Bringing back Olana

Barrymore Laurence Scherer

Barrymore Laurence Scherer Art, Furniture & Decorative Arts

The fiftieth anniversary of the rescue of Church’s exotic masterpiece  finds it and its spectacular landscape more popular than ever with lovers of art, architecture, and ecology.  

View looking south to the Hudson River from the bell tower of the main house at Olana. Andy Wainwright 2004

Just south of Hudson, New York, a signpost on Route 9G marks the entry gate to one of the Hudson Valley’s nest landmarks, Olana, former estate of American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church. As you proceed upward along the steep approach road, you navi­gate a series of gentle curves designed by Church to provide an unfolding succes­sion of beautiful views. Climbing ever higher, you pass the verdant pond dug by Church out of a former marsh, its still waters reflecting the sky and the lush sur­rounding woodland he carefully planned. In any season, the enveloping quietude of this place offers a welcome contrast to the general clamor of contemporary life.

Near the summit, 470 feet above sea level, stands Church’s main house. With its bell tower and pointed arches, its Persian-­inspired balconies, window bays, and rooftop pavilions, this deeply per­sonal architectural fantasy is as wonder­ fully exotic a masterpiece as ever sprang from the high Victorian imagination.  The house’s eclec­tic interiors—furnished by Church with objects col­lected on his Middle Eastern travels and hung with his own paintings and sketches as well as old masters— vividly embody his domestic spirit. Indeed, Church regarded the house and its carefully landscaped sur­roundings as an all­-encompassing work of art.

Today Olana—which refers to the entire estate in­cluding the main house—is alive with activity.  The house is open for guided tours Tuesday through Sunday from May through October, and Friday through Sunday from November through April.  The grounds are free and open every day. “Year round, artists come to paint the land­scape and the magnificent Catskill views, hikers walk the carriage roads, children and adults come to learn about nature, and in warm weather there are always picnickers,” Olana’s curator, Evelyn Trebilcock, says.

Olana is so popular a national landmark that it is almost inconceivable that its existence was once threatened. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the crusade to save Church’s house from destruction.  The story of that eleventh­-hour rescue is one of the most important episodes in the continuing saga of American landmarks preservation, while the history of Olana itself—named for an ancient Persian treasure house­-fortress overlooking the Araxes River and cited by the ancient Greek geographer Strabo — constitutes a seminal chapter in nineteenth­century American architecture, landscape design, and decorative arts.

  • Children’s Solar Workshop conducted at Olana by the Mid-Hudson Astronomical Association, 2013. © Sarah Hasbrook. 
  • The Court Hall by Robert and Emily de Forest, October 11, 1884. Albumen print, 6 1⁄4 by 8 3/8 inches. Olana Collection, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation [NYSOPRHP]. 
  • Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt on the title page of the first volume of Humboldt’s Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe (London, 1849). Olana Collection, NYSOPRHP.
  • Participants in a three-day plein-air painting workshop, 2014. © Sarah Hasbrook. 
  • View of the main house from across the lake. © Larry Lederman, 2010. 
  • Court Hall at Olana. © Andy Wainwright, 2004. 
  • Decorative brick-work and balcony designed by Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900) on the east facade of the main house. © Andy Wainwright 2004. 
  • Young campers participating in the annual “Panorama” program explore part of Olana’s 250-acre artist-designed landscape, 2015. Photograph by Amy Hufnagel.
  • Teenage school group sketching at Olana’s farm complex, 2015. Hufnagel photograph.
  • Southwest facade of the main house showing recent landscape restoration on the southern slope.
  • International student musicians from the “Close Encounters with Music” program perform in Olana’s orchard, 2014. © Sarah Hasbrook. 

Church was first brought to the high shale bluff that would become part of Olana by his beloved teacher, the landscape painter Thomas Cole, in 1845. Like Cole, who had sketched there since the 1830s, he was enchanted by the extraordinary view of the Hudson against the sub­lime backdrop of the Catskill and Shawangunk mountains to the west, and the Berkshires in the distant east.  That visit clinched Church’s lifelong fascination with the Hudson Valley landscape, which he repeatedly drew and painted in every season.

