Frederic Church’s Olana


[The following exhibit text is a first final draft co-authored by David Seamon and the late Olana director James A. Ryan for the visitor’s center at Olana State Historic Site, near Hudson, NY. Subsequently, the text was revised and shortened with the assistance of staff members at the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites at Peebles Island, in Waterford, NY. These individuals included John Lovell, Assistant Director of the Bureau; David Meyersberg, Chief of Historic Sites Exhibits; Kris Gibbon, Historic Preservation Program Analyst; and Audrey Nieson Greenberg, Interpretive Programs Coordinator. Images not included because of Web copyright issues].


The ten exhibit panels presented here are:


0. Frederic Church's Olana: Introduction

1. Frederic Edwin Church, a Painter of Landscapes

2. A Home for a Family

3. The Church Family

4. A Place on High

5. Nature as the Word of God

6. A Landscape in the Romantic Style

7. House as a Work of Art

8. A Vision of a Hopeful 19th-Century America

9. Postscript


Introductory Board: Frederic Church's Olana

Olana was the home of Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900). In the late 1850s and 1860s, Church was the most famous artist in America. His paintings of North and South American landscapes were viewed by thousands of people in the United States and Europe. Today, Church is considered to be one of America's most important artists.


One of Church's greatest contributions to American art was Olana, the home he and Isabel Carnes Church (1836-1899) built between 1870 and 1891 to rear their family. Designed with thoughtfulness and vision, Olana includes the Persian-style house, the romantically-landscaped grounds, and the dramatic vistas of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains.


Olana remained in the Church family until 1966 when the property was saved from auction by Olana Preservation, Inc., a volunteer group of citizens, businesspeople, and art historians led by David Carew Huntington (1922--1990), a major Church scholar. Olana remains today as Church created it.




1. A colored photograph of the south facade of the house. Or, perhaps Church's oil sketch, "Olana in the Clouds" (OL1976.1; no. 555 in Carr, who calls the sketch "Clouds over Olana").


Board 1: Frederic Edwin Church, A Painter of Landscapes


At a very early age, Church demonstrated a gift for drawing. His father, however, was a successful New England businessman and wanted his son to succeed him. The young Church persevered in his determination to paint pictures and, in 1844, when just eighteen, he traveled to Catskill, New York, to study with artist Thomas Cole (1801-1848).


Born in England, Thomas Cole was at the height of his artistic fame. He would eventually be acknowledged as the founder of the Hudson River School. This group of landscape artists, working from the 1830s to the 1870s, helped create a collective American consciousness by painting the abundance and majesty of the North American continent.


Church was perhaps the most significant painter of the Hudson River School. By 1860, he was celebrated nationally and internationally for his paintings Niagara (1857), The Heart of the Andes (1959), and Twilight in the Wilderness (1860). These paintings secured Church's career financially and his fame artistically.




1. Image of Frederic Church as a young man

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Church was the only son of a wealthy and prominent family whose Puritan ancestors had landed in America on the Mayflower.

2. A drawing by the young Church

[See some of the first images in Carr's Olana catalogue; perhaps use one of the drawings from his school note books?].

3. Frederic Church's sketch of Thomas Cole

Born in England, Thomas Cole was at the height of his artistic fame when Church journeyed to study with him in Catskill, New York. Cole would eventually be called the founder of the "Hudson River School"‑-a group of landscape artists working from the 1830s to the 1870s who provided the American people with a recognizable image of their nation and landscape in art.

4. Niagara

Niagara, a wall-size painting 3-1/2-feet long by 7-1/2-feet wide, depicted the swirling power of Niagara Falls with a vividness never before portrayed two-dimensionally. Thousands of New Yorkers paid twenty-five cents to look at the painting that a gallery on lower Broadway had purchased from the artist for the unheard-of sum of forty-five hundred dollars. "It was there before me," exclaimed one viewer, "the eighth wonder of the world."

5. The Heart of the Andes

In painting landscapes, Church was greatly influenced by the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who urged landscape artists to travel to remote geographic areas and paint their visual character. In 1853 and again in 1857, Church traveled to South America. The Heart of the Andes, 5-1/2-feet long by 10-feet wide, portrayed a complete South American landscape, from tropical valleys through temperate zones to Arctic pinnacles. "In a single focus of magnificence," wrote one critic, "was a complete condensation of South America‑-its gigantic vegetation, its splendid flora, its sapphire waters, its verdant pampas and its colossal mountains."

6. Church's 1845 sketch of the "bend in the river" ["Scene from Red Hill," dated May 1845, OL1980.1333A. No. 72 in Carr].

Dated May, 1845, during the period that Church studied with Cole, this sketch is the earliest indication of Church's acquaintance with the view from the site that would eventually become Olana. Cole had scouted the east side of the Hudson River for striking prospects during the 1830s and no doubt introduced Church to the site and view that Church would call "the bend in the river."


