Agrarian Modern - The Recovery and Renewal of Manatuck Farm
Cambridge, MA, USA | Reed Hilderbrand LLC Landscape Architecture
There is a spectacular recognition of the former walls. It’s so big and so in keeping, yet there is a simplicity about what was done.
- 2017 Awards Jury
- Maryann Thompson Architects
- Moyer's Landscaping Services LLC
- RSE Associates
- DiCesare Bentley
Small working farms are fast disappearing from the New England coastline, pressured by suburban development and challenging economic viability. This 200-acre farm, the largest remaining rural tract in Stonington borough (CT), was rescued from this fate by new owners with a deep commitment to preserving the area's agrarian heritage. The site contains artifacts from over 200 years of development – a rectilinear pattern of fieldstone walls, fields, and hedgerows draped over the characteristic drumlin/ravine landform, with the lowlands succeeding to emergent woodland. To make a new home within this context, the design organizes all of the new domestic programs along a ruined granite foundation wall – some 600 feet long and as high as 12 feet. This strategic move draws contemporary interventions into immediate relationship with the farm’s historical patterns. The new home site gives expression to the Algonquian meaning of Manatuck, “place of lookout” by revealing panoramic views to Long Island Sound. Altogether the new home and the rescued farm renews and preserves a culturally significant landscape for a new era.
The artifacts of New England agrarian heritage – fields defined by stone walls, hedgerows, lowland woods, and rolling topography – tell the stories of the hard work of generations of families and communities as they cultivated an economic and social system evolved from the fruits of the land. Every story is unique, but all too frequently, especially in our race to modernize and streamline, those stories have begun to fade from the popular imagination as the evidence of historical uses is removed or simply allowed to vanish.
Manatuck, in the late 1990s, was planned for development into a subdivision with numerous home-sized parcels. The new owners and two sympathetic neighbors devised a plan to acquire over 300 acres, including Manatuck Farm, and to set aside a portion of their holdings to form a large contiguous conservation easement that preserves open fields in perpetuity.
Preservation and Change
Our clients selected the working farm portion of the landholding to build a contemporary home that would preserve and evoke the site’s significant history. The owners, landscape architect, and architect developed a robust collaboration based on shared appreciation of the land’s legacy and remnant features, providing a solid foundation to generate a unified site and building design.
A massive granite foundation wall from a 19th-century barn, once obscured by a small 1940s-era home, is now restored and unencumbered. The design sites a new house on the drumlin’s side slopes in deference to the hilltop and in taut relationship to the historic wall. It reconceives the approach to the house, siting the entry drive to engage the full length of the drumlin and provide a long, varied sequence from historic North Main Street, through hay meadows to arrive at the house. Only after passing through the house or through a thickly planted shrub garden is the panorama of farmland and woods extending to the distant Sound revealed on a series of lawn viewing terraces. There one recognizes how the remnant foundation wall organizes the position of the house, terraces, pool, and vegetable and perennial gardens along it, drawing a connection to the system of fields, fieldstone walls and woods.
Materials derived from the working agrarian landscape support the site’s distinctly rural character: Cor-Ten steel for steps and retaining walls, galvanized agricultural fence products for the garden enclosures, old stone collected from the site for the reflecting pool and for terraces for outdoor living. New plantings of native Swamp and Red Oaks, and Tulip trees reinforce the existing mature Sycamore, Beech and Elm trees. New fruit trees extend from the old orchard near the house. The design of the house zone propelled larger improvements on the farm, including the planting of trees to shade animals in the fields and the rebuilding of over two miles of historic stone walls that lace the site. Altogether the remnants of centuries of farm life now inform a landscape whose design is restrained and decidedly contemporary.
Agrarian Heritage Endures
The working farm pursues sustainable maintenance and management practices designed in collaboration with the client, farmer, and gardeners. To manage the invasive brush areas that were quickly overtaking the pastures, cows are relocated to restored hayfields in order to start reclamation of compromised pastureland. Each year, detritus generated from the property is collected in bins centrally located on the farm, aged, shredded for mulch, and recycled. Manure and vegetable waste are collected for compost. Compost teas are produced for use in the cultivated areas around the house. The design replaces all impervious paving with pervious gravel drives and stone terraces. The extent of fine lawn is limited only to the intensively used areas on the east side of the house. Fields are managed to produce hay for the livestock, generating enough feed for the farm’s livestock as well as to sell in nearby towns. Bees pollinate the old orchards and have produced generous amounts of honey.
By securing this landholding, the owners have preserved the largest tract of open space remaining in the region, contributing significantly to the rural character of seaside Stonington. By integrating a modern home while continuing to manage the land responsibly and self-sufficiently as a working landscape, they have updated a historic way of life, acting on their deeply-held belief that it should endure for future generations.