Across from the Ashokan Reservoir Spillway where the watershed releases a deluge each spring, Lissa Kiernan and Chris Abramides have created a home dedicated to their love of poetry. Surrounded by Catskill woodlands, the four-acre property is a mixed-use mashup between the couple's personal space and their shared passion project: the Poetry Barn, a poetry library open to the public for browsing and workshops. "Both the house and the barn have a very colorful history," explains Kiernan, who first stumbled onto the property in 2015 when searching for a place to physically manifest her online poetry community. "Really, we bought a barn with a house attached to it, and the amazing panoramic views don't hurt."
Like a near-rhyming couplet, the couple's light-soaked contemporary home is paired with a colorful barn housing Kiernan's extensive poetry collection, an upstairs studio, and a space for workshops. The surrounding grounds include writing and reading areas for guests, a fire pit, and an abundance of natural inspiration. "It's an enchanted forest," says Kiernan. "I've heard it said that places that are on the edges of things, that straddle distinct ecosystems or habitats, are the most varied in terms of biodiversity, and that certainly feels true. After it rains, the trees literally glow."
Wild, Precious LifeKiernan grew up in the Berkshires, where she developed her love of poetry early in life. After high school, she moved to New York City to attend the New School and graduated in 1998 with a degree in media arts right as the internet was exploding. That led to a career working for various dot-coms, but she never forgot her early love of words. "Poetry was always at the back of my mind," she explains. "But it was definitely on the back burner for a long time."
When her father was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2003 and then died within four months, she began to reevaluate her priorities. It occurred to her that her love of poetry was a way to contain her grief. "I think I was seeking an outlet for all that emotion," she says. "And because it happened so quickly it made me think about the time I had left."
Kiernan enrolled in the Stonecoast MFA program in creative writing at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. Her time there led to her cross-genre prose work Glass Needles & Goose Quills, which explores the connection between her father's death and environmental destruction. After graduating in 2011, Kiernan decided to put her two degrees together—combining her technical skills and website-building experience with her writing abilities, and began offering online poetry workshops.After that, "It really just caught on," she explains of the online venture that started as a private invitational space where people could contribute works and attended online workshops. "People formed connections and then they began to ask if we could meet in person," she says. The timing coincided with Abramides's retirement and her growing desire to leave Brooklyn. They knew the Hudson Valley would be the ideal place to try out their poetic experiment.
Cottage IndustryStaying with friends, they began scouring the area for a property where they could manifest their particular vision of a live-work space. "The main requirement was that the property have a barn that could be converted into a poetry center, or at least had land to build on," Kiernan says. She set up an Indiegogo campaign to help fund the project and focused her attentions on Dutchess County, which appealed both because of its pastoral landscape and its proximity to the rail line. However, there were no properties that fit their vision. Then, one weekend, inspiration struck.
"I didn't have any appointments in Dutchess, so I did a Zillow search of the area around the reservoir, which we'd just discovered by driving around," Kiernan recalls. "I stumbled across a listing that included a photo of a barn with its doors partially open. I could see bright yellow bookshelves inside and just knew it would be the future Poetry Barn."
They'd been planning to build something similar from scratch, but it seemed what they were imagining was already built. Kiernan and Abramides went to see the property and realized they'd found exactly what they'd envisioned. "When I walked in I could not believe how perfect it was, how much love had already been poured into it. And from the house, the view, particularly of High Point mountain, was just breathtaking."
Kiernan soon learned the property's colorful history. Built in 1979, the house was the residence of the operators of Su Casa. "It was a summer resort reported to be a swingers and nudist hotspot in the `70s and `80s," Kiernan explains.
Interior Design VillanelleMeanwhile, Kiernan and Abramides focused on turning the 1,650-square-foot home into their new nest. "When we moved in, the vibe was very boho, with the unfinished ceiling beams and a slap-dash, partially stuccoed brick wall behind the wood stove," she says. The couple left the ceiling beams unfinished but repainted the open-concept interior to give the space a more cohesive and light-washed ambiance. With windows in all four directions, the second-floor living space takes full advantage of its views. "We enjoy 180-degree views of the Shawangunks and Catskills, but especially the Burroughs Range, including Slide Mountain," says Kiernan. Adjacent to the main living space, two decks allow the couple the chance to enjoy the views in the warmer months. They worked with Ben Bowers of Ben Bowers Construction in Saugerties to replace the rotting wood with Trex decking. The living space also includes the primary bedroom and a bath with a clawfoot tub. Two additional bedrooms and a bath are outfitted for guests to use on the first floor, which also houses Abramides's office.
Throughout the home's interior, Kiernan's poetic decorating style is on full display. "Color is very important to me," she explains. "I like to connect disparate styles by color, shape, texture, and repetition. I enjoy similar objects in different contexts." A painting in the entrance features Kiernan's childhood home in the Berkshires, but is also remarkably similar to the view right outside the front door. An antique Japanese rice paper wallet and a piece of McCoy pottery on display in the living room are both also depicted in a painting by artist Nancy Hagin. In the couple's bedroom, a collection of landscape paintings echo the mountain view through the bedroom window. A long, first-floor hallway features Abramides's collection of Wallace Nutting and Nutting-like hand-tinted art photographs.
When the couple were able to take possession of the barn, they wanted to stay true to its original design, but add more poetry-friendly updates. They kept the barn's yellow, red, black, and white painted walls, which were chosen by Caigan to represent both the four humors and the four seasons. "He ground the colors for them himself and sourced the ceiling's remarkable blue pigment from Germany," says Kiernan.
The couple did add windows to the space as well as a large rolling ladder to make the extensive poetry collection more accessible. Kiernan also commissioned the artist AnneLouise Burns to create an oak tree sculptural installation with the names of donors who helped make the space possible.
Since its opening in 2017, the Poetry Barn has steadily gained a loyal following, even despite the pandemic. "My main hope is that people will continue to discover the Poetry Barn and take advantage of its library," says Kiernan, who is especially excited to hear when people make pilgrimages to the space.