Ascending the steep, wooded driveway to Ridley and Nina Maric Whitakers’ home in South Egremont, the property makes an immediate impression. The day I was there, two white-tailed bucks grazed on the lawn below the house—they apprised me and my car, then bounded casually into the woods. Flocks of sparrows flittered in and out of bushes and low trees. Arriving finally at the top of the ridge on which the Whitakers’ house sits, I encountered an astonishing view of the Catskills, nearby Catamount ski area, and the gentle hills of northwestern Connecticut. It felt like I was standing on the top of the southern Berkshires.
Ridley and Nina bought this 61-acre property in 2004. Ridley, an attorney who represents Chinese companies in U.S. business ventures, was raised in Wilton, Connecticut; Nina, a painter, was raised in Belgrade (in what is now Serbia). They met in 1984 when Ridley was on a business trip in Croatia and married soon thereafter. Starting out in New York City, they later moved to Katonah, New York, to find more space for Nina’s increasingly larger paintings and expanding career. When Nina found she needed even more space and a larger studio, they discovered the Berkshires.
The 7,500-square-foot main house sits firmly on the ridgetop at an elevation of 1,360 feet, right up against the New York state line. Designed together by Ridley and Nina, with the help of Ashley Falls architect John James, the house represents a merger of their ancestry—New England and Eastern Europe. This is evident in the mixture of old American aesthetic and the works of prominent Yugoslavian and Serbian painters, including Nina herself. Contributing further to the melding of multiple cultures, much of the furniture in the house was purchased by Ridley during his frequent trips to China. “From the outside it’s the quintessential colonial American house,” says Nina, “but the outside doesn’t tell you much about what’s inside—the inside of the house tells a different story.”
Nina, daughter of acclaimed Yugoslav fashion designer Mirjana Marić, is regarded as one of the most important contemporary artists of the former Yugoslavia. Her paintings have been exhibited in Venice, Paris, Belgrade, Milan, Rome, Munich, New York City, and Hudson, and she has curated gallery shows around the world. Exploring themes of home, boundaries, diaspora, the meaning of maps, and the shifting political landscape, she creates a fantasy geography in which unexpected images sit alongside each other. In the words of art critic Donald Kuspit, “Marić rearranges the globe, creating a weird new map of the world.”
This rearranging and blending of worlds is found in their home, where many of Nina’s paintings adorn the walls and an engraving above the fireplace features a stanza written by Ridley’s great-grandfather, literary editor Edward Sanford Martin. The living room is filled with artifacts of the Whitakers’ lives and travels, and the dining room (which features a custom-built Chinese table) seats 24 yet is still cozy and inviting. That dichotomy is what makes the home both formal and friendly, as in the kitchen, which is large but not overwhelmingly so, and warm. The floor of the entire first story is made of acid-washed concrete embedded with radiant heating that keeps the house cozy even on the coldest days.
The home’s two upper floors feature an office, a large sitting room, six bedrooms, and additional fireplaces. An elevator was installed to assist with moving firewood to upper floors.
Sitting as it does on a ridgetop, the house is exceptionally exposed; blizzards, driving rain, and winds of 70 miles an hour are not uncommon. As a result, building materials were selected to protect the structure against the elements. The siding is made of Hardiboard, a fiber-cement compound designed to last and that requires little maintenance. “If we had regular wood siding up here we’d spend all our time replacing it,” says Ridley. The roof is made of Enviroshakes shingles, which from a distance look like slate shingles but are in fact made from reprocessed tires; like the siding, the shingles are highly durable and provide excellent insulation. The roof is reinforced with handsome copper flashing that, likewise, is strong and designed to last.
The gardens, designed by Nina’s mother, are simultaneously meticulous and welcoming. Cutouts in the hedgerows create charming outdoor rooms that provide plenty of secluded spaces—everywhere you look you see a place you’d like to go and sit with a book and cup of coffee or glass of wine. A pool, and its accompanying pool house and outdoor shower, is sited to provide swimmers and sunbathers with stunning views of the surrounding hills. An abundance of barberry, crimson king maple, and Japanese maple—all reddish, a conscious choice of Nina’s mom—creates a unique character to the color of the landscape.
A three-story barn, which sits on a hilltop in a wooded area above the house, serves as Nina’s studio. It was the first structure built on the property, and they lived there for two years while the main house was constructed. The barn later became fully devoted to Nina’s artmaking (with the exception of the third floor, which is outfitted as an extra area for guests). Large windows and a garage door that serves as a main entrance create a space that is open, bright, and well-ventilated. “The barn gives me complete privacy and total mental freedom that is vital to the way I work,” Nina says. “Working here, with a view down to the house and the surrounding hills, I feel like I’m top of the world.
“The first time we came here, it was a winter day with swirling winds. Ridley and I were both reminded immediately of Varykino, the ice palace featured in Doctor Zhivago. There is a mysteriousness to the property that’s hard to describe. We feel very privileged to live here on the top of this hill.”