Contemporary reports paint a picture that includes long lines of people waiting outside the Tenth Street Studio Building in Greenwich Village, all with the intent to attend the exhibition of a single painting from Frederic Church.
Church took a cue from the theatre. Once inside the gallery, visitors witnessed a room surrounded by dark drapes with a skylight above them directing its light towards the featured piece of work. The wedge of light cut through the dark to reveal a large canvas that stood more than five feet tall and stretched nearly ten feet wide. The trick of the eye forced everyone’s perspective into believing they were peering out of a window. Benches were placed before it and patrons were fashioned with opera goggles to look over the work.
It was 1859 and the 32-year-old Church was a celebrity. He grew up as a rich kid. His father was a prominent financier in Hartford where a long line of Church’s descendants lived, including one of the city’s pioneers who helped found the city. This Church pursued his passion for the arts. At 20, he was a student of Thomas Cole, a Catskill resident and founder of the Hudson River School. It was the start of a love affair. Church did for landscape art as what high definition did for television. He had developed a reputation for painting landscapes with extraordinary detail. Whereas Banksy today is a celebrated artist in his anonymity, Church was a household name. Prints of “Niagara,” a piece he revealed two years before depicting the Niagara Falls, was a commercial success to such magnitude that it was one of the most popular wedding gifts of his time.
Church had recently returned from Ecuador and Columbia, a trip
financed by a businessman who hoped to lure investors towards ventures in South America. The piece in the exhibition was inspired by that trip. Called “The Heart of the Andes,” Church took a composite of images he had observed and pieced them into a masterwork featuring a waterfall, lush fauna and grand mountainscapes, including Mount Chimborazo. Each of the various kinds of plants could be identified, revealing a composite of plant life from different atmospheric zones. In one painting, Church was providing a tour of South America for 25 cents.
The lines continued to form at such length until the exhibition ended a month later. Somewhere within that time, Church met his future wife, Isabel.
The most famous of students from the Hudson River School built his home upon a hilltop overlooking the Hudson River immediately across from his former mentor. Named Olana, the home and all 250 acres of the estate are preserved as a historic site owned by New York State and managed by the non-profit organization the Olana Preservation, Inc. More than 150,000 visitors walk the grounds that had been designed and manicured by Frederic, himself. Several carriage trails cut through surrounding woods that occasionally yield glimpses of the rolling hills and valleys of the region. These are the sights that inspired some of the most important paintings in American history.
“We want to encourage people to visit the grounds and enjoy the landscape,” said Sean Sawyer, Washburn and Susan Oberwager President of The Olana Partnership. “It’s like walking through a three-dimensional view of a Frederic Church painting.”
To many, Olana is the eccentric looking building on top of the hill as one crosses east over the Rip Van Winkle Bridge from Catskill to Hudson. The complexity of its style only becomes more peculiar as one steps closer to the Church family home. It’s an amalgamation of cultures. Many of the windows are Persian in style, squared off at the bottom while tapering off to a peak from either side. The stone facade is ornamented with various accents, including the Star of David and Arabic writing, most notably above the home’s main entrance. These features were inspired by a pilgrimage Frederic and his Isabel took to the Middle East. These features continue throughout the interior of their home, too. Frederic had an apparent appreciation for other cultures. Above all, he was a devout Christian. According to Sawyer, the Churchs kept more than 30 Bibles inside the home.
Frederic’s devotion to Christianity was often evident in his work. From one of his earliest pieces that hangs inside his Olana studio “Through the Valley of Death,” which depicts an armoured knight standing outside the Gates of Hell, to the cross that stands modestly within “The Heart of the Andes.” But with Mother Nature often his muse, he believed man should stand as her steward. Frederic’s vision of Olana had less to do with the house he built, and more to do with the land.
“About an hour this side of Albany is the center of the world — and I own it,” stated Frederic.
The words are captured on a sign welcoming visitors to Olana. It’s accompanied by a map showing all 250 acres of the estate, the carriage paths, the lake and other points of interest. For 30 years, the painter turned to molding the land into an ornamental farm. He still kept cows and grew corn, as the land provided when he bought the farm in 1860. But, he also dug out the lake, etched and built up roadways, returned topsoil to exposed terrain and planted thousands of indiginous trees. He was consulted by Calvert Vaux, who designed the landscape for New York City’s Central Park. Church explained his work to a friend, “I can make more and better landscapes in this way than by tampering with canvas and paint in the studio.”