 In 1860, his international reputation secured by his paintings Niagara (1857, Corcoran Collection, National Gallery of Art) and the immense Heart of the Andes (1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art), Church was about to marry. He purchased Wynson Breezy Farm—126 acres of land and woods adjoining the hill where Cole had  first brought him—and engaged the architect Richard Morris Hunt to design Cosy Cottage, the couple’s first bucolic country seat. In 1867 Church purchased eighteen acres of higher ground, where between 1870 and 1872 he built the main house famous today. Hunt drew the initial French Renaissance designs, but over owing with ideas he had gathered during an extended European and Middle Eastern voyage, Church replaced him with the Anglo-­American architect, author, and landscape designer Calvert Vaux, who, with Frederick Law Olm­sted, had designed New York’s Central Park.

Vaux’s 1870 elevation drawing suggests a blending of motifs inspired by John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice and poet Thomas Moore’s Persian tale Lalla Rookh. Most noticeably, Vaux proposed a tower surmounted by a bulging, mosque­like dome. Church himself revised much of Vaux’s work, making his own highly detailed drawings of exteriors and interiors, while relying on Vaux’s techni­cal expertise to make them practicable. The dome idea was eschewed, and the tower, now with an open­-air top story, is crowned instead with a tall mansard roof, paved with elaborate patterns in polychrome slate.

 Church had begun to manifest serious rheumatism as early as 1869. By the 1880s, unable to endure the frigid New York winters, he and his wife Isabel would reside at Olana during the summer and autumn, and travel south for the winter. Isabel died in 1899. Church spent the winter of 1900 in Mexico, and, too weak to journey up the Hudson upon his return to New York City, he died in April at the home of Virginia Osborn, widow of his close friend and patron William H. Osborn. Long overshadowed by the younger generation of American landscapists headed by Winslow Homer and George Inness, Church’s oeuvre receded into oblivion along with the entire Hudson River school legacy.

 His youngest son, Louis, inherited Olana, continu­ing to live there with his wife, Sally.  They maintained the house and grounds essentially as they had received them. After Louis’s death in 1943, Sally lived out her widowhood at Olana, relying on several trusted care­takers and advisors, the last of whom, her nephew Charles Lark Jr., inherited the property upon her death, at ninety-six, in August 1964.

 Suddenly Olana’s future looked grim. Lark had no desire to own or maintain the estate. Worse, during the 1950s and ’60s, Victorian art and architecture reached their nadir in the pubic eye, and realtors dismissed such pleasure domes as Church’s as white elephants, while decorators scorned its furnishings as clutter. Downriver, in Manhattan, the urban spirit of historic preservation had been ignited by the saving of Carnegie Hall from destruction in 1960.  Three years later that spirit was jolted—and ulti­mately strengthened—by the demolition of Pennsyl­vania Station, which the New York Times declared a “monumental act of vandalism.” In 1965 the city would pass its Landmarks Preservation Law. Never­theless, while historic preservation was in its infancy in Manhattan, beyond the city it was not yet born.

 Enter David Huntington. As a Yale doctoral candidate in the 1950s, he was the first American art historian to rediscover Church’s oeuvre and had conducted research at Olana while preparing his dissertation on Church. He was effectively the nation’s leading Church scholar when he learned of Sally Church’s death. Upon contact­ing Lark, Huntington heard of the plan to sell the contents of the house, whereupon he prevailed upon Lark to allow him time to organize a preservation campaign.

An Olana Preservation Committee was organized that November and by April 1, 1965, it had evolved into Olana Preservation, Inc. Meanwhile, Sally Church’s executors continued preparations to liquidate the house’s contents at auction. “Everything was tagged, that’s how close it was,” Trebilcock says. In June 1965 the U. S. Department of the Interior declared Olana eligible for designation as a Registered National Historic Landmark, which would offcially recognize its artistic stature, but not provide it with legal protection.

Determined to reawaken the public to Church’s forgotten body of work, Huntington and Smithsonian Institution curator Richard P. Wunder organized a Church exhibition at the Smith­sonian’s National Collection of Fine Arts early in 1966. Hilton Kramer’s New York Times review encapsulated then­-prevailing opinion: “What is one to make of all these wonders… so nakedly impassioned by a grandiosity we have learned to despise?” Nevertheless, Kramer concluded with the comment that “Church … represents something authentic, as well as something distant, in the American past.” Concomitantly, Hunting­ton rushed into press his landmark book The Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church: Vision of an American Era, which helped to bring Church and the Hudson River school back into the limelight while giving them aca­demic credibility.

