Kevin McKenzie and Martine van Hamel: On the Zen of Escaping City Life

Kevin McKenzie and Martine van Hamel were standing in the dining room of their weekend house in Woodstock, N.Y., trying to figure out when they got married.

“We’ve been living together 35 years, 36 years or something, but we got married relatively recently,” said Mr. McKenzie, 68, who is retiring in December after 30 years as the artistic director of American Ballet Theatre. (The company’s summer season at the Metropolitan Opera — almost his swan song — runs through July 16.)

“Living together 34 years,” corrected Ms. van Hamel, 76, who, like her husband, was a principal dancer with A.B.T. She still performs character roles there and teaches ballet at Kaatsbaan, a cultural park in Tivoli, N.Y., that she and Mr. McKenzie helped found in 1990.

“But when did we get married? I have to do the math. Your mother was dead by then, right?” Mr. McKenzie asked.

Kevin McKenzie, 68, the artistic director of American Ballet Theater, and his wife, Martine van Hamel, 76, a former principal dancer with A.B.T., own a weekend house in Woodstock, N.Y., that once belonged to her parents. “It’s my idea of paradise,” Mr. McKenzie said.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

“I cannot remember,” he added, with a rueful laugh.

Hmm. The wedding was about seven years ago, Mr. McKenzie estimated. Six years ago, Ms. van Hamel guessed.

Never mind. They are in total agreement about their home in Woodstock. With all due respect to their rental on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, there really is no place finer. For Mr. McKenzie, it’s a respite from a high-pressure job in a high-pressure city. For Ms. van Hamel, it’s a link to her parents, Diederik and Manette, the previous owners.

When Diederik, a globe-trotting Dutch diplomat, was posted to Toronto in the 1960s, retirement was close and so was Woodstock, where Manette, also from the Netherlands, had spent an idyllic part of her childhood.

They began making periodic visits and, in 1967, bought a two-acre property with a diminutive, low-ceilinged house, a creek and several outbuildings, including a chicken coop and a cottage that subsequently became a rental unit. There was also a root cellar. Like the house, it was built in 1904, but unlike the house, it boasted a dependably consistent temperature of 55 degrees, making it ideal for its current use as a wine cellar. “But we don’t have that much wine,” confessed Ms. van Hamel.

Mr. McKenzie’s fondness for Mission-style furniture is reflected in the living room décor.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Kevin McKenzie, 68, and Martine van Hamel, 76

Occupations: He is the artistic director of American Ballet Theatre; she is a former principal dancer with A.B.T. and now teaches ballet.

Getting there is half the fun: “We have a New York City life, and obviously there’s the A.B.T. job with all the hustle and bustle, but the drive between Manhattan and Woodstock is up the Palisades and through some state parks, so it’s like a Zen experience,” Mr. McKenzie said. “And by the time you get here, you’re ready to actually drink in the calm.”

Initially, her parents used the property as a weekend retreat. They became full-time residents in 1972, after some adjustments — among them, raising a ceiling to create a loft studio for Manette, a violinist and pianist turned artist. Diederik built himself a workshop where he made violins; it’s now a workout studio.

At some point, Mr. McKenzie began showing up at the house with Ms. van Hamel. He was, admittedly, not the first guy, or even the second, to be accorded the privilege, but he stood out from the corps.

“It seems that I had the unique distinction of being the only boyfriend Martine brought home that her mother approved,” said Mr. McKenzie, who returned the regard (although with no guest room in the main house, he and Ms. van Hamel were routinely billeted in the chicken coop).

Everybody had a pandemic project. Mr. McKenzie’s was a rock garden.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

As part of the 50th wedding anniversary celebration for Diederik and Manette, Mr. McKenzie and Ms. van Hamel had a swimming pool built for them. And somewhere along the way, Mr. McKenzie became Manette’s landscaping acolyte.

“She taught me what it meant to garden, instead of kill plants,” he said. His charges now include nearly four dozen trees, among them peach and apple, dogwood and copper beech, birch and white pine, as well as hydrangea and peony bushes. Ms. van Hamel weeds and harvests. She yanked some arugula for a recent lunch.

Diederik and Manette came, saw, bought and renovated; Mr. McKenzie and Ms. Hamel followed suit. “We had been visiting literally every weekend, and sometimes for weeks in the summer,” Mr. McKenzie said. “And rather than find our own place, at some point we thought, ‘Why don’t we expand this one and make it more geriatric-friendly?’”

In 2000, more than a decade after Diederik’s death, Mr. McKenzie and Ms. van Hamel bought the property from Manette, who stayed on happily until her passing in 2012. They began a remodeling project, in part to make the first floor easier for her to navigate; there had previously been shallow steps leading to almost every room. The couple added a bedroom and bathroom for themselves a few stairs up from the loft studio — so long, chicken coop! — as well as a nook they call the Zen room, with windows overlooking the property.

Stand on the bridge over the creek that cuts through the property, and you can see the neighbor’s bridge. Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The result is a space that is soaring and intimate, airy and snug with graceful lines — just as Mr. McKenzie conceived it.

“I’d always had the dream of building my own house, but this one was already halfway there,” he said. “I knew if we did it right we’d be able to be carried out of here feet first.”

By design, the décor is representative of both current and former residents. The living room nods to Mr. McKenzie’s fondness for Mission-style furniture; an antique Stickley chair is a particularly prized piece. The loft studio has become his home office, where he works at Diederik’s old desk. A built-in display case in the Zen room holds pieces of sculptural jewelry made by Manette.

The dining room, Ms. van Hamel said, looks very much as it did in her parents’ day. The chest, the dining table and chairs, all antiques, were given to Manette and Diederik as wedding gifts. Manette’s nonobjective geometric paintings hang on the double-height walls and in the guest room on the first floor.

Some of her paintings were conceived as garden ornaments — the abstract shapes add interest to the natural forms of the surrounding shrubbery. “They tend to fade and get kind of splotchy, so I have to bring them inside and repaint them,” Ms. van Hamel said. “There are still many things to take care of from my parents’ time.”

“The house has evolved,” Ms. van Hamel said.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

That she and Mr. McKenzie would plant deep roots in the property was apparent to Manette early on. “She caught on to it before we did,” Mr. McKenzie said. “She observed my behavior, and she observed Martine and me together in this wonderful outdoor space she and Dik created,” Mr. McKenzie said, referring to the patio outside the front door. “And she said, ‘I see the two of you sitting there 30 years from now.’”

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