Olana: Frederic Church’s Masterpiece on the Hudson

The home, studio, and 250-acre estate designed by 19th-century landscape painter Frederic Church, Olana is one of the treasures of New York’s Hudson River Valley. Its landscape and the panoramic views of the Catskills Mountains, the Hudson River, and the Berkshires are as spectacular as the house, whose eclectic style embraces Middle Eastern and Victorian elements. Yet Olana’s survival as one of the country’s most intact artist-designed properties was not assured: it was almost sold at auction, but New York State stepped in, purchasing the site in 1966. Today the Olana State Historic Site, supported by the nonprofit Olana Partnership, continues to preserve and interpret the house and landscape in traditional and new ways. Since 2017, the Olana Partnership has supported exhibitions that bring Church’s art together with that of contemporary artists, especially those concerned, as Church was, with the relationship of art, nature, and science.

 A current example of this initiative is the collaborative touring exhibition “Cross Pollination: Heade, Cole, Church, and Our Contemporary Moment” (June 12 through October 31, 2021), created by the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, the Olana Partnership at Olana State Historic Site, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. On view at Olana and the nearby Cole site, the exhibition presents works by nineteen contemporary artists along with paintings by Thomas Cole (1801–1848), Frederic Church (1826–1900), and Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904). Cole, who started the landscape art movement later known as the Hudson River School, was the young Church’s teacher between 1844 and 1846; Church and Heade were friends, and both had studios in New York City’s Tenth Street Studio Building. Sixteen stunning paintings of hummingbirds from Heade’s The Gems of Brazil (1863–1864) are a centerpiece of the show. The “cross pollination” refers to interconnections between artists past and present as well as to the interconnection of art and science, including environmental concerns.

Exploring Olana 

When Frederic Church designed his family’s home with architect Calvert Vaux in 1870, the artist was wealthy (he was a shrewd businessman and marketer) and at the height of his career as one of the country’s leading landscape painters. After sketching in nature and painting with Thomas Cole, he moved to New York City, but he loved the Hudson Valley. A deeply pious man whose spirit matched the optimistic and expansionist sentiments of his time, the ambitious Church believed he was Cole’s artistic heir. His monumental canvases include the almost seven-foot-long Niagara (1857). Church was also influenced by German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, whose writings proposed the unity of the world, and was motivated to travel and sketch in South America in 1853 and 1857. His painting Heart of the Andes (1859), ten feet by five feet, caused a sensation when it was exhibited.

Church married Isabel Carnes in 1860 and purchased a farm, building a house, Cosy Cottage, on a slope a few miles south of Hudson, across the river from where Cole’s family lived. In 1867, the Churches began an 18-month journey around the Middle East, including the Holy Land, and Europe. The Middle East would become the inspiration for Olana’s architecture. Church loved gathering collections of objects on his travels, and the couple purchased quantities of art, rugs, and decorative pieces.

Visitors touring Olana (check the website; it’s good to reserve ahead) see a house and interior that looks much like what Frederic and Isabel Church and their four children experienced. Although Church worked with Calvert Vaux on the design, the artist became obsessed with the house and contributed over the years to everything from decorative details to the design of a new studio; it truly was his final masterwork. Built of local stone and sited on a hill to capture mountain and river views, Olana looks like a Victorian villa with its towers and mansard roofs, but one adorned with fantastical, Middle Eastern–style details. Church designed the unusual colored stencils on the exterior that add Middle Eastern flavor, including on the cornices. Roofs and arched windows and porches using decorative slate, brick, and wood enhance the effect.  

 

The Churches named the house after a Persian fortress and treasure house, and its fanciful rooms overflow with gathered treasures and works by Church (though most are elsewhere) and other artists of the time, including Thomas Cole. In the house, Church designed stenciled borders and used objects in a decorative way, interested more in their form than Islamic culture. Interior arches add more Middle Eastern touches, and many rooms have wonderful views. The Sitting Room displays Church’s 1874 painting El Khasne Petra, a gift to his wife that shows the ancient site’s rock-cut facade. In the Dining Room, European paintings mingle with more exotic objects from the Churches’ travels. Interestingly, the “Old Master” works are fakes, deliberately purchased by Church; he even touched some of them up to suit his taste.

Church built his last studio as an addition to Olana between 1888 and 1890. By this time, his artistic production had slowed because of rheumatism in his hands. His art had also fallen out of favor as Tonalism and Impressionism gained popularity; only in the 1960s would interest in the Hudson River School painters revive. The Studio shows more of Church’s cleverly designed arched windows and his exotic collections.

Displayed throughout the house in summer and fall 2021 are the historical and contemporary artworks of the “Cross Pollination” exhibition, including hummingbird paintings by Martin Johnson Heade and one of Nick Cave’s soundsuits in the Studio.

The Landscape

Church began working on his property as early as 1860, and his vision for Olana’s 250 acres is an outstanding example of 19th-century picturesque landscaping. For his first house, the Cosy Cottage, Church developed a farm and planted trees on land that had been deforested by industry. Over the decades, he created a 10-acre lake, established more native woodlands, and planted trees to artfully frame buildings like stables. Church laid out five miles of still-existing carriage roads that ascend to the house with views of the river and mountains; today hikers can explore them. He designed decorative fences and seats and spread native red shale on the paths.

Beyond Olana, visitors can take advantage of the Hudson River Skywalk, a scenic 3-mile walkway opened in 2019 over the Hudson using the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. It links Olana with the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, an excellent place to learn about the influential painter admired by Church and his peers. The Hudson River School Art Trail explores famous sites painted by Cole, Church, and other Hudson River School painters.    

Community and Outreach

Olana attracts 170,000 visitors a year from all over, with fall its peak season, and the site’s beautiful grounds are free every day, a great asset to the area. Themed field trips for grades kindergarten through 12 focus on topics from nature writing to creating art; trips are free for students in Columbia and Greene Counties. Olana also has Panorama, a series of week-long summer arts programs for ages 6–11. Other programs and events include environmental explorations and family tours. The website has useful resources from videos to reading lists that help anyone appreciate Olana’s history and this special environment. Olana is also part of Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios.

Together, Olana’s house and landscape create a unique setting for exploring both the famous art and nature of the Hudson Valley.

Side Dish

Downtown Hudson, a short drive from Olana, is a Hudson Valley hot spot packed with restaurants, antiques shops, and vintage galleries; there’s an Amtrak stop here. It’s perfect for lunch or dinner after exploring Olana.   

 

Linda Cabasin is a travel editor and writer who covered the globe at Fodor’s before taking up the freelance life. She’s a contributing editor at Fathom. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @lcabasin.

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