Built as solid as a rock

MARGARETVILLE, New York — “This is the chosen one,” John Carson says, standing in front of the boulder in the living room of his modern house high on a mountainside in the Catskill Mountains. “This is the one that started it all.”

He is not talking about, say, a 60-centimeter rock, the sort of thing one might put next to a fireplace, a nod to the beauty of nature, which, should you tire of it, could be given a kick down the mountain. This is the 225-metric-ton bluestone gorilla in the living room: 2.5 meters high, 4.5 meters wide, almost 7 meters deep.

You see its formidable bulk from the open steel-and-wood stairs when you enter at the midlevel of this house. It dominates the living room; you don’t want to say anything to annoy it. Then you begin to notice its particular, companionable charms, like the ledge that juts out on one side, forming a seat in front of the fireplace, allowing the rock to become part of the conversation.

Since he was a boy, Carson, a New York City builder and real estate developer, dreamed of building a house around a giant stone. He and his wife, Sharon Slowik, estimate that they looked at 75 properties before finding this one.

“I think what happened was a broker took us to a place that was absolutely not what we wanted,” Carson says. “The boulders were the size of a Volkswagen. I said, ‘I want something massive — I want something the size of a train car. I want something bigger than would ever be appropriate.’ “

Carson, who is 53, is the president of On the Level Enterprises, the real estate development firm that commissioned the architect Bernard Tschumi to design the critically acclaimed Blue building, a 17-story blue-glass residential high rise in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan, which opened two years ago.

Carson is a pretty hip package himself. His boots, on a recent visit, were of a sort not often seen on builders in this eastern corner of Delaware County: knee-high caramel-colored Le Chameau rubber boots, with a snazzy side zipper.

His wife bought him his first pair when she was in Paris, Carson says. Because he feels that if something is wonderful you should have two pair, he owns three. His two-tone butterscotch frame eyeglasses are by Alain Mikli.

“I bought them on a trip to Biarritz,” he says. “My next-favorite thing about that trip was the beach.”

One of his least favorite things is discussing money. How much it cost to build his glass-and-copper-faced house, which took four years to construct, he will not say. He is happy, however, to discuss his dreams for the house, which go back to a walk he and his father took in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, in search of a Christmas tree, when Carson was a boy.

“We had to walk past a creek and up into an area with a barn that probably hadn’t been used for 50 years,” Carson says. It “had fallen, dilapidated, over a huge face cliff. I was about 7 years old and I said, ‘Pop, some day I’m gonna build a house and the fourth wall is gonna be a rock.’ I looked for that rock for 40 years.”

Carson received a degree in art from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, studied printmaking at Pennsylvania State University and moved to New York in 1979, where he worked in a fine art print shop, then fell into contracting. He married Slowik, who works in textile design and essential oil therapy, in 1993.

The couple had a country house, a small cottage, but they continued to search for a place to build Carson’s rock house. Slowik made a bullet-point list of the requirements — which did not include a price limit — and sent it to 15 brokers.

“It had to be near water, near a town, large enough that we couldn’t see neighbors, about 10 acres, and be quiet,” Slowik says, sitting in the living room with husband, reporter and boulder.

What about the rock?
“The rock ledge was number one,” Slowik says. “We didn’t say mountain because we didn’t know what the setting would be.”

In January 2003, a real estate broker showed them this piece of property on the side of a mountain in Delaware County. They hiked through the snow to reach it. There was no water, no electricity — only a hunting cabin and a rocky cliff. And of course the boulder, surrounded by ash trees. They paid $75,000 for 32 hectares.

Building around the boulder, which was 4.5 meters high, created questions to which, Carson soon learned, there were very few answers: Would the boulder act as a thermal heat sink? Would they be able to waterproof it against the stream of water than ran underneath the edge?

Nor was this a flat piece of property. A rock ledge stood 6 meters to the side of the boulder, which meant the house would have to be built on two levels. Carson’s expertise was in steel high-rise buildings in Manhattan. He knew nothing about building in rural America. So he designed a home that was essentially two interconnected boxes on two separate foundations, with a steel superstructure, often calling his friend Eli Gottlieb, a structural engineer, for help. New York City steelworkers built the frame.

“These guys were from Brooklyn, and they were nuts,” Carson says, in a tone that makes it clear he means “nuts” in the best sense of the word. “They went out and went bar-hopping in their canary-yellow semi, so of course they got pulled over and one of them gets thrown in jail. At 7 a.m., they’re back on the job. That night, they do the same thing again.”

Carson and Slowik wanted a home that was not only airy and open, but also was, as Slowik puts it, a collaboration with nature. They created a glass-walled “light well” — essentially a 1-meter-square courtyard open to the sky — between the master bath and a hallway, from which they can watch the snow and rain. A corner of bluestone boulder juts into the master bathroom. New York City subway grating is used as a bridge from the second-level dining room to the living room and an outdoor deck. The cost was about $1,000.

Isn’t it hard to find a subway grate?

“Not for a New York builder,” Carson says.

Wherever possible, however, they used local materials and employed local craftsmen. The burgundy front door was made from ash trees on the property that they cut down themselves and had milled at Gary Mead’s Fruitful Furnishings, in Margaretville. Dean Hunter, a Margaretville mason, built the 9-meter fireplace from local bluestone; Dave Goodchild and his nephews Clint and Jack Goodchild of Margaretville were the carpenters.

Despite Carson’s concerns, the boulder caused no problems, though he did put a lot of work into it. After completing a foundation that reached half the height of the boulder, he poured a concrete slab at the boulder’s base. Then applied a sealant over the slab and the rock. Then radiant-heat tubing was installed and a second concrete slab was poured. Not only has the rock never leaked, it maintains a temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the winter. He uses a thermal imaging camera to measure it.

It’s been a wonderful benefit. But it’s secondary to the thing Carson always suspected: “There’s just something inviting about being able to rub against nature in your living room.”