Olana State Historic Site

Olana State Historic Site
Frederic E. Church House (Olana)
The Olana mansion
Olana State Historic Site is located in New York
Location: Greenport, New York
Nearest city: Hudson
Coordinates: 42°13′03″N 73°49′07″W / 42.2175°N 73.81861°W / 42.2175; -73.81861Coordinates: 42°13′03″N 73°49′07″W / 42.2175°N 73.81861°W / 42.2175; -73.81861
Area: 250.2 acres (101.3 ha)
Built: 1872
Architect: Calvert Vaux
Architectural style: Persian, Victorian
Governing body: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
NRHP Reference#: 66000509
Significant dates
Added to NRHP: October 15, 1966
Designated NHL: June 22, 1965 [1]

Olana State Historic Site was the home of Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), one of the major figures in the Hudson River School of landscape painting. The centerpiece of Olana is an eclectic villa composed of many styles, difficult to categorize, which overlooks parkland and a working farm designed by the artist. As well, the residence has a wide view of the Hudson River valley, the Catskill Mountains and the Taconic Range. Church and his wife Isabel (1836–1899) named their estate after a fortress-treasure house in ancient Greater Persia[2] (modern-day Armenia), which also overlooked a river valley.

Olana is one of the few intact artists' home-, studio- and estate-complexes in the United States; it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.[1][3] It is owned and operated by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and is also supported by The Olana Partnership, a non-profit 501(c) organization.[4] The main building is an architectural masterpiece designed mainly by Church himself, working with the architect Calvert Vaux. The stone, brick, and polychrome-stenciled villa is a mixture of Victorian, Persian[3] and Moorish styles.[5] The interior remains much as it was during Church's lifetime, exotically furnished and decorated with objects from his global travels, and with some 40 paintings by Church and his friends. The house is intricately stenciled inside and out; Church designed the stencils based on his travels in the Middle East. The house contains Church's last studios, built as an addition from 1888 to 1890.



In 1845, Frederic Church first sketched on the property that was to become Olana.[6] He was then a student of Thomas Cole, now considered a founding figure of the Hudson River School of painters. On March 31, 1860, a few months before his marriage to Isabel Carnes, Church returned to purchase a 126-acre (51 ha) hardscrabble farm on a south-facing slope of a hill in Columbia County, near the thriving towns of Hudson and Catskill, New York. The first element he added to the property was a small country cottage, believed to have been designed by Richard Morris Hunt. In addition, Church laid out gardens and orchards, dredged a marsh to create a 10-acre (4.0 ha) lake, planted trees, and built a studio. Frederic and Isabel Church called their house "Cosy Cottage" and their property "the Farm".

Two children were born to the Churches, a son in 1862 and a daughter in 1865. The family's bucolic life at Olana was forever changed in March, 1865, with the deaths of the children from diphtheria.[7] Grieving from this, the greatest emotional blow of their lives, the parents traveled with sympathetic friends to Jamaica for four months, then to a retreat in Vermont. Late in 1865, the couple returned to Cosy Cottage to start anew.[8] Frederic Joseph Church was born in autumn 1866, the first of three sons and a daughter that were raised to adulthood at Olana.[6]

In 1867 Church acquired a parcel of mature woods at the top of his hill, and began planning a large house for the site. After an 18-month trip to Europe and the Middle East, Church hired architect Calvert Vaux and worked with him on the design of the mansion, which was constructed between 1870 and 1872.[6] The Churches hosted notable figures from the literary, religious, artistic and business worlds: writer Charles Dudley Warner and his pianist wife Susan, author and artist Susan Hale, Reverend Louis Legrand Noble, sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer and his wife Mary Jane, industrialist William H. Osborn and his wife Virginia, and humorist Mark Twain.[9] For Christmas in 1879, Isabel Church gave her husband several books on the geography of the ancient Middle East, and shortly thereafter the couple began calling their property "Olana".[10]

Church continuously improved the property, plotting scenic carriage roads and adding a studio wing to the house over the period 1888–1891. Although the Churches often wintered in warmer climates, and spent time in New York City, Olana was their main residence.[6] After Isabel Church's death in 1899 and Frederic Church's death in 1900, the property was inherited by their son Louis Church, who married Sarah Baker Good (known as Sally) in 1901. Louis and Sally Church maintained the property largely as it had been left to them, adding additional acreage for farming. Upon Sally Church's death in 1964, a nephew inherited the estate and intended to sell it to developers at a public auction. After a two-year anti-development campaign led by scholar David C. Huntington (1922–1990), which culminated in a cover story on Olana in Life magazine,[11] New York State purchased the property in 1966 and it was opened to the public.[6]