Board 2: The Church Family

In June 1860, Church married Isabel Mortimer Carnes, a young woman whom he had first met in 1859 at the New York exhibit of his Heart of the Andes. Four months before their wedding, Church took time from painting in his New York City studio to travel up the Hudson to purchase a 126-acre farm. It was here, directly across the river from Catskill, that Church had sketched with Cole. Here, after traveling the world in search of sublime vistas, Church returned to a landscape and view that would inspire him for the rest of his life.


The Churches set up house-keeping on the farm in a board-and-batten cottage designed by Richard Morris Hunt. The family lived in this home until 1872 when they moved to the larger house on the hill. In 1862, a son Herbert was born; and, two years later, a daughter Emma. The deaths of these two children from diphtheria in March 1865 was a tragedy from which the Churches would never entirely recover.


In 1866, just before an extended trip abroad, a third child Frederic Joseph was born, the first of three sons and a daughter, all of whom would grow to adulthood at Olana.      


Board 3: Home for a Family

In 1867, Church bought the hilltop above the farm to build a "modest substantial building," as he described it. To design the house, Church first engaged architect Richard Morris Hunt (1827--1896), who envisioned a "French manor." Late in 1867, however, Church and his family left on an eighteen-month journey to the Middle East and Europe. This trip radically affected his image of what the new house should be.


After his return, Church changed architects for his house and hired English-born architect Calvert Vaux (1824‑-1895) as consultant. Employing remembered architecture he had seen during his Middle-Eastern trip, motifs from books on Persian architecture, and his artistic imagination, Church designed a house that he called "Persian, adapted to the Occident." In addition to a central court hall, the new house had thick, fortresslike walls and an interior that reflected the ornamental decoration that he and Isabel had seen in many Middle-Eastern homes. Two years later, in 1872, the family moved into the second story of the unfinished building.


Church and his wife saw their new home as a sanctuary where they could raise their four children. The importance of Olana as a place to nurture a family is reflected in its name, which is a variation on olane, an ancient Persian fortress-treasure house on a high promontory overlooking a river valley that was thought to be the original Garden of Eden. For the Churches, Olana was a fortress to protect the family that was its treasure.




1. Isabel Carnes Church

A portrait of Church's wife done in 1860 by James Baker. Isabel Mortimer Carnes was the daughter of a wealthy merchant from New England. She was born in Paris, France, and lived most of her early years in Dayton, Ohio. After Church met Carnes at the New York opening of The Heart of the Andes, one newspaper reported that "Church has been successfully occupied with another heart than that of the Andes."

2. Black-and-white reproduction of Church's oil sketch of Cosy Cottage [c. 1870-72; OL1977.315. No. 497 in Carr].

After buying the farm property across from Catskill, Church first built a modest country cottage designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt (1827--1896). Church and his wife occupied "Cosy Cottage," as it came to be called, in 1861, and lived there until the larger house on the summit was completed in 1873.

3. Apple Blossoms at Olana [1870; OL1981.21A & B. No. 492 in Carr]

An 1870 sketch of the apple orchard near Cosy Cottage. Olana included a working farm that paid for itself through the sales of fruit, hay, and dairy products. In a May, 1870 letter to friend and artist M. J. Heade, Church wrote, "I had more apple blossoms on my farm this season than you ever painted‑-it has been a marvelous spring for bloom."

4. Frederic Church and his Son, Frederic Joseph, in Beirut, 1868. [black and white photograph]

"The Dwellings [of Beirut] are often quite grand," Church wrote to his friend Erastus Down Palmer in March, 1868. "They have a large room called the court in the center often 30 x 50 feet or larger-and perhaps 30 feet high and smaller rooms on each side.... I have got new and excellent ideas about house building since I came abroad."

5. Moonrise and Sunrise.

At the birth of his first child, Herbert Edwin, in 1862, Church painted Sunrise. Two years later, at the birth of a second child, Emma Frances, he painted Moonrise. Both children died of diphtheria in 1865. The Churches never completely recovered from this loss, and Church later built Olana as a fortresslike place to protect his family.

6. The four Church children

Frederic Joseph, born 1866; Theodore Winthrop, born 1867; Louis Palmer, born 1870; and Isabel Charlotte, 1871.

7. Emma Carnes Asleep in the Ombra at Olana; photograph of Emma Carnes

Emma Osgood Carnes was Isabel Church's mother and a frequent visitor at Olana. In this sketch, which is one of the few that Church did of family members, Mrs. Carnes is lying down on a wicker lounge that the family called the "Grasshopper."


