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 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.
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.
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.”