New book documents Saugerties’ Spiral House

(Photo by Phil Mansfield)

There’s a place where, as the Beatles once had it, “Your outside is in and your inside is out.” This place actually exists. It isn’t a metaphor, but a physical reality. It’s a building – a house. A house that artist Tom Gottsleben and his wife Patty Livingston dreamed up and made real over the course of more than two decades.

The Spiral House, as it’s called for obvious reasons, asks more of its visitors than any other house imaginable. It also provides more. It was built according to ancient esoteric principles reflected in the concept of sacred geometry: concepts that draw their enduring strength from the universal spiral form visible everywhere, from a nautilus shell to far-flung galaxies to our own DNA. Livingston’s favorite way of explaining sacred geometry is that it’s “the pattern language of nature, the way nature creates variety from a few simple shapes.”

Philosophic as well as practical questions bloom like spring blossoms to the curious visitor; it’s only a matter of choosing which question to pursue. How do the exterior walls escape their standard roles and wind up inside the house? How do rectilinear stones combine to make the wavelike curvilinear shapes that abound wherever you look? How, in other words, how – and why – does it all fit together?

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You want a simple, one-word answer to these seemingly abstract questions? “Unity.” It’s the aim of everything in nature, Livingston will tell you. And it’s the aim of the house itself.

Anyone lucky enough to have explored the Spiral House and the sculpture-laden grounds it inhabits on a secluded site in Saugerties will often describe their encounters in the hushed tones usually reserved for reports of extraordinary sacred spaces: visits to ancient cathedrals, to wind-and-water-carved canyons, to unspoiled forests – places where every step taken presents a new perspective, an unsuspected view of the environment, maybe even a new understanding of themselves.

 

The spiral staircase in the center of the house represents the axis mundi of traditional sacred architecture, the center pole of the world, the connection between heaven and earth. (Photo by Phil Mansfield)

 

The copper-clad roof of the house reveals the nautilus shape that informed the architecture. (Photo by Michael Nelson)

Tom Gottsleben was a visionary artist whose multiple works contain and embody practices as diverse-though-related as art, architecture, science and nature. He infused those works with a knowledge gained from a lifelong spiritual path that began in the 1970s when he became a devotee of the boy guru Maharaj Ji. That path came to a sudden end last January, when he died of an undiagnosed heart condition. He was 68 years old.

Gottsleben’s death came near the end of a ten-year effort he shared with his wife and muse Patty Livingston and with writer/editor/graphic designer Ronnie Shushan to document the story of the Spiral House’s creation. That effort has now been published in a stunning new book, The Spiral House: Revealing the Sacred in Everyday Life.

Patty Livingston and artist Tom Gottsleben created the Spiral House to be a work of art, a comfortable home and a sacred space. (Photo by Andrea Barrist Stern)

The house is more legend that reality to most folks, if only because it remains a private home that has never been open to the public. The amply illustrated and deeply detailed narrative that the three authors have brought to their effort is as close as the public is likely to get to experiencing the house and its spectacular environment.

Though it may have the appearance of a typical slapped-together coffee-table book, Shushan is eager to dispel such a notion. “It’s a story – a narrative,” she said while sitting in one of the house’s downstairs living areas. “We spent at least three years working on the manuscript, before anything else.”

She also explained the depth of the book’s narrative and the process that produced it by agreeing with E. M. Forster’s famous dictum that a writer can’t know what he thinks until he sees what he says. “Tom never told the same story twice in the same way, so we were always exploring things,” she said with a smile.

The narrative that evolved is sometimes attributed in the book to one or another of the three authors. In recounting the house’s early beginnings, when the couple’s idea was to build a house for visiting friends and family, Livingston writes:

“What began as a labor of love for others became an almost unimaginable gift for ourselves. Throughout the process, we thought we had one objective and it turns out we had another…It was a practice of waking up to ourselves. And the house continued to be a vehicle for awakening and realizing our heart’s desire.”

Recorded insights like that are available at every turn of the page, not unlike the process experienced by visitors as they move from one astonishing level of the five-story structure to another, looking outward toward Overlook Mountain or inward toward the mandalalike stonework that surrounds them. And for all its delicately rendered symbolism, the book is a motherlode of information for anyone drawn to the story of the house’s gradual construction in the hands of the skilled crews who mined and hewed the former stone quarry into the thousands of calibrated shards that, unified, made the house what it is.

The house literally grows out of the land. Sited on what was a heap of stone rubble left by quarrymen, the spiral walls gave the stones a new home where they could be whole again. This is the original purpose of sacred architecture: to create order from chaos, reenacting the creation. In the foreground, three of Tom Gottsleben’s sculptures are among the many in the field east of the house. (Photo by Mick Hales)

Call the Spiral House a sort of master key to subjects and suspicions and other stony questions you may have run across during your life. The book works the same way as its subject: brimming with insights and images as ethereal as a rainbow or elemental as a stone slab, enveloping, mysterious artworks you may never have seen on such startling, even antic display before, creations standing there in plain sight, structured, composed, but as reflective of nature’s unitary story as you’ll ever find in the pages of a book.

The Spiral House: Revealing the Sacred in Everyday Life is published by G Arts books for $75.


Read more articles from the 2019 edition of Explore Hudson Valley: Fall in the Valley

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