“Can I help you with anything?”
One of the guides in a blue Olana vest hovered outside the store that stands about a football field’s length outside the home. There are information stations that stand throughout the grounds, including along the trails; but, how to sign up for a guided tour, or where to begin on your own excursion, starts with a helpful word of advice. I struck up a conversation.
While snapping photographs for this feature, I came across the sight of the initials “J.B.” carved into a stone around one of the home’s Moorish-style windows. It was prominent in size, below the year “1871.” The guide admitted no one was able to find out who it was that carved his initials into the rock, perhaps one of the masons. Whomever it was, the act had to have been approved by Frederic, who was “very” meticulous with his details, she said.
The thought of masons working on the home prompted me to ask whether or not anyone found symbols relating to the Freemasons. Such as at the State Capitol, masons will sometimes leave personalized carvings in the stone, like a signature. Freemason symbology is said to even exist at Disney World. Cole, Church’s mentor, was reportedly a Freemason, so the question wasn’t out of place, but she did not know. She offered a postcard that encouraged patrons to leave questions that were left unanswered, so that the staff can research it and post to its social media outlets. Just as she was about to offer a card, another guide joined us.
As he approached, he jokingly offered a few reddish pebbles that he found inside the home. They are the same stones used to pave the carriage trails. He tossed them back onto the trail behind him as he admitted he found no such symbols, despite being aware of what they look like. The scene reminded me of Stephen King’s Andy Dufresne discarding of pebbles from his prison cell, only in a more conspicuous act. Though I doubted these two were being held captive or felt they were being punished, the analogy wasn’t out of place, either. Involving oneself with a passion is a captivating act, and that’s what I observed here. The Olana Partnership, and all of its employees embody a devotion to Olana that started more than half a century ago, on the day the Churchs’ home was nearly lost.
Frederic purchased the farm in 1860, the home in which we now observe was built a decade later. It stood as a Garden of Eden to the painter and his family. The visits to his New York City studio waned over the years, as did his interest in contemporary trends. Morning carriage rides, like the one along Ridge Road that offers an awe-inspiring view of the Hudson Valley and blue mountains of the Catskills, was where he wanted to spend his time with family. It’s that view that helped define the Hudson Valley School.
If Frederic’s devotion to Christianity is evident in his paintings, the love for Isabel was equally as present with the building of the Olana home. Every bit of it is a manifestation of the world travels the two shared. From the aforementioned architectural elements inspired by his travels, to the stencil work found on each archway, the home stood as a reminder of the memories they shared. Over the mantle in the reading room hangs “El Khasné Petra.” It captures the Greek-inspired facade of the famous temple carved out of a narrow crevasse in Jordan. Isabel was pregnant during their pilgrimage to the Holy Land and could not bear the camel ride. He presented it as a gift to her, and it hangs in the room along with separate portraits of themselves. This was their sanctuary.
The Churchs would later make frequent travels to Mexico due to Frederic’s arthritis. They would spend winters in the South only to return home after winter. Olana was to be hers once he died, but Isabel passed away in 1899. Frederic was returning home from Mexico when he died a year later. According to letters, he missed Isabel and wanted to return to Olana.
Olana was left to Frederic’s and Isabel’s son, Louis to which he maintained along with his wife, Sally. They each preserved the main floor as it was furnished during Frederic’s and Isabel’s time. After Louis died in 1943, Sally continued preserving the home until her death in 1964. The home was bequeathed to a nephew in New Jersey who had no interest in owning the expansive property. All of Frederic’s artwork was sent to Sotheby’s in New York City to be appraised for an upcoming auction before a herculean effort was launched to save it all.
The Olana Partnership was formed in late 1964, signing into a rental agreement with the estate to ultimately purchase the property. A fundraising campaign ensued which included a feature in Life magazine and exhibitions at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and the Albany Institute of History and Art. Meanwhile, Robert Kennedy spearheaded the effort to preserve Olana as a National Historic Landmark. In two years, nearly $400,000 was raised. New York state contributed another $189,000 towards the final purchase of the estate. Much of Frederic’s artwork remains at the property, including “El Khasné Petra.”