Over the last forty years of his life, Frederic Church created a 250-acre (1.0 km2) designed landscape at Olana. In an 1884 letter, Church wrote of his work on the grounds at Olana, “I can make more and better landscapes in this way than by tampering with canvas and paint in the studio.”[12] Today Olana is known as one of the most important surviving Picturesque landscapes in the United States. Produced during the same period with the same aesthetic and ideological motivations, the landscape at Olana has been compared to Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.[6]

Church began the physical landscape design at Olana by searching three years for the ideal property.[13] He had walked and sketched throughout much of New England and elsewhere by that time, but his formative two years studying with Thomas Cole in nearby Catskill, New York, brought him back to the Hudson Valley. The Church estate covers a series of small knolls rising up to the Sienghenbergh – Dutch for “Long Hill” – where the main house is sited. From various points around the property, one has views of the Hudson River, the Catskill, Taconic and Berkshire Mountain ranges, as well as New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.

In 1860, Frederic Church made his initial acquisition of a 126 acre (50.99 ha) farm, which he developed in to a ferme ornée, an ornamental farm.[6] Around Cosy Cottage, a profitable 15.5 acre (6.3 ha) orchard and 4.3 acres (1.7 ha) of vegetable and fruit gardens were created in addition to pastures and crop land, each with a distinct visual character. The family always called their place “the farm,” but when he bought the land, Church took about half out of active agricultural production to create a landscaped park.[14] In this park, Church planted thousands of native trees (many transplanted from elsewhere on site); created a 10-acre (40,000 m2) lake from a swamp; built a freestanding studio, summer house, and rustic benches and railings; and designed five miles (8.05 km) of carriage drives paved in crushed red shale mined on site. Church strategically acquired additional adjacent parcels until his property encompassed 250.2 acres (101.3 ha) and the top of the hill where the main house at Olana now stands.

To conceal, reveal and frame vistas of his own property and the wider Hudson Valley, Church combined natural landforms with the careful layout of carriage drives and extensive plantings of trees and shrubs, .[15] Frederick Law Olmsted thought of such landscapes as “pictures” through which people might wander.[16] In addition to entertaining often, the Churches opened the Olana grounds to the public. From the popular carriage drives, visitors experienced the artist’s landscape vignettes almost as cinema, in a sequence choreographed by Church. The ultimate aspect of Church’s designed landscape is the view from the main house. There, the ground drops away sharply, the Hudson widens to two miles (3 km) across, and the Catskills rise up steeply. Like Church’s painted views of Niagara Falls, Canadian icebergs, and South American volcanoes this scene captures the majesty of nature. For the artist and his contemporaries, this vista also captured the essence of their new nation with references to pioneering history, present economic strength, and the distinguished literary and artistic legacies of the region’s Knickerbocker Group and Hudson River School.[17]

Main residence

The sand-colored stonework of the main residence is contrasted with exotic hues applied to the windows and trim.

The stone, brick, and polychrome-stenciled villa at Olana is an unusual mixture of Victorian structural elements and Middle-Eastern decorative motifs from different times and places. Moorish elements blend with contrasting Italianate themes.[5] Frederic and Isabel Church were impressed by the architecture they had seen on their travels in Beirut, Jerusalem and Damascus in 1868. Upon their return to their farm, they abandoned preliminary plans from Richard Morris Hunt delineating a manor house in the French style. Instead, Church worked closely with architect Calvert Vaux to realize a more personal vision. Church was responsible for the overall design and much of the detail, with Vaux's involvement essentially that of consultant. Church wrote to a friend, "I am building a house and am principally my own Architect. I give directions all day and draw plans and working drawings all night."[18] The result was a villa with asymmetrical massing of towers and block masonry punctuated by fanciful windows and porches. The irregular silhouette of the exterior contrasted with the more regular rhythm of rooms arranged around a central hall. On the exterior, Middle Eastern motifs were carried out in colored brick, slate, ceramic tile and especially stenciling. The cornices of the separate sections of the structure were each ornamented with multi-colored and gilt stenciling, the patterns designed by Church himself. The stenciling continued in the principle rooms of the first floor. Together, the various motifs and themes create a unique artistic unity, one that is difficult to categorize.[5] It has been called variously Persian-Moorish-Eclectic, and Italianate-Eastern-Picturesque.[5] Poet John Ashbery described the results: "The ensemble is breathtaking, and despite the proliferation of architectural elements and polychrome tile decoration, it is not busy but solemn and wildly fanciful, like Church's painting."[19]

