Upstate New York is justifiably famous for its beauty and history- a great many notable people have called this place home, including Martin Van Buren, eighth president of the United States; Benedict Arnold, who, according to legend, hid in the town of Kinderhook while on the run; Franklin D. Roosevelt, who called Hyde Park home; and Frederic Edwin Church, a very important 19th century painter of the Hudson River school of art, who built his home (and some would say his masterpiece) atop a hill near the cities of Hudson and Catskill.
Visible atop its 250 acre perch from the Rip Van Winkle bridge, Olana is the home built by Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), one of America’s most notable landscape painters, a student of Thomas Cole, and the youngest artist to ever be elected to the National Academy of Design. He commissioned the design of his home in 1867, and after changing gears on the design- and replacing the architect- he and his wife moved into the second floor while they continued to decorate the first floor.
Thanks in part to Frederic’s daughter-in-law, who would not allow decorative scheme to be changed, the house and grounds look much the same as they did when he lived and worked there. Starting with the drive up the hill to the house (the entrance is off NY route 9G) the magnificent beauty of the property is evident- with good reason, too, since every aspect of Olana was designed by Frederic Church to fit the “big picture” of his vision for what his home should be.
The parking lot is at the top of the hill, and is meticulously maintained- a stone staircase gently winds down to the visitor center, museum store, the house itself and some of the most spectacular views of the area ever seen! The store and visitor’s center are built into what was once the carriage house, and the surrounding grounds are decorated with paths, trees, flowers, and benches built with branches or roots that seem so much a part of the landscape, it’s easy to imagine that they simply grew there, ready to relax on! Proceeding toward the front of the house, visitors are overtaken by the majestically beautiful views from virtually everywhere one looks! Indeed, the house and the grounds are every bit the masterpiece that any of Church’s paintings are! His careful planning really comes to light when looking down the slope facing the Catskill mountains and the Hudson River, both of which look much more grand than they do up close. It comes as no surprise that he planned every detail of how this place would look, right down to the placement of the trees on the property, both singly and in groups, and the creation of a lake out of a swampy stream down the hill (on the right as you drive up the hill to the parking lot.) Stunning really isn’t the right word for the view- we were lucky enough to arrive for our photo session just as the sun was setting behind the Catskills, and the colors, the clouds, the river were nothing short of amazing! For the most part, these panoramas are unchanged from the time when the artist painted them from his studio.
The original architect hired to build the house was commissioned to build a French manor on the hill, but shortly after traveling to, and becoming enamored with, what he saw in cities such as Beirut, Jerusalem, and Damascus, he changed his vision of the design, and it became the Persian-style mansion that captivates so many visitors today. The tiles adorning the outside of the house, designed by Church himself, the brickwork, the arched doorways, are all testaments to his love of the Moorish architecture he saw in his travels. Taking the tour of the inside of the house is less like looking in someone’s home as it visiting a museum of fine art- Church’s collection of art is made up of some of his own work as well as pieces he purchased in his travels.
Tours are reasonably priced at $7 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $2 for children 5-12 and run from April through November- limited to weekends during the winter months. It’s well worth a stop if your day trip plans are bringing you near the Catskill region of upstate New York! For more information, visit the website at www.olana.org .