Aside from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and the occasional barge that floats up and down the Hudson, the view from Ridge Road is remarkably similar to Frederic Church’s from more than a century ago. Even the site of the natural gas plant in Athens is camouflaged into the surrounding environment by design. Olana’s viewshed is protected by law, allowing The Olana Partnership to factor into the discussion of any proposed development in view. That protection helped thwart the plans for a coal-fueled cement plant in Hudson 15 years ago. A nuclear power plant proposed for Cementon was abandoned in 1979 thanks in part to one of Frederic’s paintings of the Hudson captured from Olana. More than a century after his death, Frederic continues to be Mother Nature’s steward. To date, The Olana Partnership has played a part in protecting 3,000 acres in conservation easements to preserve the surrounding aesthetics in the Hudson Valley.
Frederic and Isabel are both buried in Hartford, Connecticut. “The Heart of the Andes,” the painting that helped bring the two together, is with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it has been since 1909. Frederic’s final study of his masterpiece hangs high upon the wall in Olana’s East Parlor.
Olana recently launched its 2019 season with an expanded array of new tours and experiences of the Main House and Historic Landscape. These new offerings are designed to better accommodate visitors by providing a general overview or an in-depth look at various themes that relate to artist Frederic Church’s Olana.
The tours are part of a larger goal to move Olana to the forefront of historic house museums as a holistic environment and world class destination, present visitors with a memorable and educational experience, and shed light on the significance of Frederic Church as one of the preeminent American artists of the mid-19th century.
Nine new tours offered by The Olana Partnership cover different aspects of Olana, including Frederic Church and the Hudson River School, the architecture and design of the Main House, the Church family’s life at home and abroad, and the history and design of the historic landscape. Guests are now offered an “Explore at Your Own Pace” tour option every afternoon from 2 to 4 p.m. which gives visitors the chance to discover the Main House on their own and ask questions of the knowledgeable guides along the way.
Guided tours of the historic landscape are available daily for the first time and one can explore the forests and meadows, the farm and lake, the carriage roads, and the expansive views from Olana, the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains. Landscape tours can be experienced via an electric vehicle, a guided walk, or a free audio tour which can be downloaded from www.OLANA.org.
“Our goal is to expand access to all of Olana for as diverse an audience as possible. This new program provides a great variety of content and types, from the intensive electric carriage tour to the 60-minute themed tours of the house to daily tour-at-your-own-pace house access and free digital landscape tours,” said Sean Sawyer, Washburn and Susan Oberwager President of The Olana Partnership. For the first time, visitors can now plan and schedule their day or weekend ahead of time by purchasing tickets online through a ticketing system launched this season.
The season also includes “In Frederic Church’s Ombra: Architecture in Conversation with Nature,” a design exhibition curated by Barry Bergdoll, of Columbia University and the Museum of Modern Art, open through Nov. 3.
In celebration of the 150 years since architect Calvert Vaux and Frederic Church began the design of the Main House at Olana, contemporary architects and artists have been invited to lead specialty tours each month during the “Architects on Olana” and “Artists on Art” series.
“Olana is committed to playing a central role in art and culture in the Hudson Valley and we are excited about these new expanded tour offerings which will serve as inspiration for all audiences and communities,” said Amy Hausmann, Director of the Olana State Historic Site. “The spectacular home and landscape created by Frederic Church celebrates the beauty of the Hudson Valley and the Catskills. We look forward to sharing this remarkable cultural treasure with our visitors.”
Olana is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to sunset. Visitors are welcome to enjoy the five miles of carriage roads during these hours, take advantage of the free audio tours, experience the flower garden or watch the sun set over the Hudson Valley. Ticketed tours of the Main House and landscape are available Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through November.
The Olana Museum Store and Visitor Center is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.. Tickets are $15 for adults and free for children 12 and under. Members of The Olana Partnership receive free 30-minute tours, and 60-minute tours for $5. Historic Landscape Driving Tours are $35 for all visitors. Due to the popularity of the tours, advance ticket purchase is strongly recommended. For more information about membership or to order tickets online, visit www.OLANA.org.