Church designed or commissioned many other ingenious devices, such as amber glass windows overlaid by cut-paper patterns and carved teak woodwork by Lockwood de Forest's workshops in Ahmadabad, India. With no architectural adviser, Church designed and built the studio wing at the west end of the house, which included guest rooms and a glassed-in observation room in the tower. Describing his house to a newspaper reporter, Church characterized it as "Persian, adapted to the Occident".[11]

The furnishings Frederic and Isabel acquired over the course of their lives remain in the house. There are paintings by Frederic Church as well as artwork by his mentor Thomas Cole and friends Martin Johnson Heade and Erastus Dow Palmer. The dining room houses a collection of Old Master paintings. The eclectic assortment of furniture and decorative arts includes carpets, metalwork, ceramics and costumes from the Middle East, folk art and fine art from Mexico, and high-style American and Oriental furniture. The main residence at Olana has been described as a prime example of the Aesthetic Movement in America.[20]

Art works created

Frederic Church executed some of his most famous works at Olana, in a studio that stood on the hill above Cosy Cottage. Throughout his life but especially in the 1850s, Church traveled throughout North and South America, making oil and pencil sketches that served as notes for the artwork to come. Although Church's major artworks appear to be transcriptions of the landscape, they are, as Church called them, "compositions"—composed from his sketches and his own artistic intentions.[6] In the 1860s and 1870s this process occurred at Olana, and also at Church's 10th Street Studio building in New York City. Typically, Church did the bulk of his work in the studio at Olana, then finished the painting in New York. Church also made vibrant sketches of the Olana landscape; he framed a few and hung them in the main residence.[6]

In the studio at Olana he made hundreds of pencil and oil technical drawings for stencils, mantels, banisters, and other architectural elements of the main house. With the onset of rheumatism in the 1870s, Church's painting became severely curtailed. Increasingly, he turned his attention to Olana itself, improving the landscape, buying artwork for the house, and building the studio wing.[6]

Olana was one of several grand artist's homes in the Hudson River valley, comparable to Albert Bierstadt's Malkasten in Irvington (destroyed by fire in 1882) and Jasper Francis Cropsey's Ever Rest, in Hastings-on-Hudson.[6]

Restoration and management

Olana mansion inner courtyard

Olana is managed by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, with support from the Olana Partnership.[4] Both work to restore Olana to its 1890s appearance. A large archive, part of the original Church property, is open to scholars and includes over 700 works by Church as well as thousands of paintings, drawing and photographs by other artists. The archive contains letters, scrapbooks, bills, receipts and other ephemera.[21] A visitor center is housed in the former carriage house, and an upstairs bedroom has been converted into the Evelyn and Maurice Sharp Gallery, which shows changing exhibitions of artwork drawn mainly from the archival collections.

The site was closed during the 2006 season for extensive renovation. Stencils on the walls were stabilized and new carpeting was laid in the Court Hall. Curators and conservators performed rehabilitation work on furniture, upholstery and textiles. Fire safety and climate-control systems were improved. Commissioner Carol Ash said at the re-opening in May 2007, "The installation of new state-of-the-art equipment underscores the commitment of New York State to protect this remarkable historic landmark, and we look forward to once again showcasing the unique collections and extraordinary landscapes of one of our most important cultural resources."[22]

The former wagon house in the barn complex now houses educational programs. Future plans include a reconstruction of the wagon house and a stabilization of the main barn, to better fit their role as year-round centers for education.[22] Olana has been cited as an innovative example of a public-private partnership.[23] Olana advocates the preservation of its viewshed by encouraging donations of scenic easements on properties and by discouraging development of industrial projects, such as a proposed cement plant[24] and a proposed power plant.[25]


Olana has been the subject of scholarly study by a succession of students and experts on Church's life. David C. Huntington's cataloging and analysis in the mid-1960s is acknowledged as the first foundational work.[26] Huntington is credited not only with saving the site from public auction but with bringing Church's reputation from obscurity to prominence in relation to the Hudson River School. Huntington theorized that the sketches and paintings that Church displayed at Olana, ones he either kept outright or reacquired, were key to understanding the painter's personal values.[26]

