Bring Questions, Not Answers: A New Approach for the Future of Stone Quarry Art Park
In 2022 the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Where Women Made History program established a pilot partnership with the Women’s Leadership Initiative at RAMSA (Robert A.M. Stern Architects), where the architecture and design firm would provide pro-bono design, planning, and technical services to organizations that are reimagining sites of women’s history for the 21st century.
The first project of this partnership focused on Stone Quarry Art Park (SQAP)—a member of the National Trust’s Historic Artists' Homes and Studios Program (HAHS)—in Cazenovia, New York. This site shares the story and work of artist Dorothy Riester and her husband Bob, who designed, built, and lived at what is now the National Register-listed Dorothy Riester House and Studio (Hilltop House and Studio). Dorothy worked in her studio space, a remarkable A-Frame structure, located at the top of a hill overlooking a 23-acre agrarian landscape.
“This project presented an interesting and exciting challenge for all of us,” said Chris Morris, the manager of the National Trust’s Where Women Made History program. “SQAP is so indelibly stamped by the life and work of Dorothy Riester. How to walk that line between preserving and respecting her legacy in creating this incredible art environment, while celebrating her ethos of ongoing experimentation and public access that define this place?”
For Emily Zaengle, the CEO at SQAP, it was important that the site continue to function as a place for the exploration of creativity, something “that was also very much Dorothy. She was constantly making and remaking, adding things to existing sculptures, painting her house, adding trails to the landscape. And she was always inviting other artists and the community to join her in these creative endeavors.”
Over eight months, RAMSA and the National Trust worked with Zaengle to understand this remarkable historic site. While most of their meetings occurred virtually, it was the site visit that shifted the team’s point of view, fully revealing the challenges—and opportunities—before them. The result is a series of recommendations that honor Riester’s vision as an artist, but that make space for continued artistic innovation and invention at SQAP.
Collaboration as the Foundation of Preservation
Having gone through an overly ambitious master planning process in the past, Zaengle knew this process had to be different. Her directive to the project team was clear: “bring questions, not answers,” an approach influenced by what Zaengle calls art-thinking. She described it as “the ability of artists to use what’s available, work within limited resources to create spaces that people want to engage with, spaces that are unique, intriguing, and inspiring.” It was important to Zaengle that the results of this process acknowledged the people who lived, worked, and visited the site today.
In addition to Zaengle, the project team included HAHS Director Valerie Balint who brought extensive experience in preservation and interpretation of sites connected to art and artists, along with a cross-firm team of staff from RAMSA. In building the project team, the design firm opened the project to the entire staff, resulting in a group of women professionals experienced in research, campus planning, single-family residential work, and a preservation intern. This was an intentionally collaborative effort, one that coalesced when everyone was on-site at Stone Quarry in Cazenovia, New York. It was in experiencing the Park firsthand that the give and take between preservation and experimentation came together for the team.
Anna Orlando, associate and project manager at RAMSA, said, “The experience was transformative. Before the site visit, we anticipated that the final document would be a standard strategic plan. After the site visit, the document evolved into a much more intimate reflection of the park’s history and an exploratory study of its future.”
In walking the land together, creating art together in Dorothy’s studio with the Park’s visiting artists, and understanding the ways people use the site together, the team recognized the importance of centering the historically significant Hilltop House and Studio, and saw multiple options for leveraging the underutilized buildings and landscape features to benefit the SQAP staff, artists, and future visitors.
As Melissa DelVecchio, partner and director of research at RAMSA, said, while the process was fundamentally similar to their standard approach to projects, “Emily made sure that our site visit was more experiential than observational, including having us create a piece of art together in Dorothy’s studio with one of the artists. The activities and people we engaged with on-site allowed us to more carefully consider the perspectives of a visitor exploring the site, an artist creating, or a staff member curating—a bit of a wakeup call that our experiences could guide our decisions as much as the expertise as architects."
Stone Quarry Art Park: A Canvas for Experimentation and Exploration
The team viewed the landscape beyond the Hilltop House and Studio as a canvas on which to contemplate the future of SQAP. The final recommendations range from reversing the current approach and entry to the park—allowing visitors arriving at the site to experience the house and studio as the centerpiece—to repurposing the existing utilitarian “art barns” as highly malleable spaces to accommodate new exhibition areas, expanded artists’ studios, and accommodate a variety of public gatherings and events.
In each case, however, the team made it clear that these recommendations are designed to be flexible and can be taken in whatever combination and timeline that SQAP desires, allowing the site to try out options based on their artistic and logistical priorities, and available budget.
One example is the team’s recommendation for the Artist’s Lodge and Garage, a private space dedicated for the site’s visiting artists. Shannon McGoldrick, a RAMSA project architect who works on residential design, explained that the recommendations came together by talking to artists who have stayed on the property. She said, “We looked for opportunities afforded by the existing site and structure. For instance, opening the enclosed porch could create an inviting gathering space in an otherwise secluded part of the site, and offer a stunning visual connection to the House and Studio up the hill. In keeping with the spirit of flexibility, we suggested organizing the interior into a series of private suites and common areas, giving thought to the building’s use by long-term residents, short-term guests, and staff.”
SQAP’s need for more programming and gathering space also is reflected in the team’s approach to the grounds. Building on Riester’s vision for artistic experiences within the 104-acre landscape, the team proposed ideas that would draw visitors to specific landscape features throughout the site without relying on formal guideposts. These subtle pieces of wayfinding would connect to more formal open-air event, gathering, and exhibition spaces, or to what the team called “outdoor rooms.” These natural “rooms” can be re-cast, re-invented, and re-imagined with artists season by season, and year after year.
Looking Forward to the Future of Stone Quarry Art Park
The products and lessons from this fruitful collaboration at SQAP are just the beginning, and the team will carry their experiences from this project as the partnership between the National Trust and RAMSA enters its second year.
Zaengle summed up the experience as “validating.” She explained, “To have such esteemed professionals [from the National Trust and RAMSA] so well versed in their profession, come to the Park, and show that there is value in being this small, scrappy organization, was deeply meaningful to our work. This incredible team found opportunity and possibility in this landscape. The work created a guide for the organization, one that reinforces Stone Quarry as a landscape of contemporary art, shaped by artists, and open to the public.”
This project would not have been possible without the contributions of many individuals. In addition to the support of Emily Zaengle, CEO of the Stone Quarry Art Park, the project team included from RAMSA: Melissa DelVecchio, partner; Caitlin Getman, associate partner; Anna Orlando, associate and project manager; Shannon McGoldrick, project architect; Arianne Kouri, associate and research manager; and Tejal Shrotriya, historic preservation intern. The team also included, from the National Trust, Christina Morris, manager of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Where Women Made History campaign, and Valerie Balint, director of the Historic Artists' Homes & Studios program.
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