South Facade of the main house at Olana. Photo: Stan Ries
The spiritual home of the Hudson River School is Olana, the homestead of Frederic Church, located on a 250-acre hilltop outside Hudson, New York. Thanks to the long-term efforts of the Olana Partnership, Church's theatrical house, designed by Church and Calvert Vaux in a colorful blend of Middle-Eastern styles, joins the grounds in a remarkable state of preservation. With sweeping views of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains, Olana is best appreciated in summer, when it feels like you are walking inside a lush nineteen-century landscape.
Bell Tower, south view of river from inside Bell Tower. Photo: Andy Wainwright
In the 1960s, after a two-year campaign to save it from developers, Olana passed from the Church family to the shared public-private stewardship of New York State and what is now The Olana Partnership. Church's art and artifacts remained in situ, making it one of the country's most well-preserved artist residences, and certainly the most singular. Since then the Olana Partnership has worked tirelessly to bring the ornate polychromed building back to its original splendor. It has also sought to restore the overgrown grounds and preserve the viewshed of this historical perspective on the Hudson.
Court Hall, Main House Olana. Photo: Andy Wainright
The next steps for Olana will be to turn the house back into a home and working farm—a home for the ideals of Church, a living destination emerging from a relic, with all the living sights and smells. The Olana Partnership have done a remarkable job restoring and preserving the soul, the permanent collection, the house and grounds. Now the task is to reveal it as a living beacon of art, culture, and preservation.
View of the Main House from Across the Lake. Photo: Melanie Hasbrook
Some thoughts on the house and grounds: Today the building is approached from a parking lot at the top of the hill behind it. This gives the sense that you are visiting an artifact and not a home. The access road also has cars cutting across the property and through the viewshed. By depositing people at the top, in back, they are less likely to explore the grounds below. This current parking lot could be converted into a site for a much-needed respite and watering hole while car parking could be relocated down the hill, encouraging people to explore the grounds, walk up, and approach the main house from the front. Olana could also offer a trolly to the top, adding to the charm of the landscape. The house museum should also be arranged, if possible, to accommodate visitors who choose to experience it outside of the small, wonderful, but often sold-out docent-led tours (which now need to be booked in advance).
View from Crown Hill, Olana. Photo: Melanie Hasbrook
Finally, I would love to see more involvement with contemporary artists. What a thrill it must be for artists to engage with these 250 acres. There could be residencies. I would be fascinated to see how artists working in a range of practices interpret the context of Olana: from the abstract artists of Bushwick to realist-revival painters to classical and modern dancers. They could mix on the hillsides with farmers, walkers, preservationists, children making crafts—a living tableau.