The Original Mad Man: Russel Wright’s Manitoga Home in Garrison NY

Manitoga was the home of American designer Russel Wright and his wife Mary. It’s located just north of the Bear Mountain Bridge in New York’s lower Hudson Valley. Pop in for a visit, particularly if you’re a “Mad Men” fan. The couple’s home, Dragon Rock, is oh so mid-century modern and the grounds have a number of well-maintained hiking trails to explore.

You may not know Russel Wright’s name, but you’ve probably seen his American Modern dinnerware. Introduced in the late 1930s, the earthy colored mix and match pieces went on to become the best selling dinnerware of all time.

Wright and his designer wife Mary (a relative of Albert Einstein), were advocates for domestic simplicity. In their 1950 book “Guide to Easier Living,” they encouraged American families to abandon the fussy and labor-intensive homekeeping and entertaining traditions of the past. Out with fancy tablecloths and formal dinner parties; in with serve yourself buffets on mix and match plates. 

The Wrights practiced what they preached and Manitoga, the couple’s home and grounds in Garrison NY, is open for touring. It’s about an hour north of NYC, whether you’re driving or taking a MetroNorth train from Grand Central to the heart of the lower Hudson Valley.

Read More: 5 Winter Wonderful Hikes in the Hudson Valley

manitoga entrance sign on Rt 9D in Garrison
Manitoga’s located in Garrison NY, home to Boscobel and the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Visiting Manitoga

The Wright’s Dragon Rock home and its surrounding 75 acres are operated as Manitoga: The Russel Wright Design Center. Access to the home is by tour only (see below for tour info), but the Woodland Trails are open to the public during daylight hours year-round.

The Wrights met at an arts gathering in the 1920s, held in Woodstock NY, called the Maverick Festival. They lived and worked in NYC but purchased the former quarry site in Garrison because it had a Woodstock vibe. They reworked the landscape, using the materials found on property, to provide a swimming hole for Mary and a meadow for entertaining.

If you’re visiting in late spring, the native mountain laurels produce extravagant pink blooms. Wright thought these resembled scoops of strawberry ice cream so he’d host an ice cream social to celebrate the season. Sadly, Mary died in 1952 and never lived in Dragon Rock, although she participated in the home’s design. 

Dragon Rock, the home of Russel Wright at Manitoga
Dragon Rock blends seamlessly with the Manitoga landscape. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Dragon Rock at Manitoga

The Wright’s home was christened Dragon Rock because the couple’s daughter thought the rock wall adjacent to the swimming pond resembled a dragon’s snout. The building blends harmoniously with the wooded landscape. It’s possible you might not notice it if you didn’t know it was there.

My favorite feature of the exterior is a pergola draped in the heart-shaped leaves of Dutchman’s Pipe vine. I’ll be heading back in the spring to check out the pipe-shaped blossoms!

squished toilet paper roll wall at Dragon Rock, Russel Wright home in Garrison NY
Can you guess how these leaves were made? Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Unusual Design Elements

The Wrights’ home at Manitoga, Dragon Rock, has many unique design features. For example, the flat roof is covered in shallow-rooted sedum plants. Green roofs have many benefits such as absorbing rainwater and providing insulation, but they’re still very rare in 2022. Visitors to Dragon Rock in the 1960s must have thought it was totally weird.

The outdoors comes indoors throughout the home. Wright and his daughter covered a ceiling in his studio with white pine needles. The floors of the home are stones quarried from the site. And a large cypress trunk encases a steel support beam in the living room.

Wright liked to upcycle too. A bedroom wall features toilet paper rolls squished to resemble leaves.

interior of Dragon Rock the mid-century modern home of Russel Wright
Dragon Rock’s dining area and kitchen. The chandelier is not Wright’s. It’s an installation from Italian artists Formafantasma. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Clean Lines

Personally, I find modern interiors stark and impractical. The clean surfaces are appealing but I can’t imagine a home without color and layers.

The cabinetry throughout the house is made of bright white Formica, the shiny counter material popular in the 50s. The tour guide said the material is two-sided. Wright would switch over spring/summer white for a reddish burnt orange for the cooler months.

examples of American Modern Russel Wright dinnerware
Examples of Russel and Mary Wright’s home decor products are on display in the design studio at Manitoga. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Colorful Mix and Match Dinnerware

Before there was Martha Stewart, there was Russel Wright. He debuted the American Modern dinnerware as a starter set of 12 pieces, in a range of soft, earthy pastel shades. Housewives were hooked and successive design releases drew crowds to Macy’s and other department stores.

Two of the bedrooms in Dragon Rock have been reconfigured as a gallery where you can learn about the progression of the couple’s career and see examples of their designs. American Modern dinnerware was produced by the Steubenville Pottery Company in Ohio. The swooping lines and clever designs are still very appealing. Bauer Pottery makes American Modern dinnerware today, but it sells for way more than the $6.95 starter set price!

examples of American Modern dinnerware
Cleverly sexy. This Wright-designed sugar bowl has a built in spoon. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf

Manitoga Tour Options

When planning your trip to Manitoga be aware that you must book a tour to see the house, studio and gallery. Several tour options are available. Public tours include:

  • Design – Art – Nature Tour
  • Collectors Tour
  • Sunset Tour

Additionally, private, group and student group tours can be scheduled.

The public tours are capped at 12 people, so the experience is fairly intimate. The small group size means you’ll need to book in advance to avoid getting shut out.

The tour lengths vary from 90 minutes to two hours, are held rain or shine and include a mandatory, moderate hike. Access to the house is via an inclined trail that has mulched paths and stone steps. It is not wheelchair- or stroller-friendly. Dress appropriately and don’t forget the sunscreen/insect repellant. 2022 tour prices range from $30 – $100. 

manitoga design gallery
Check out examples of the Wrights’ modern designs in the gallery at Manitoga. Photo credit: Cathy Bennett Kopf