculptor for more than half a century, Dorothy Riester has been a well-known educator, at schools including Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) and Syracuse University, helping to train and influence a generation of sculptors. She has shown her own work in many national and regional exhibitions, has completed at least 30 commissioned works that can be found nation-wide, and has been recognized with many awards for her accomplishments and career. As head of the sculpture department at Carnegie Tech in the 1940s, Dorothy Riester was part of a selection team that admitted a young Andy Warhol to the art department. Riester also exhibited her own works in shows across the country including shows in San Francisco and New York City, and was especially noted in many local and regional shows in Cazenovia and Syracuse. Her publication, Design for Flower Arrangers, was a well-regarded floral arrangement and design publication, being eventually reprinted in a second edition. Riester conceived and designed the home as her private residence and studio in stages between 1959 and ca. 1970 and she lived and worked here for over 50 years, the period that corresponds to her most productive era when she created her most prominent works. Riester designed the house using the same aesthetic that she used for her sculptures; thus, it is perhaps the best manifestation of her sculptural design aesthetic and philosophy. Being nearly entirely hand crafted, the house incorporates her interest in nature through its siting and indoor garden spaces. Dorothy's habit of utilizing found objects in her work in also a character defining feature of the house, which incorporates a sand-cast wall molded with different found objects and organic forms, a concrete fireplace created by trial and error, and a stone floor pieced together by Dorothy based on the natural shapes and forms of each slab. Because of her direct role in designing and crafting the house, as well as her long residence here, this is the resource that best represents her significance.

Dorothy Winner Riester was born to John and Virginia Winner, a wealthy family in rural western Pennsylvania, on November 29, 1916. From an early age she was supported to develop her artistic talents by her parents, although they encouraged her to pursue a formal education. Dorothy received a degree in sculpture from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) in the late 1930s. After graduating, Dorothy remained at the school, teaching sculpture, and married Robert Riester in 1939. Dorothy also established her own ceramics company, Riester Slamming. Robert worked as an engineer during World War II, working to develop turbines for Navy ships. After the war, in the early 1950s, Robert took a job at the Carrier Corp. in Syracuse, NY, and the couple relocated to a house on North Townsend Street. In Syracuse, Dorothy enrolled at Syracuse University, where she completed a master's degree, writing her thesis on the restoration and preservation of the house on North Townsend Street.

Dorothy and Robert Riester began the construction of what was originally their summer house, later their full-time residence, in 1959. Living in Syracuse, NY and looking for suitable property for a summer residence, the Riesters responded to an advertisement in the Sunday newspaper for 23-acres in Cazenovia. The property at the time was owned by Harold Britt and consisted of a hilltop parcel set back off Stone Quarry Road with a narrow strip of land that provided access to the interior parcel from the road. Britt had apparently envisioned building his own house on the hilltop when he purchased the property in 1951, clearing some of the trees to open up a view to Cazenovia Lake from the hill top and grading areas of the land. Britt dug a well to provide water on the property and went as far as ordering lumber for constructing a house, although that plan never materialized. On September 11, 1958, the Riesters purchased Britt's land on Stone Quarry Road.

After their purchase, the Riesters spent time familiarizing themselves with their new property. They spent the winter of 1958-59 visiting and hiking on their property, and they began to establish services to the vacant property, including electricity. In the summer of 1959 the Riesters lived in a rented pop-up trailer that they installed on the property. Living close to nature in the trailer allowed Dorothy the opportunity to familiarize herself with the environment of the area, including how the winds circulated, the climate, and even about the soil and bedrock while digging an outhouse. Right from the beginning the Riesters welcomed visitors to their property, as friends and neighbors came to picnic and experience the view from the hill beginning that first summer. During the summer of 1959 the Riesters also began their first work on the property, bulldozing and improving the access road, creating a pond in an area of the hill top that already collected water and beginning to clear and grade the land in preparation for building the house.

With a deep familiarity with the land, the Riesters decided to construct their house on the hill top, nestled between the maple woods and a small grove of bitter hickory trees that could serve as a windbreak. Dorothy located the house at the edge of the forest, rather than build it as an object isolated in a more open area of the property, emphasizing the house's connection and integration into the natural landscape. They also decided to orient the house to maximize the view toward the north, overlooking Cazenovia Lake, which was at that time highly visible from the hilltop due to Harold Britt's tree clearance.

With the site for the house selected, design and construction could begin. "I designed the house to be a summer place, to be small with low maintenance, and to incorporate and be part of the landscape," Dorothy Riester commented. To this end, the house was envisioned as a cone opening up towards the lake vista. The curving facade of the two-story northern wall was designed to reflect the contour of the land while allowing ample northern light with its large windows. Measuring 40-feet long, the width ranged from 16-feet at its narrower southern end to 36-feet at the northern end. The structure of the building utilized a traditional post-and-beam system, including a frame of steel H-columns and I-beams as well as wood joists. However, the design of the house evolved somewhat organically and was partially dictated by a trial-and-error approach by the Riesters and their contractors. When an error made by the welder left inadequate headroom within the welded steel frame, the Riesters solved the problem by driving a bulldozer into the still-open house and excavated the floor down an additional foot in depth. This created adequate interior space and also resulted in a step down into the house.

