Perched above the Hudson River, just west of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and off of State Route 9G, Olana has long been admired for its romantic architecture, picturesque landscape, and distant views. All were brought into being through the skills and vision of its owner, the acclaimed Hudson River School painter Frederic Church. Church and his wife, Isabel, spent three decades transforming this once humble agricultural site into what some regard as his finest work of art.
The 7,000-square-foot main house is located on 250 acres, just south of the town of Hudson, and was first occupied by the Church family in 1872. It is often referred to as Moorish Revival in design but can be more accurately described as Eclectic. There are references to the architecture of Islamic Spain in the house, but its colorful brick, stone, and slate tiled surfaces were also inspired by the couple’s travels to Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Israel. The name he bestowed on his estate, Olana, is derived from the Arabic, meaning “our place on high.” Church himself stated that his main inspiration was Persia, a region whose architecture he only knew through books. A closer look reveals even more sources, including Indian architecture, the English Aesthetic movement, French Second Empire, as well as the Italianate style championed by landscape theorist A.J. Downing and his partner Calvert Vaux. For these men, the preference for the picturesque and the Eclectic was not just a matter of personal taste. Their argument for a uniquely American, rural, and romantic sensibility was seen as means to improve the nation’s morality. It was Vaux to whom Church turned to be the official architect of the project. Church is said to have selected Vaux—who, after Downing’s death in 1852, partnered with Fredrick Law Olmsted—because he was as “good at effect” in architecture as Church was at painting. By all accounts, however, it is Church’s design that we see today.
Dominating the house’s ornamentation are Persian motifs designed by Church and applied using stencils and paint colors he made and mixed himself. The interior is especially intricate. Every surface is painted or tiled with colorful patterns. These surfaces are lit with both the crisp light from the many clear glass windows, but also by the filtered golden light from amber tinted glass and light reflected off of the house’s many mirrors. Special attention was paid to areas around the windows. They were outlined with intense patterns that helped draw attention to their frames and the expansive views beyond. Church’s own paintings, as well as those of his contemporaries and of some old masters were an important part of the decorative scheme.
The furnishings come from an even more diverse set of sources. Japanese, Mexican, Turkish, and Chinese pieces all add to the eclectic effect. Multiple sources are present in the plan as well. Church wanted to emulate the “court” houses he saw in Beirut. However, unlike his Middle Eastern source, his court hall is roofed over. The symmetrical distribution of the main rooms on the ground floor is similar to many plans found in Downing and Vaux’s treatises.
The house is entered from the south, with the entryway opening onto a grand staircase leading to the upper level. The east-west axis originally terminated with a view to the Catskill Mountains to the west. This was closed off when the three-story studio wing was added in 1888–1889. One now passes through the library and a south-facing gallery before gaining access to Church’s studio. A parlor, sitting and dining rooms, along with the kitchen and other service spaces complete the ground floor plan. The grand dining room, with windows only on the north end, now serves as a gallery, filled with old master and Hudson River School paintings Church acquired during his lifetime. On the second floor are the family’s and the servants’ bedrooms.
Church sketched and painted the views from his property throughout the construction process and during his residency. Olana was the Churches primary residence and their four children were raised and educated there. In their lifetime, the grounds remained a working (if infrequently profitable) farm. Increasingly though, as his artistic career faltered, Church focused his efforts on turning the property into a four-dimensional painting. He planted thousands of trees, created a lake, and added over five miles of carriage drives to reveal or create specific vistas. Many of the paths were purposefully perilous, meant to summon sublime emotions. In short, every inch was designed to produce a specific aesthetic effect.
After the deaths of Frederic and Isabel, the house was occupied for the next six decades by their son and daughter in-law. In 1964, the estate was set for auction until David Huntington, an art historian and scholar of Church’s work, initiated a campaign in the popular and architectural press to preserve the house and its contents. Ultimately, it was then Governor Nelson Rockefeller who stepped in and saved it. Since 1967, Olana has been open to the public as a New York State Historic Site. Various restoration efforts—aided by Church’s many letters and sketches still on site—have produced a house museum that the Church family would still recognize. Efforts continue to restore the grounds to their original state, including an ongoing battle to preserve the property’s viewsheds. The latter has proven to be a persuasive argument in thwarting efforts to place power plants along the nearby Hudson. Thus, this total work of art is much more than a relic from the past; it remains an active protector of a vision for the American landscape that Church and his peers envisioned and built almost a century and a half ago.
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Fallin, Catherine. “Olana: a Persian Fantasy.” Old-House Interiors 7, no. 2 (2001): 58-65.
Kempner, Mary Jean. “Houses in Jeopardy: What it takes to save them, and how to do it.” House Beautiful 108 (February 1966): 134-135.
“Must this mansion be destroyed?” Life 60, no. 19 (May 13, 1966): 64-77, 79-80.
Scully, Vincent Joseph. “Palaces of the Past.” Progressive Architecture46 (May 1965): 184-189.
Toole, Robert M. “The Art of the Landscape Gardener; Frederic Church at Olana.” The Hudson River Valley Review21, no. 1 (Autumn 2004): 38-63.