On the crest of a steep hill above the middle reaches of the Hudson River, a large earth-toned building with two towers breaks through the tree-line into the sky. Polychrome tiles on the Mansardesque roof of the much taller tower form a subtle geometric pattern, signaling the aesthetic and workmanship of another era. Travelers approaching the unusual structure from the West, as they cross the river on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, wonder if it is a castle, maybe more German than Disneyland. Indeed, should the curious be lucky enough to mount the stairs to one of the towers of the ornately decorated stone villa, a new world Rhineland would stretch below them to the surrounding horizons– the sinuous river to the south, the Catskill Mountains to the west and Taconic and Berkshire ranges to the East, and verdant forests and farmland all around. They would find themselves in a uniquely American place, rather than in some nostalgic confection of a mad prince.
What Jefferson’s Monticello is to the 18th century, and the stark lines of Frank Lloyd Wright to the 20th century, Olana is to the 19th century: a vibrant dialogue between natural and interior spaces, in a thoroughly eclectic style emblematic of its time. The structure of the Olana villa embodies the ideals of John Ruskin, and the natural, earthy tones of Moorish and other world architecture. And the design of the surrounding landscape embodies the principles of landscape architecture articulated by Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in New York’s Central Park.
Olana—the villa and surrounding designed landscape–is the creation of a man who was once the most celebrated landscape painter in America, Frederic Edwin Church, born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1826. At the peak of his eminence in the New York art world, Church bought property in Columbia County, across the river from Catskill, where he had studied 20 years earlier with Thomas Cole, now recognized as the founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting. With Calvert Vaux as consulting architect, Church designed the villa in 1862, completing it and the surrounding designed landscape in 1890. Church died in 1900, at a time when styles and tastes in painting had moved on from the precise, highly realistic depictions of nature at which Church excelled.
For much of the 20th century, Church’s paintings and his last great creation, Olana, were largely ignored. Now, over a hundred years after his death, Church’s reputation as one of America’s great painters is restored, due in no small part to the efforts of those who rallied to the cause of saving Olana from destruction in 1964 through 1966.
Olana is now a New York State Historic Site, a few miles from the Amtrak station in Hudson, which is a two-hour train ride north of Manhattan. The villa, displaying Church’s exotic furniture, collections and many of his paintings and sketches, has been beautifully restored with support from The Olana Partnership, a non-profit corporation that provides funding, curatorial staff and programming. The 250-acre designed landscape, with fields, forest five miles of carriage roads being restored by The Olana Partnership, affords spectacular views of the Hudson River and beyond. Through the continuing efforts of The Olana Partnership, the viewshed around Olana has been preserved to a remarkable extent, so that visitors can not only immerse themselves in a landscape created by Church, but survey a deeply affecting cultural landscape from America’s past. As put by art historian Robert Hughes, Olana is “a viewing platform toward the American Sublime.”