Olana: Frederic Church’s living masterpiece

Nicole Anderson

Nicole Anderson Magazine

The main house at Olana; photograph by Stan Ries.

To visit Olana State Historic Site is to step inside the questing and ever curious mind of the great nineteenth century American painter Frederic Edwin Church. The ornate villa and meticulously designed grounds of the surrounding estate rank as one of his most superlative works, revealing his diverse interests and far-flung influences, as well his love for the pastoral Hudson Valley. Olana’s grounds are open year-round; the house from May through October. Visitors can reserve a paid guided tour through the eclectically adorned house and studio, or (free of charge) explore the scenic grounds—taking in views of the Catskill Mountains, Taconic Hills, and Hudson River.

The name Olana is believed to have been inspired—Church was not clear on the point—by a fabled Persian treasure house and fortress of antiquity. Church chose to build on a site where he and his mentor, Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River school, had often sketched years earlier. The house, built between 1870 and 1872, is a hybrid of Victorian and Middle Eastern architectural styles, designed with the help of Calvert Vaux, one of the architects of Central Park. The main building is an elaborate medley of pointed arches, balconies, mashrabiya-inspired windows, stenciled surfaces, and decorative brickwork and finishes. The collection inside is equally enchanting and heterogeneous—a treasure trove of paintings, furnishings, and keepsakes from Church and his wife Isabel’s travels abroad. Virtually unaltered since the family resided there in the late nineteenth century, the interiors reflect the artist’s worldly tastes, from the Pre-Columbian artifacts to about a dozen rugs Church shipped home from different parts of the Middle East. Church’s work, including his stencils and architectural sketches for Olana, is prominently on display. In the sitting room, his El Kahsne, Petra hangs above the fireplace, not far from Cole’s Protestant Burying Ground, Rome Cemetery in Rome.

Olana’s front hall; photograph by Andy Wainright.

Put aside ample time to experience one of Church’s greatest achievements, wrought not on canvas but on the land: the 250-acre naturalistic landscape. A network of carriage roads runs through the grounds—which include working and ornamental farms, a man made lake, native woodlands, and meadows—leading visitors, as Church carefully planned, through a sequence of majestic vistas. Today, Olana also hosts rotating exhibitions of work by contemporary artists, events, and more. Check the website to learn about other educational and public programming offered.

Olana State Historic Site, 5720 State Route 9G, Hudson, NY 12534; 518-828-0135; olana.org