Working with contractor Dan McCabe in the construction of the skeleton for the house, Robert and Dorothy Riester worked on building many aspects of the house themselves. In 1960, the Riesters spent many weekends finishing the interior of the house. Robert built many of the cabinets and built-ins, the hanging stair to the second floor loft, the walls of textured barn wood, did the insulating of the cedar planked ceiling, and did the engineering work for the house. While her artistic vision guided the entire development and construction of the house, Dorothy added her sculptural treatment as well. Her work included making and installing the colorful ceramic tiles in the kitchen and bathrooms, casting the sand-cast wall in the south room, and forming the bulbous fireplace that swells from its textured concrete wall. Reflecting the trial-by-error approach to the house, after a first attempt at making her own mix of sisal, perlite and white portland cement resulted in the collapse of the first fireplace, she changed the mixture and formed the current fireplace. Dorothy also handled all of the cement work throughout the house as well as the interior painting. The stone flooring was a joint project for the Riesters. Disliking the local flagstone, Dorothy had a truckload of Pennsylvania bluestone brought to the property and dumped on the site. Rather than make regular tiles from the stone, they embraced its irregular shapes and broken forms. "Bob would come and mix himself a martini and me an Old Fashioned and then we would piece this together like a jigsaw puzzle. We never cut a single stone."

As an artist who often worked with common, available and found materials in her artwork, Dorothy desired that the house would be built using affordable, common and readily available construction materials. This was not uncommon in house design in the mid-twentieth century. In an era that favored affordability, simplicity and efficiency in house designs and materials, the use of readily available, mass-produced and ordinary building materials was common during the post-war era. While tastes had changed in reaction to the detailed, decorated and more expensive houses built for previous generations, the post-World War II "baby boom" era created a strong demand for housing. In the decades before the war, living in crowded tenements and multiple family residences were common, and individual ownership of houses was only for the wealthier. Together, the shortage of good housing stock coupled with the rise of the automobile-centric suburbs sparked an era of intense interest in designing and building affordable and modern single-family detached houses. One response to this cultural shift was to develop new methods of machine-made, mass-produced and prefabricated housing that could be manufactured affordably, quickly and efficiently. The affordable, economical single-family residence became a national phenomenon and ranged from designs by nationally prominent architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, the Eames, and Marcel Breuer, who experimented with common materials such as concrete, to large post-war suburban developments of modest single-family houses such as the sprawling Levittowns in Long Island, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Designs for modest single-family residences were published and circulated in many of the popular magazines and journals of the day, disseminating these new ideas and trends to the masses. While the Dorothy Riester House and Studio was purposefully constructed and not part of a mass-produced housing neighborhood, the design and planning of the house does appear to have been influenced by the architectural trends of the era.

While Dorothy noted that Frank Lloyd Wright's ideas on relating architecture to nature were an inspiration to her in the design, construction and siting of the house, a reference also seen in her emphasis on the horizontal line as noted above, the house also has many elements that were common to mid-century residential forms. The large, front-gabled house, which drew on traditional concepts of the house form that dated back to the early 1800s Greek Revival style, was utilized by many architects and designers in the mid-1900s. One notable company that popularized the form was the Techbuilt company based in Boston, Massachusetts. Founded in 1953 by architect Carl Koch, Techbuilt houses were prefabricated houses that utilized many standard building materials such as concrete block and plywood to create affordable houses. Available to order by catalog, the Techbuilt house was nationally available and was especially prominent in the northern East Coast. Techbuilt's house models were typified by steeply peaked roofs, rendered in wood and natural materials, and featured open, spacious interiors. The simplicity and linear aesthetic of the Techbuilt house also reveals a modern Scandinavian influence, a trend that influenced many architects and designers in the mid-twentieth century. Like the Riester house, Techbuilt houses also utilized a post-and-beam construction method that allowed the non-structural exterior walls to be opened up with large expanses of glass. While the Riester house shares some similarities in basic form, materials and design with other modern houses such as Techbuilt, it is Dorothy Riester's sculptural additions to the building that elevate the building beyond being just a typical mid-century house.