Influential articles appeared in national publications, most notably a Life magazine feature titled “Must This Mansion be Destroyed?” on May 13, 1966. On June 10, a New York Times editorial exclaimed, “Today, every painting, Persian bowl, Oriental rug, Tiffany de­canter and pierced brass lamp has an auction sticker on it: the mark of doom…. This country’s vaunted cultural explosion is a very small bang indeed if it cannot secure the preservation of one of America’s great cultural monuments.”

On June 22 the New York State Legislature passed the Lane­-Newcombe bill authorizing the state to purchase Olana. On July 29 Church’s magnificent estate was formally purchased by Olana Preservation. On June 3, 1967, Olana offcially opened as a New York State Historic Site. Today Olana is not only a major Hudson Valley tourist destination but a teach­ing center for disciplines ranging from ecology and related sciences to historic architecture and decoration and, of course, landscape painting. “We have some­thing for every interest, from an amazingly rich archive of Church’s art and correspondence to innovative children’s programs that open their minds to the living connections between the nineteenth century and our own time,” Trebilcock says. “And, of course, the mansion vividly preserves the unique aesthetic and comfortable lifestyle of a pre­eminent American painter a century and a half ago.”

 Astronomy and historic gastronomy are among the areas highlighted with family events this spring and summer, including a nighttime Blue Moon Hike (May 21) and a three­-part series (May 28, June 25, July 23) exploring and sampling food and drink during three eras of Olana’s existence. “During this anniversary year, the Olana Partnership is launching historic landscape tours,” says landscape curator Mark Prezorski, “because the best way to experience Church’s landscape design is along the five miles of carriage roads he laid out.”

Plans are also afoot to enhance the Olana experience even further. “We are preparing a major capital cam­paign that will bring to life Church’s vision of a unified composition of art, architecture, and landscape,” says Olana Partnership’s Washburn and Susan Oberwager President Sean E. Sawyer. “Under consideration are a new gateway center to orient visitors to the multifari­ous scope of the property, the restoration of the Churches’ historic farm as an educational center, and restoration of the service quarters in the main house.”

 Not since the 1960s have visitors to the mansion been permitted to climb the main staircase. “So,” says Trebilcock, “on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from May 15 to October 30, we are expanding our new self­-guided tours to give visitors access to the main stairs and the first and second floors of the house.” Thus at the foot of the stairs they will  finally have an unobstructed view of the suave marble statue of a recumbent child, Sleep, the largest of several  fine works in the house by Church’s friend, the sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer. At the first landing, visitors will be able to examine at close range how Church simu­lated a Persian-­style mashrabiya window by sandwiching intricately cutout sheets of black paper between sheets of rich yellow and clear plate glass.

Study for The Heart of the Andes by Church, 1858. Oil on canvas, 10 1⁄4 by 18 1⁄4 inches. Olana Collection, NYSOPRHP

And as part of its jubilee celebration, Olana has mounted an intimate exhibition at the mansion, Capturing the Cosmos. Its twenty sketches, paintings, manuscripts, and objects focus on Church’s South American voyages, which resulted in such excep­tional oil sketches as Mount Chimborazo at Sunset and the study for The Heart of the Andes shown above. Church’s extensive travels were inspired by the writ­ings of the influential German naturalist and ex­plorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), whose many treatises and books, including the five-­volume Cosmos, had been read and pondered by a vast group of important intellectual and political leaders, from  Thomas Jefferson and William Wordsworth to Simon Bolivar and Charles Darwin.

As a landscape painter Church had initially taken Cole’s lead to glorify what he regarded as nature’s divine majesty. In the works of his maturity, whether depict­ing steaming tropical expanses or the frozen Arctic, Church’s meticulous rendering of light, atmosphere, geology, and bo­tanical life, all sprang from the profound interest in natural science that had been red and reinforced by Hum­boldt’s writings. Indeed, according to Humboldt biographer Andrea Wulf, Church regarded The Heart of the Andes as his tribute to Humboldt.