Real State

Susan Orlean Lists Her Upstate Retreat


Birds’ nests may not be all that unusual in the Hudson Valley. But at the rural retreat of Susan Orlean, the author and writer for The New Yorker known for her animals beat, the most notable tangles of sticks and straw are not in trees but her kitchen, displayed along a neat bluestone wall just to the left of her refrigerator.

Blurring the lines between indoors and outdoors seems like a priority at Ms. Orlean’s modernist manor, whose soaring windows look out on overlapping hills, and whose Douglas fir walls, dotted with knots, can seem to have just arrived from a sawmill.

“One of the wonderful things about the house,” Ms. Orlean said, “is you never feel guilty about being inside.”

With three bedrooms, two full and one half-bath, and an unusual two-sided indoor-outdoor fireplace, the 3,029-square-foot house, in Columbia County, is coming to market for the first time since Ms. Orlean, 65, and her husband, John Gillespie, 67, a financial services executive, had it built in 2005 on a former dairy farm.

The asking price for the property, which also includes 56 acres of mostly cleared land, is $3.495 million, high for the area. Of the 430 single-family houses listed in Columbia County in January on, only 15 were more expensive.

While some Covid-weary New Yorkers are decamping upstate to test the limits of working from home, Ms. Orlean and Mr. Gillespie will actually be spending more time in a city, in their case, Los Angeles, their primary residence since 2011. Home there is a 1947 midcentury-modern-style dwelling by Rudolph Schindler.

Last year, Ms. Orlean, Mr. Gillespie, and their son, Austin, 16, managed to stick to tradition and spend the summer at the house, which also showcases sheep photos, a stuffed red fox and Andy Warhol’s four-print take on Jersey cows.

But “when you go through something as profound as a pandemic, it makes you re-examine everything. The raw fact of having a weekend house that is 3,000 miles away really came home to roost,” said Ms. Orlean, who added that having two dogs and a cat also makes traveling difficult.

Getting to the property, which is in the town of Gallatin, about two hours north of Manhattan, requires navigating a corkscrew of a driveway and a dim and narrow entry hall before entering the house’s loft-like heart, an open-plan amalgam of living room, dining room and kitchen.

Delivering such a “compression and release” experience is a favorite trick of the house’s architect, James Cutler, who likens it to the moment in the “Wizard of Oz” when the movie switches from black and white to Technicolor.

“There must have been gasps in the theater, as the audience saw something incredibly beautiful revealed in a surprising way,” said the Seattle-area-based Mr. Cutler, who counts the software billionaire Bill Gates among his clients.

If the bedrooms and baths in Ms. Orlean’s house seem small, it’s only because they are being unfairly compared against mainstream standards. “There is just so much you need in life,” Mr. Cutler said, “and America is a bit on the profligate side.”

Besides, the house has shown an ability to pack in guests. Two Murphy beds, tucked discreetly into a library and home office, help with hosting duties. And in a pinch, long window seats lining the edges of rooms can double as sleeping areas, which is what happened once when a fierce New Year’s Eve storm forced 20 guests to spend the night.

“We really entertained a lot,” said Ms. Orlean, whose guest list through the years included writers like Jim Downey, of “Saturday Night Live,” Jenji Kohan, who created “Orange Is the New Black” and Kurt Andersen, the author of nonfiction books. Also hanging out were musicians, directors and comedians, and the actress Meryl Streep, who came by a few years after playing Orlean in the 2002 film “Adaptation.” It was based on Orlean’s book about flower-poaching, and obsession, “The Orchid Thief.”

For Ms. Orlean, a focus on fauna — homing pigeons, lost dogs and military mules have all been topics, as well as a spreading “rabbit Ebola” — does not seem superficial. She has gotten her hands dirty as a farmer. During a four-year period in the late 2000s while living full-time in Gallatin, she tended flocks of chickens, guinea fowl and turkeys. (There were also Black Angus cattle, but they required outside help.)

Today, the rolling landscape features a large pond for kayaking and swimming. Nearby, in a shaded area, is a cozy prefabricated writing shed, where Ms. Orlean worked on “The Library Book,” about a devastating arson fire.

Her next offering, to be published this fall, seems truer to form, a collection of her best animal stories. But the fate of the house’s farm-themed memorabilia, after the house sells, is less clear. “It seems so Northeast to have dairy cows on the wall,” she said, “so I don’t know what will happen.”

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