Board 4: A House as a Work of Art

Church designed his house in the same way that he created a painting: He began with pencil drawings, which he followed with oil sketches as his ideas progressed. From these sketches, he produced the final work of art. He made hundreds of drawings delineating every exterior and interior element. From these many drawings, he and Isabel chose those they liked best. These drawings were followed by oil and watercolor sketches that guided house construction.


Many of Church's sketches included twenty-five or more individual images of such architectural elements as molding profiles, window patterns, masonry designs, and geometric floral designs for the stencils that would cover the exterior cornices and interior walls. Although most of these designs were never used, they serve as powerful evidence of Church's creative imagination and visual experimentation using his pencil and paints.


Olana's central living space is the Court Hall, a room of celebration and one of the earliest examples of a "living hall" in America. The Court Hall forms the spatial, visual, and artistic center of the house, from which open all the other major living spaces‑-the East Parlor, Sitting Room, Library, and Dining Room/Picture Gallery. Although its painted decorations are oxidized and faded today, the Court Hall shown brilliantly when first completed, resembling one of the Beirut interiors that Church and his wife had seen on their trip to the Middle East.


The exotic and artistic furnishings that Church gathered for Olana were from different cultures and places: French and Chinese porcelains, Kasmiri chairs, a Mexican madonna, Inca idols, a Japanese Buddha, Persian metal ware and vases, Turkish rugs and throws, Moroccan taborets, American chairs and tables, South American butterflies, and mounted Quetzals and birds of paradise. "The whole house," wrote a nineteenth-century journalist, "is a museum of fine arts, rich in bronzes, paintings, sculptures, and antique and artistic specimens from all over the world."




CAPTION FOR IMAGES 1-4: These four illustrations show the way that Church designed the main house. First, he made preliminary pencil sketches, left, which he followed with finished water colors, right.

1. Olana's East Facade, c. 1870.

Frederic Edwin Church, East Facade Olana, c. 1870, medium and dimensions unknown, from a photograph in the possession in the Olana archives.

2. Olana's East Facade, Olana, c. 1870.

Frederic Edwin Church, East Facade, Olana, c. 1870, watercolor, ink and graphite on paper, 14 11/16 x 21 7/8 in.

3. Olana's Southwest Facade, c. 1870.

Frederic Edwin Church, Southwest Facade, Olana, c. 1870, medium and dimensions unknown, from a photograph in the Olana archives.

4. Olana's Southwest Facade, c. 1870.

Frederic Edwin Church, Southwest Facade, Olana, c. 1870, watercolor, ink and graphite on paper, 13 x 21 15/16 in.


CAPTION FOR IMAGES 5-6: In some of his designs for Olana, Church borrowed from patterns in books on Persian architecture. The pattern on the right [image 5] is from Pascal Coste's Monuments Modernes de la Perse, a popular pattern book published in 1867. As the photograph on the right illustrates [image 6], Church adapted this pattern for the stencilling of the doors.

5. A Design from a Persian Pattern Book

Jules Bourgoin, "Porte de L'Eglise de St Jacques des Armenians, a Jerusalem, Plate 27," Les Arts Arabes, 1868, ink on paper, 17 1/2 x 12 3/8 in.

6. Olana's East Parlor

East Parlor, Olana, 1982. Friends of Olana, Inc.


CAPTIONS FOR IMAGES 7-11: These sketches illustrate several stages of the evolution of Church's design for the bay and cornice on Olana's southwest facade. In this case, he began with pencil renderings and then presented the more finalized designs in oil. Note the photograph of the finished window and cornice.

7. Sketch of Olana's Bay and Tower

Frederic Edwin Church, Sketch of Bay and Tower, Southwest Facade, and Molding Profiles, Olana, c. 1870-72, graphite on paper, 10 1/8 x 7 1/2 in.

8. Sketches for Attic Window and Bay Cornice

Frederic Edwin Church, Four Sketches for Attic Window and Cornice, Bay, Southwest Facade, Olana, c. 1870-72, graphite on paper, 10 1/8 x 7 1/2 in.

9. Oil-and-Graphite Sketch of a Bay and Cornice

Frederic Edwin Church, Bay and Cornice, Southwest Facade, Olana, c. 1870-72, oil and graphite on paper, 9 3/8 x 7 in.

10. Detail of Attic Window and Cornice

Frederic Edwin Church, Detail of Attic Window and Cornice, Bay, Southwest Facade, Olana, c. 1870-72, oil and graphite on paper, 6 1/2 x 9 1/4 in.

11. Bay at Olana

Bay, Southwest Facade, Olana, 1988.

12. Court Hall, Olana [colored photograph]

Modelled after the houses Church and Isabel saw in the Middle East, the Court Hall is the heart of the house and was filled with exotic furnishings and decorations. Church sought to create a repository for the objects of civilization. "The whole house," wrote a journalist, "is a museum of fine arts, rich in bronzes, paintings, sculptures, and antique and artistic specimens from all over the world."


