Thursday, August 1, 2013

Architecture as Art: Frederic Church and Olana

For anyone interested in touring historic homes, New York's Hudson River Valley is a paradise. The river's shores are dotted with architectural gems from just outside the city and continuing for miles upstate. While I am game for touring any architecturally significant structure, I am most curious about those whose former occupants are of interest to me.

Many of the paintings that emerged from my favorite movement in American art, The Hudson River School, also had roots in this area. After studying here with Thomas Cole, who is regarded as the father and founder of the School, landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church returned in 1870 to build his dream house, the Persian-inspired Olana. Visiting the house during our recent holiday was the fulfillment of a long held wish.

Although Church was a wildly successful painter during his lifetime, he had the advantage of starting out with family money that enabled him to travel. Many of his best-known, large scale paintings began as sketches in far-off locations - the Middle East, South America and the Arctic.

While Church never actually made it to Persia, he did travel in the regions that are now Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt - incredible journeys at that time - and from architecture viewed on those trips and images gleaned from books he developed the designs for building and decorating Olana which was named for an ancient Persian fortress and treasure-house.

The house is nearly perfectly preserved as it was during Church's lifetime. His daughter-in-law, Sally, who was Olana's last resident, maintained it as a museum to Church and his beloved wife Isabel. After Sally's death in 1964 the house, its furnishings, and the large number of Church's paintings it contained were rescued from auction by a group of private citizens with the support of then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller. 

The house is sited on a high promontory and from several rooms, through large arched windows, are absolutely extraordinary views of the Hudson River Valley. The execution of the architecture treats the views as painterly subjects.

Interior photography is not permitted as much of the woodwork is painted with elaborate stenciling designed by Church and every effort is being taken to preserve it. The following five images are from Olana's website where you can 'virtually' tour four rooms.

The front door from the interior of the vestibule; the Arabic symbol  painted on the glass means 'welcome.'

The view from the vestibule through the large central room which was inspired by the open-air courtyards found in the interiors of middle-Eastern homes. The window at the very end frames the view from Church's studio.

The central court which forms the axis of the house and from which all the ground floor rooms are accessible.

A sample of the intricately detailed interior painting.

The dining room. While we waited outside for our tour to begin, I wondered at the long windowless expanse to the right of the front door. It was planned to accommodate this gallery wall where Church displayed old-master style paintings collected on his tours of Europe. In spite of his status as a true master among his contemporaries, Church was not an art snob. Many of the paintings he purchased were of no significant value. He bought images he liked and on some of the canvases he even made small changes or 'corrections.'

Isabel's study. The painting over the fireplace, Church's El Khasné, Petra, was a gift to Isabel from her husband. While Isabel accompanied Church on a tour of Holy Land sites in 1867 and 1868, she did not join him on the four week trip to Petra and he painted the monumental canvas to share what he saw with her.

photo: Andy Wainwright via Martha Stewart

Isabel was only four feet, nine inches tall. The tiny desk here in her study was specially made to accommodate her petite proportions. The large ogee arch window on the left is one of several on the first floor that frame the stunning long-range views of the river and valley.

photo: Andy Wainwright via Martha Stewart

Olana is rare among historic houses in that everything it contains is original. In Church's studio his easels, paints and brushes remain.

photo: Andy Wainwright via Martha Stewart

Church considered the landscape surrounding the house a continuation of his architectural canvas. Every approach, view and pathway was thoughtfully planned. There is a small and charming flower garden just below the house.

Long range views take in a pond, farmland that supplied Olana's kitchen and the Hudson River. There is a fascinating piece on the history of Church's cultivation of the property - from his original purchase of a farm below the house, the house's eventual siting, and the full development of the 250-acre landscape on Olana's website here.

The pond near the bottom of the drive.

Visit the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for more information on The Hudson River School and Frederic Edwin Church. For more information on Olana or to plan a visit take a look at the website here. Throughout the year the Olana Partnership hosts exhibits, events, lectures and art classes on the property.


  1. Oh how i'd love to visit this house!! It's been added to my 'list'. Not sure how I missed it a few years ago when I traveled through the Hudson River Valley!

    1. I loved the floorplan so much my new dream is to build house with a central 'courtyard' feature. I actually think it is well suited to modern living. Let me know if you go back; I'd love to share where we stayed and ate in Hudson. We had such a good time.
      All best,

  2. I think I could stroll through those gardens forever. I need to visit.

  3. What a beautiful place! Part house, part fortress. I've never heard of it so I appreciate the introduction. Not too far from here either so I'd love to visit sometime.

    I, too, love the idea of a central courtyard. It makes me think of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum which I adore.

  4. What an exquisite and exotic masterpiece! I can picture lovely framed views of the river through those arches!! On the topic of arches, I noticed many inside and out - just wonderful! Adding this to my list for our future Hudson trip.
    x Loi
    PS - I've updated your new blog address to my blogroll. All seems fine.

  5. You have certainly given us some glimpses into wonderful places that we wouldn't otherwise get to see! I wish I had been on your vacation! This was exquisite! I love to tour something that I care about…just like you said, it had been a long time dream of yours! Kudos to you for making it happen! Each picture was prettier than the first! Thanks for sharing it with us!

  6. For nearly thirty years, I lived about ten minutes away from Olana. Needless to say, I visited often. The home itself and its interiors are inspiring and the view of the Hudson River valley is breathtaking. On a clear day you can see all the way to West Point. The icing on the cake is Church's art collection. Seeing his moody, evocative paintings alone is worth the price of admission. Thank you for featuring this wonderful treasure.

  7. This looks like such an amazing place to be inspired!
    I love the arches and the meandering garden path!
    Love your new blog look!
    happy weekend

  8. fascinating, the home, the artist, the story and the gorgeous hudson river valley. thanks for the introduction phyllis, you have me checking links, loving this!

  9. Phyllis,
    What a wonderful story. The grounds to the home are beautiful. Thanks for the mini-history lesson.


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