Shortly after the construction of the house was complete in 1960, the Riesters began to add other buildings to the 23-acre property. In 1962 they built an A-frame studio building located just southeast of the house. While Dorothy chose the A-frame design for her studio because of its wide open interior space and ceiling height that could allow her to accommodate taller sculptures and machinery, the A-frame was a widely popular architectural style in the mid-twentieth century. Drawn from traditional Swedish building forms, A-frames became popular as affordable second houses during the mid-twentieth century. The first modern A-frame house was the Bennati House in Lake Arrowhead, California, designed in 1934 by Rudolph Schindler; however, it was not until the 1950s when the style became popular. The simple A-frame form could be adapted to showcase its bold geometric form or to reflect a more traditional, rustic and primitive shelter. As used for Dorothy Riester's studio, the A-frame reflects both the simple geometric form, appealing to a sculptor's eye, while its large expanse of dark brown roofing shingles tie the building into the natural landscape. With the large walls made almost entirely of windows at both the north and south ends of the building, natural light fills the interior making it a highly suitable studio space.

While still working to build their house and studio, the Riesters began to purchase additional land near and adjacent to their 23-acre parcel. Many of the purchases were motivated by their need to improve road access to their 23-acre hilltop land and/or a desire to protect the natural landscape around their property from development. Some of these additional parcels are contiguous with the property, while others are not. All of them have now been incorporated into the Art Park and no longer reflect the Riesters' use of the land as a home site.

The property became Dorothy and Robert Riester's full-time residence in 1965. After the Riesters made the Stone Quarry Road property their permanent abode, they continued to construct additional buildings as well as expand their living space. Needing additional space to accommodate year-round living, around 1970, a library wing was added to the main house. Because of the unusual geometry of the wedge-shaped building, adding a wing was a challenge; however, a separate hexagonal shaped room was built on the western side and linked to the main house by a small greenhouse room. The library wing was conceived as almost a separate building, reinforced by the outside-is-inside garden and greenhouse hyphen that connects the house and library. Perhaps as a reference to Dorothy's inspiration, Frank Lloyd Wright, a long triangular skylight is featured in the greenhouse hyphen, similar to Wright's designs for outside-is-inside buildings such as his conservatory at his Darwin D. Martin House complex in Buffalo, NY. Designed by Dorothy and constructed with contractor Gordon Bowers, the hexagonal library room was intended to appear "like a nest suspended in the woodland" and featured a large expanse of glass at its western wall to give a view of the forested landscape right outside.

Dorothy wished the rather large space to remain an open, unobstructed room suitable for entertaining, and designed a unique conical-type roof structure free of trusses or tie-rods. Stress analysis conducted by a structural engineer assured the contractor that the roof could support a load of up to 30-feet of snow, although to provide additional stabilization a cable was wrapped around the perimeter walls to prevent them from bowing outwards.

The Riesters made other additions to the property in the 1970s as they continued to live and work at the house and studio, as well as entertain guests. Added to the property in the early 1970s was an expansion of the studio and workshop space known as the Art Barn. This 36-foot by 48-foot pole barn was built adjoining the southeast corner of the A-frame studio building to provide additional workspace and equipment storage. It was later insulated and electrified. Also in that decade, they added an outdoor amphitheater in 1970, located to the northwest of the main house. This modest outdoor venue was created to accommodate musical performances for friends and guests. Within a few years, though, the original amphitheater was replaced by the current structure, built as a simple platform of pressure-treated lumber with a simple rail.

In the late 1970s or early 1980s, the house received its final addition. A front-gable wood frame double car garage was added to the southeast corner of the house and oriented east toward the street beyond. While of a more recent vintage, the modest materials, simple geometric design and green color palate relate the garage to the main house. The garage is connected to the house by an open glass and steel entry vestibule built by Sam Flatt known as the Genkong or "Outside Room."

Since the Riesters vacated their house in 1994, the house and studio have continued to serve a limited role as part of the Stone Quarry Hill Art Park operations. Between 1991 and 2011 the house and studio served as the offices and base of operations for the park, services that eventually located in the Lodge. Currently the house is used to host small meetings and store the reference library, but otherwise it remains unused by park staff. The studio is still used for equipment storage and by visiting artists, much as Dorothy used it since the 1960s. Both the house and studio contain numerous artifacts, artwork and furnishings that Dorothy and Robert Riester originally selected and accumulated during their years of residence. A number of mid-century furniture pieces are still present in the house, and the buildings contain many examples of Dorothy's sculpture and artwork. The library is still filled with Dorothy's books, on subjects such as history, art and architecture and including several works on Frank Lloyd Wright. Always attracted to found objects and inspired by the natural world, Dorothy had a habit of collecting small objects such as shells, stones, animal bones, and pieces of wood, and many of these are scattered throughout the interior and exterior of the house and studio. Maquettes for her larger sculptural pieces are still stored in the A-frame studio building. One gets the sense in the house and studio that these building still serve as an artist's residence and workspace. "I always design everything to how I want to feel while I'm in it or looking at it," Dorothy Riester commented, and her house and studio still maintain her unique vision and spirit.

‡ Jennifer Walkowski, Historic Preservation Specialist, New York State Historic Preservation Office, Dorothy Riester House & Studio, Madison County, NY, nomination document, 2014, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Street Names
Stone Quarry Road