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Faces, places, treasures, and trends that caught our attention

Dan Sternberg: Going Wild
August 22, 2023

Written by Tovah Martin

Photos by Rana Faure

Dan Sternberg’s garden might look totally wild, but the seeming “carefree abandon” is actually carefully groomed.

If the 18 acres around Dan Sternberg and Debbie Cooper’s Millerton house doesn’t look like a garden, they have achieved their goal. It all started with a simple directive from Dan. “My buzz word was that I didn’t want to own a lawnmower.” The couple had been renting in the region for years when they decided to make the ownership commitment. But still, they weren’t dedicated to diving into all the maintenance that a large parcel of land in the country would require. Mowing a lawn felt like too much work.

Actually, Dan’s instincts were right on target regarding a lawnmower. The type of nearly wild landscape that would work with the contemporary house he envisioned required only annual mowing. But it was certainly not maintenance-free. That said, he ultimately became completely devoted to his land. To the untrained eye, the landscape might look like a field left to its own devices, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, this is a sterling example of the trending concept of rewilded land. If you were a bird, bug, or critter living in Dutchess County, StarHill would be your ideal home. 

Naturalistic landscape architect Jamie Purinton was recommended by architects Elizabeth Demetriades and Patrick Walker of Demetriades + Walker, a team based in Lakeville, Connecticut. Textural and wabi-sabi, the house that Demetriades + Walker designed for the site sits modestly below the ridge line of the hill, surveying the Oblong Valley but discretely flowing into the land. Sternberg has always felt an affinity for all things Japanese, and the house fits the Zen aesthetic that he admires. Originally, the surrounding acres were a boring combination of “meadowgrass and horses,” as defined by Sternberg. On the other hand, the meadow Jamie Purinton designed is absolutely enthralling. 

While the house was still under construction, Purinton went to work on the landscape. By the autumn of 2014, she had called in the biologists from the Farmscape Ecology Program to accomplish a site survey, identifying plants already existing on the land and its immediate surroundings. Their findings steered Purinton’s plant list to furnish more of the same with additional native fillers to bring the meadow from boring to bodacious. Stacia and Angel Montenegro of Garden Tenders are responsible for the landscape’s installation and upkeep of the property. Although the scene is predominated by perennial meadow plants, carefully sited trees serve as strategically placed punctuation. Most notably, staghorn sumac has become a signature sculptural element of StarHill, artistically sculpted by Sternberg. Crabapples were installed in small groves to echo the outlying windswept apple trees. 

To admire the un-garden, the house was designed with generous windows and glass pocket doors. Terraces immediately around the house also provide viewing stations in season while a more curated combination of geraniums, thymes, sweet fern, asters, and other low-growing plants open sightlines, frame the house, and crouch below a weathered steel retaining wall to hold the embankment. Stacia Montenegro’s selection for the inventory was made on the basis of height, habitat preferences, and availability. Needless to say, she requires massive quantities. “I look at the availability list and think ‘Who wants to come and play with me?’ That’s what I order.” 

Of course, Sternberg is now all in. Especially in autumn when the landscape has raging color plus a textural weave that changes continually, he proudly documents the progression of the ecosystem he is nurturing. To further that intimacy, pathways of aromatic thyme wind throughout the taller perennials. Although tedious mowing is not part of his weekly schedule, Dan and Debbie are in the “almost wild” landscape daily, applauding its treasures.