Huntington supposed that the name "Olana" was a corruption of an ancient language[27]—an article to that effect had been published in the 1890s in the Boston Herald and believed for many decades.[28] In 1966, Huntington re-established this story, writing that the Arabic word Al'ana, meaning "our place on high", was possibly transliterated to Latin as "Olana".[29] Art historian and Church scholar Gerald L. Carr found no confirmation that the Churches ever considered this meaning; instead, Carr believed the answer to be in a copy of Strabo's Geographica in Olana's library, a multi-volume reference work given by Isabel Church to her husband on Christmas 1879.[28] One volume of this classic Greek work describes a fortified treasure-house named Olana, or Olane,[25] situated on a hillside near the Araxes River in Artaxata,[10] a city in modern-day Armenia, close to the eastern border of Turkey and the northwestern arm of Iran. Carr assumed that the Churches began calling their residence "Olana" after reading Strabo. John Ashbery agreed, writing in 1997 that Strabo's Artaxata "was one of the supposed sites of the Garden of Eden", and that the Churches must have felt kinship with both the idyllic and the protected qualities of ancient Olana.[28]

Olana was featured in Bob Vila's A&E Network four-part production, Guide to Historic Homes of America.[30] For the first episode, on the subject of historic homes in the Northeastern U.S., Vila and his crew traveled to five locations containing historic structures. Olana was saved for the last segment of the two-hour-long program—the residence was described as a "palatial amalgam of Middle-Eastern and European influences".[30]


Olana is in the south part of Greenport, New York, in Columbia County, south of Hudson and east of Catskill. By car, the estate can be reached from New York State Route 9G, less than an hour's drive south of Albany. The nearest Amtrak train station is in Hudson. The grounds are open during the day throughout the year and the original carriage roads are accessible. Organized tours of the residence are generally available Tuesday through Sunday, and holiday Mondays, from April to October. From November to March, tours are conducted Friday through Sunday. Reservations for house tours are recommended.[31] Photography is permitted anywhere on the grounds, but not inside the house.

References in Popular Culture

The Marc Cohn album Burning The Daze features a song entitled "Olana" about Church and the building of the estate.


