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A Garrison Estate That Was Formerly a Commune

The library in the main house at the estate that Juan Montoya named La Formentera. Photo: Douglas Elliman

When Juan Montoya first saw the estate he would spend the next four decades tweaking, it was occupied by a commune. The stone house off an old wooded post road in Garrison, New York, had been long rented to a group of hippies who had been burning furniture for heat. A graveyard of rusting cars had been strewn across 70 acres of wild, unkempt land. In the living room, Montoya found a marijuana farm.

In 1982, when he bought the place, the image of Montoya stumbling around a dilapidated commune might have been amusing to his clients back in Manhattan. An interior designer to the rich, he was schooled as a modernist but known for bringing a sense of luxurious order to any style of home. “Every time we saw something we liked in a design magazine, it was Montoya,” said a client in 1979, who hired him to rethink an apartment in an 1882 Greenwich Village Queen Anne. Montoya has since designed the splashy interiors of beach resorts, Park Avenue penthouses, and Paris art galleries. But until he bought the house in Garrison, he had no broad canvas to try material his clients wouldn’t allow. “The house became a laboratory for my ideas and feelings — without limitations,” he says. “It’s my wonderful masterpiece.”

Montoya spent years studying the land before he created a lake, added garden sculptures and paths, and built a pool. “My philosophy is, if you cut a tree, you’re done. It can’t grow back quickly. So I didn’t want to do that.” Photo: Douglas Elliman

Montoya fell in love with the land because it reminded him of Colombia, where he grew up in a family of intellectual elites as the grandson of one of the country’s most lauded writers, Jorge Isaacs. His novel Maria is partially set on the family’s 1816 hacienda, whose high ceilings and shady breezeways helped flush out the heat. Montoya’s father moved the family out to the countryside and kept horses — associations Montoya pulled on as he stripped the 1940 stone house of white asbestos shingles, then expanded the ground floor with a shady, heat-repelling loggia walled with squat stone columns that supported a wide deck off the second story. Inside, ceilings were lined with reeds, a style he plucked from Japan. And the home’s flow was engineered to make each space feel separate. “I like the idea of mystery,” he says. The dark library is tucked away off the main living area, and the primary bedroom is up in the home’s former attic, accessible by a staircase modeled after the collapsible stairs that they replaced, now sleeved in antique carpet.

The main house was built in the 1940s by a Bell Labs scientist and his wife. Though Montoya changed it dramatically, he respected what he thought that family had intended: a home that peered down over a garden. Photo: Douglas Elliman

Over the years, Montoya acquired protected land nearby and the property grew to 110 acres. The grounds around the house have been developed and feel more like Storm King than a country estate. Montoya stippled the landscape with pyramids, spheres, and cubes that he designed himself from rock quarried in Garrison. Columns he bought in Indonesia have been half-buried, displayed as an art installation. After a 2018 storm felled 50 trees, he piled the wood in a curve to create a half-moon that serves no purpose other than to lead the eye. “What was I going to do,” Montoya says. “Burn it?” But perhaps his most audacious creation is a three-acre lake, big enough to canoe in, which was built by fixing a retaining wall against sloped land fed by two brooks. It’s where he swam for years before building a 60-foot-long pool down a set of stone steps from the main house, whose tiled bottom is modeled after one he saw at a palace in Stockholm.

Later, Montoya added a pool, where in warm weather he swam 40 laps every day before lunch. Photo: Douglas Elliman

The home started as a weekend retreat: He named it after an idyllic vacation isle, La Formentera, just south of Ibiza, and called it his “cocoon.” But the estate eventually came to function as more of a showpiece; he eventually invited a photographer there, whose images became a hefty 2012 design book about the home. Still, there were aspects that could not be photographed. In the 1980s, a carpenter working on the house discovered something that the original occupants had left behind: an urn. The ashes belonged to the wife of the first owner, a scientist at Bell Labs, and Montoya considered the idea of returning the remains to the family, who might live far away. But that didn’t feel right. Instead, he told the carpenter to keep her in the house — building her a safe spot somewhere that he would never find. And he never did. “It’s a good soul who has protected the property,” he said. “It’s a paradise that should be kept and respected, and I hope the new owners will do that.”

The main house includes a carport. Montoya used to drive up on Friday evenings from Manhattan and leave on Monday mornings. “Every time I came into my house, I smiled,” he says. Photo: Douglas Elliman
He added a stone loggia that supports a wide deck. Designing the columns required careful consideration, he says: “The weight of each column creates a sensation.” Photo: Douglas Elliman
A deck, ready for parties, looks over the garden. “If you’re on the deck, you’re exposed to the sun. If you’re underneath, you’re exposed to the shadow,” Montoya says. “I love that transition.” Photo: Douglas Elliman
He kept the post and beam joinery of the original house, sometimes scaling it back or moving it. He expanded the home upward, into the attic, creating higher ceilings and drama. Photo: Douglas Elliman
The entrance leads down into the living room, with a wood-burning fireplace. Photo: Douglas Elliman
Montoya designed a weather vane and had it made by a local craftsman, then put it on display atop the fireplace. Photo: Douglas Elliman
The steps up to the primary suite pay homage to what was there before: retractable stairs to a bare-bones attic. Photo: Douglas Elliman
Just behind those stairs is the bathroom. The wood paneling is made from wood found in the original home. Photo: Douglas Elliman
In Manhattan, Montoya sleeps with the drapes closed. But in his primary bedroom in Garrison, he lets the light wake him. “I love waking up with the birds.” Photo: Douglas Elliman
The bed faces a private terrace. Photo: Douglas Elliman
An en-suite bathroom in the primary bedroom. Photo: Douglas Elliman
A study where Montoya sometimes worked was carved into a nook in the former attic. Photo: Douglas Elliman
Off the main entrance, a short staircase leads up to a landing, which continues to the guest bedrooms. Photo: Douglas Elliman
One of two guest bedrooms in the main house. Carpets throughout are sisal. “There’s very little that’s not organic,” says broker Richard Balzano, who says most of the hardware in the house is wood. Photo: Douglas Elliman
A second guest bedroom. Photo: Douglas Elliman
Montoya built a second building to resemble the main house. On the ground level is a garage. The airy room upstairs was intended as an art studio, with a kitchenette and bath. “It’s a place where I cocoon,” he says. Photo: Douglas Elliman
Montoya had so many friends and clients visiting that he ended up using the studio as a guesthouse. Photo: Douglas Elliman
The squat stone building that Montoya uses to hide trash bins was there when he bought the property. Photo: Douglas Elliman
Photo: Douglas Elliman
Photo: Douglas Elliman
Photo: Douglas Elliman
Photo: Douglas Elliman
Photo: Douglas Elliman
A Garrison Estate That Was Formerly a Commune