Merton & Muir Design Turns This Lakeside Property Into a Lush Landscape
Never has half an acre been asked to deliver so much.
At first, Tim Fish and Bernard Marquez were acting on pure faith. When they bought their half-acre South Salem property in 1992, the surroundings were hidden behind a forest of trees huddled around the house. But the two pros strongly suspected that a spectacular view lay curtained in the distance. Perhaps because the house was so densely shaded, no landscape had been previously installed. The two optimistic principles of Merton & Muir Design in South Salem felt certain that they could turn the property overlooking Lake Kitchawan into a gem. All they needed was a whole lot of targeted chain sawing and a vision.
Above: Tim Fish (holding Binky, a Chihuahua mix) and Bernard Marquez embraced and embellished the rock ledge on the property. Below: The dining terrace, one of many entertaining spaces in the garden.
Clearing trees was the first order of business. And, sure enough, they revealed the breathtaking “borrowed landscape” of the placid lake below, ensconced in the lushness of the 4,315-acre Ward Pound Ridge Reservation. That view became their muse. What followed was a collaboration with the land as they crafted a place that celebrates natural resources and brings the awesomeness home. When the designers partnered with the craggy land to accentuate its beauty, they exposed rock outcroppings that stud the terrain. From the beginning, the two focused on savvy use of space, and that insight causes visitors to linger. Rather than just relying on the views to create a remarkable panorama, Fish and Marquez worked the space to the utmost. As a result, the landscape feels exhilarating, but there are also moments of intimacy. That combination is what makes the property singular.
After unveiling the view, the next order of business was to level an area adjacent to the house and enlist that venue as the first of many roomlike settings. The entertaining terrace with fountain wall overlooking a fish pond became a deeply compelling little enclave serving a sense of quietude serenaded by the song of water. If quiet and water music seem mutually exclusive, you need to visit: The Fish/Marquez property is on tour for the Garden Conservancy Open Days, Sunday June 30; go to gardenconservancy.org for more information. “The water stills the space,” Marquez says. “You want to sit down and relax.” Furthermore, the curvaceous wall gives the enclave a stylish flourish that feels both professional and elegantly understated. In other words, the upper terrace is welcoming and real.
That space alone would probably be a sufficient outlet for most homeowners. But it was just the first in a series of terraces and overlooks that wind down the hill — each expertly crafted with switchbacks to minimize the athletics. The designers installed walls to frame areas and lookouts to admire the surroundings. The journey is embracing and dramatic. To bring the drama into the foreground, Fish and Marquez exposed bedrock, removed trees, added trees, and thinned selectively to protect their privacy. As a result, even in a close-knit neighborhood, the property is insular. And within the landscape, each element speaks volumes. “Every space has its own independent sense of place without blocking other spaces,” Marquez says.
Along the way, the designers applied several insightful spatial solutions. For example, they embraced curves to define venues rather than trying to inflict straight axes into the landscape. Most noteworthy, they gave their flower garden terrace a circular design that flows with the land. They also chose quiet colors for their plant palette, with purples, white, and chartreuse playing major roles to harmonize with similarly hued evergreens selected for thickness and texture. “Containers add the punch,” Marquez says. Even so, most hold succulents and tropicals with interesting silhouettes rather than riotous color. “The wow factor is the space,” he confirms. “It’s so peaceful; we don’t like to overwhelm the space.”
Above: A quiet seating area in the garden. Below: When creating the wall that segments their dining terrace, Fish and Marquez added custom crafted fountain spouts of hand-carved bluestone to provide water music.
The garden evolved gradually, finessed with time and familiarity. “The composition shifts and changes, and we’re constantly doing drawings and thinking about connections,” Marquez says. Some of those connections include the welcoming wall and gate with monastic window that provides privacy from the road beside the quaint meditation/garden house that successfully screens the parking area from view while providing one of the garden's crowning focal points.
The design is a work in progress. Whenever Fish and Marquez reveal a ledge or clean off an outcropping, the two work its magnificence into the dialogue of the land while making it accessible with innovative approaches. It’s almost Middle Earthish. When you look at the incline and consider what they’ve accomplished, it’s mind-blowing. These two take stewardship of the land to another level of elevation and devotion.