  1. ^ a b "Frederic E. Church House (Olana)". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. September 11, 2007. http://tps.cr.nps.gov/nhl/detail.cfm?ResourceId=365&ResourceType=Building. 
  2. ^ "Learn: What is Olana?". The Olana Partnership. http://www.olana.org/learn_what_is_olana.php. Retrieved April 8, 2010. 
  3. ^ a b Greenwood, Richard (December 12, 1975). National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Frederic E. Church HousePDF (442 KiB). National Park Service.  and Accompanying 8 photos, exterior, from 1975 and 1964. PDF (834 KiB)
  4. ^ a b "Membership". The Olana Partnership. 2007–2009. http://www.olana.org/membership.php. Retrieved April 8, 2010. 
  5. ^ a b c d Seamon, David (1992). Donald G. Janelle. ed. "A Diary Interpretation of Place: Artist Frederic Church's Olana". Geographical snapshots of North America: commemorating the 27th Congress of the International Geographical Union and Assembly (Guilford Press). ISBN 0898620309. http://books.google.com/?id=8ggnWFswXu8C&pg=PA80. Retrieved May 12, 2010. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Ryan, 2001
  7. ^ Howat, 2005, p. 123
  8. ^ Howat, 2005, p. 128
  9. ^ "Poetry Reading To Mark Twain Visit to Olana". Schenectady Gazette (Hudson, New York): pp. 16. July 6, 1987. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1917&dat=19870706&id=zA8hAAAAIBAJ&sjid=inIFAAAAIBAJ&pg=842,1542605. Retrieved April 9, 2010. 
  10. ^ a b Werner, 2005
  11. ^ a b Huntington, David C. (May 13, 1966). "Must this mansion be destroyed?". Life (Time, Inc.) 60 (19): 69. ISSN 0024-3019. http://books.google.com/?id=IVYEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA69. Retrieved April 8, 2010. 
  12. ^ Church, letter to Erasmus Dow Palmer, 1884.
  13. ^ Howat, 2005, p. 98
  14. ^ Toole, 1996
  15. ^ Toole, 1996, pp. 63-64
  16. ^ Trebilcock & Balint, 2009, p. 73
  17. ^ Gerald L. Carr, 2000
  18. ^ Toole, Robert M. (Autumn 2004). "The Art of the Landscape Gardener". The Hudson River Valley Review 21 (1). http://www.hudsonrivervalley.org/review/pdfs/HRVR_21.1.pdf. Retrieved April 8, 2010. 
  19. ^ Ashbery, 2005, p. 264. Retrieved on April 8, 2010
  20. ^ Bolger, Doreen (1986). In pursuit of beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic movement. Metropolitan Museum of Art. pp. 24–25. ISBN 0870994689. 
  21. ^ Carr, 1994
  22. ^ a b Larrabee, Eileen; Catherine Jimenez (May 24, 2007). "Olana State Historic Site Re-Opens To Public". New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. http://nysparks.state.ny.us/newsroom/press-releases/release.aspx?r=604. Retrieved April 8, 2010. 
  23. ^ AASLH's Historic House Affinity Group Committee (Autumn 2008). "AASLH Technical Leaflet #244: How Sustainable is Your House Museum?". History News (Nashville, Tennessee: American Association for State and Local History) 63 (4). http://aaslh.org/documents/TL244Autumn2008.pdf. 
  24. ^ Todd, Richard (March–April 2004). "Seeing the Big Picture". Preservation 56 (2): 30–35. 
  25. ^ a b Seamon, David; James A. Ryan. "Frederic Church's Olana". Exhibition texts. Kansas State University. http://www.arch.ksu.edu/seamon/Olana.htm. Retrieved April 8, 2010. 
  26. ^ a b Avery, 2005, p. 11
  27. ^ Carr, 2007, p. 120
  28. ^ a b c Ashbery, 2005, p. 266. Retrieved on April 8, 2010
  29. ^ Huntington, David C. (1966). The Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church: Vision of an American Era. New York. p. 114. 
  30. ^ a b Bob Vila (1996). "Guide to Historic Homes of America". A&E Network. http://www.bobvila.com/BVTV/AE/America.html. 
  31. ^ "Visit: Tours". The Olana Partnership. 2007–2009. http://www.olana.org/visit.php. Retrieved April 8, 2010. 
  • Ashbery, John (2005). "Frederic Church at Olana: An Artist's Fantasy on the Hudson River". In Eugene Richie. Selected Prose. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472031392.  This chapter first appeared as an article in Architectural Digest, Volume LIV, Issue 6, June 1997, pp. 60, 62, 68, 70, 74, 78.
  • Avery, Kevin J. (2005). Treasures from Olana: Landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press with The Olana Partnership and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. ISBN 0801444306. 
  • Carr, Gerald L. (1994). Frederic Edwin Church: A Catalogue Raisonné of Works of Art at Olana State Historic Site. New York, Cambridge, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521385407. 
  • Carr, Gerald L. (2000). Frederic Edwin Church: In Search of the Promised Land. New York: Berry-Hill Galleries. ISBN 1584651261. 
  • Carr, Gerald L. (2007). Frederic Edwin Church: romantic landscapes and seascapes. Adelson Galleries. 
  • Dwyer, Michael Middleton, editor (2001). Great Houses of the Hudson River. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 082122767X. 
  • Howat, John K. (2005). Frederic Church. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300109881. 
  • Kelly, Franklin; Gould, Stephen Jay; Rindge, Debora; Ryan, James Anthony (1989). Frederic Edwin Church. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian. 
  • Olenick, Andy; Reisem, Richard O. (2006). Historic New York: architectural journeys in the Empire State. New York: Landmark Society of Western New York , Inc. in conjunction with Preservation League of New York State and New York State Council on the Arts. pp. 52–53. http://www.landmarksociety.org/historicny/chapter3.htm. 
  • Ryan, James Anthony (July 2001). Frederic Church's Olana: Architecture and Landscape as Art. Hensonville, New York: Black Dome Press. ISBN 1883789281. 
  • Trebilcock, Evelyn D.; Balint, Valerie A. (2009). Glories of the Hudson: Frederic Edwin Church's Views from Olana. Ithica and London: Cornell University Press with The Olana Partnership and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. ISBN 0801448433. 
  • Werner, Louis (November–December 2005). A Treasure House on the Hudson. Kevin Brubriski, photographer. Saudi Aramco World. pp. 2–9. http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200506/a.treasure.house.on.the.hudson.htm. 

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