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Richard Alther’s Lakeside Home Is a Memorial to His Own History — and Vermont’s


Published July 2, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

View from the office and library - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • View from the office and library

Richard Alther lives on Fort Cassin Point, an island in Ferrisburgh where Otter Creek meets Lake Champlain. In 1814, it was the site of the Battle of Fort Cassin, between the U.S. Navy and a British fleet aiming to destroy American warships being built upriver. The two-hour exchange of gunfire resulted in a win for the young republic and was a turning point in the War of 1812.

The date of that battle, May 14, happens to be Alther's birthday — a stroke of luck in an already fortunate life, he told me on a recent tour of his home. The nearly six-foot-tall 84-year-old has a deeply lined face and a slightly stooped but athletic physique from decades of competitive swimming.

We were standing on the sharp point of land used in the battle, its low shoreline still edged by the undulating earthworks built by the Americans to repel the enemy, though the seven cannons once nestled between the mounds are gone. To one side is the mouth of Otter Creek, screened by trees and brush; in front, the long expanse of Lake Champlain. Across the lake, which is only two miles wide at that point, lies a 10-mile-long, completely forested mountain — part of New York State's Adirondack Park.

Richard Alther's home on Fort Cassin Point in Ferrisburgh overlooking Lake Champlain - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Richard Alther's home on Fort Cassin Point in Ferrisburgh overlooking Lake Champlain

Alther owns this unique spot on Lake Champlain, with an unusually large 1,200 feet of lakefront footage and not another house in sight. The view from his pavilion, perched on a rise a short walk along the shore from the point, reveals 180 degrees of nothing but undeveloped land, water and sky. And a few boats.

"It's odd to have this much privacy," Alther said, adding that there are only five other houses on the 26-acre island, which is reached by a gravel causeway.

Richard Alther - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Richard Alther

Odd, too, that Alther used to visit this very spot as a child every summer while growing up in New Jersey. Raised in humble circumstances by his grandparents, he came as a guest of his grandfather's fishing buddy, a Wall Street banker. His host belonged to the Fort Cassin Club, a Methodist-affiliated bankers' retreat with a clubhouse that was built on the point in 1876.

After attending Cornell University and launching an advertising career in New York City, Alther moved to Vermont. He cofounded the home power equipment company Country Home Products in Vergennes and took up master's swimming, in which he competed nationally for 25 years. A painter from a young age, he also shows and sells his artwork and writes novels.

Alther was delighted to discover his childhood summer vacation spot on the market. He purchased the Fort Cassin property in 1979 — he still swims to Diamond Island, a mile off his shore, once a year. He eventually bought the lot next door, too, replacing the rotting house on the site with the pavilion. His house is the clubhouse he visited as a child, wholly renovated and with several additions. Still, echoes of the original structure remain in the shape of the double-height living room with its half-hexagonal wall facing the lake; parts of the stone foundation; and the roofline of the room he uses as a painting studio. In his bedroom hangs a large friendship quilt made in 1900 by the Wall Street bankers' wives.

The living room and a seating area in an alcove - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • The living room and a seating area in an alcove

With his husband of 20 years, musician Raymond Repp, who died in 2020, Alther turned the enlarged plot and its structures into a unified work of art, dotted with more art inside and out. Weybridge builder Clark Sutton and a team that included Bob Coates designed much of the house; Mad River Valley architect John Anderson had early input.

Alther's landscaper, Andrea Morgante of Hinesburg, might have been inspired by the subtle mounds of the battlement earthworks: The lawn, ground cover and beds all undulate, screening, revealing and highlighting numerous sculptures and accenting the stunning views. Low stone walls seem always to curve.

One of the many large sculptures on the property - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • One of the many large sculptures on the property

Similarly, the house's historic half-hexagonal shape is repeated in a screened porch and in the pavilion. In fact, almost no space in or outside the house is rectilinear. Recessed diagonal walls frame the front door, beside a pleasantly tinkling abstract stone sculpture fountain.

Inside, the modest entry becomes an event, with cathedral-height skylights and a movie set-like tile step and pathway that spans two black infinity-edge fountains flush with the floor. The sound of moving water in the foyer is intriguingly difficult to square with the invisibility of its movement. Among the artworks in the space, in metal, glass and oil, is Alther's own 10-foot-wide abstract painting in muted tans, grays and blue, a calming composition hinting at stone and water.

The soothing sounds of a water feature, subtle tones and fine art greet visitors in the foyer. - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • The soothing sounds of a water feature, subtle tones and fine art greet visitors in the foyer.

Past Alther's painting lies the main part of the house, which starts with a long built-in bar with glass shelves supporting full sets of glasses in every possible shape. Alther and Repp entertained every weekend, he said, and even wrote a cookbook together.

A different path from the foyer leads past a sculptural swirl of orange blown-glass objects affixed to the wall and into the bedroom. There, a high, trapezoidal ceiling lined in dark cherrywood slopes toward a sweeping lake view captured in a row of tall windows topped with shorter ones — a pattern that repeats throughout the house. A massive cherry bed creates an island in the center of the carpeted room. No other furniture is necessary, because built-ins fill an extensive bathroom behind one partial wall and a generously outfitted walk-in closet behind another — or rather, a walk-through closet, a roughly triangular room that leads to the main house.

The lake can be spotted from nearly every room of the mostly open-plan house, and Alther's carefully curated and installed collection of art complements the water views. Works by Vermonters Barbara Wagner, Alice Murdoch and Catherine Hall hang alongside prints by nationally famous Helen Frankenthaler and Alice Neel. On a side table in the living room sits a tall, porous white porcelain bowl. Its delicate shape and material are a pleasing contrast to the heavy central stone chimney, as well as to the sculptural metal chandelier that Alther and Repp commissioned from Burlington's Conant Metal & Light.

Lakeside gazebo - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Lakeside gazebo

Alther's own skillful watercolors of buildings and landscapes, the result of studying with Fairfax watercolorist Larry Goldsmith, fill the dining room.

"They go down easily," Alther said frankly about them. He moved on to abstraction long ago and is currently reworking a painting in his studio whose composition he feels could be improved. On a table beside his easel are meticulously arranged tubes of paint and brushes. "I'm a neatnik," he explained.

Sculptures mimicking natural shapes are highlighted inside and out. - BEAR CIERI
  • Bear Cieri
  • Sculptures mimicking natural shapes are highlighted inside and out.

Over the years, Alther's work has been exhibited in London, Los Angeles, Montréal, at his alma mater and in Vermont galleries such as the now-closed Four Winds in Ferrisburgh. Fifteen of his large abstract oil paintings are on permanent display in the oncology wing of the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington. On September 14, a solo show of his work is scheduled for Wake Robin retirement community in Shelburne, where he keeps an apartment "for if and when."

Back outside, Alther pointed out the spot where he used to dive into the lake at age 8: a series of horizontal rock shelves at water level, an unusual respite from the mostly rocky bluffs of Lake Champlain's shoreline.

"I feel so fortunate that I had this background in Vermont as a boy," he commented. "Living in Vermont has allowed for such a rich life."

The original print version of this article was headlined "On a Curve | Richard Alther's lakeside home is a memorial to his own history — and Vermont's"

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