Board 5: A Place on High

For Church and his family, Olana was a home and retreat, particularly after the 1870s when public taste for the Hudson River School waned. If Olana was a home, however, it was not a home that could be built anywhere. Keenly attuned to nature, Church carefully considered the appropriate site for the house and its relationship to the surroundings.


The key to Church's siting of Olana was the experience of looking out from a place on high to the earth spread magnificently below. With its breathtaking views of the Hudson Valley and Catskills, Olana offered Church a series of real-world panoramas similar to the landscapes that he painted in his wall-size pictures.


Church designed the orientation and floor plan of the house to take full advantage of Olana's vistas. Every south- and west-facing window frames spectacular views of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains. Susan Hale, Isabel's companion for many years, wrote of the importance of the views for the family: "They are always looking out the windows."


Olana was sited to be an observatory for the artist. In all seasons and all weathers, Church observed, sketched, and painted the landscape, views, and skies at Olana. The shifts in light and atmosphere created daily, even hourly changes in a landscape and skyscape that, for Church, were always the same yet always different.




1. Above the Clouds at Sunrise

Frederic Edwin Church, Above the Clouds at Sunrise, 1849, oil on canvas, 27 1/4 x 40 1/4 in. (The Warner Collection of Gulf States Paper Corporation, Tuscaloosa, Alabama).


One of Church's most vivid paintings of a "place on high"‑-in this case, a sunrise view from the Catskills looking east toward the Hudson River.


2. Twilight in the Wilderness

Frederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860, oil on canvas, 40 x 64 in. (Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund).


As a deeply religious man affected by the New England Puritan tradition, Church believed in a divine universe that pointed the way toward humanity's redemption. The nature that Church painted, however, was not in the civilized Old World but, rather, in the uncharted New World, which he believed was a "New Jerusalem"--a place that Christian faith could transform into a Paradise regained.

3. El Khasné, Petra.

Frederic Edwin church, El Khasné, Petra, 1874, oil on canvas, 60 1/2 x 50 1/4 in. (Olana State Historic Site).


In his portrayals of North American landscapes, Church sought confirmation of his vision of the earth as an Eden fresh from the hand of God. When Darwin's Origin of Species challenged this premise in 1859, Church began to study human history as it related to divine plan. Church traveled to the Middle East, and one result was his painting, El Khasné, Petra, which depicted an ancient stone treasury house located in what is today Jordan. Church hung this painting in Olana's sitting room, the principle gathering place for the family. For Church, El Khasné was the civilized equivalent of the spiritual peace and hope he had found in the wild nature depicted in Twilight in the Wilderness, the painting he interrupted in 1860 to travel up river on the eve of his marriage to purchase the farm.

4. View from the Ombra

Colored photograph, the view from Olana's ombra [place adjacent to image 4 below].

5. Olana's Floor Plan

Floor Plan, Olana, with Studio Wing Addition, 1891 [perhaps include arrows outward from windows indicating the western and southwestern views].


Church sited his house so that there would be framed landscape views from the windows of the main living areas. For example, from the Court Hall, one looks out through the Moorish arch of a recessed veranda--what Church called the ombra‑-to see a dramatic view: a panorama of the Catskill Mountains and Hudson River, which at this point curves and widens to become "the bend in the river."


[Remaining images and captions for boards 5 & 6 are tentative. Wall space will play the key role in deciding how many oil and pencil sketches of Olana's landscapes and skies to include in the exhibit. Here, we offer several possibilities for images and several captions. These will need to be honed and modified as the exhibit takes more precise shape]:


CAPTION: In the last thirty years of his life, Church regularly watched the sunsets at Olana and frequently sketched and painted the sky. Today there exist at least 75 oil sketches of Olana landscapes and skies and several hundred pencil sketches. Some of Church's oil sketches of Olana's changing scenes rank among the artist's finest works.


CAPTION: "We are having splendid meteoric displays‑-magnificent sunsets and auroras‑-red, green, yellow, blue‑-and in such profusion I have actually been drawn away from my usual steady devotion to [building] the new house to sketch some of the fine things hung in the sky" (letter to friend and fellow artist Martin J. Heade, from Olana, October 24, 1870).


CAPTION: "The country is very lovely now and the grand scenes which encircle my farm are getting their summer drapery‑-I should be happy to have the opportunity sometime to show you the beautiful views I look upon daily" (letter to G. Pinchot, from Olana, May 12, 1866).


CAPTION: "Nature has been very lavish here in the gifts of her beauty‑-I am sure you would enjoy the noble scenes our windows command" (letter to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from Olana, October 29, 1880).


PENCIL-SKETCH IMAGES: [There should be one example of a pencil sketch, and possible candidates include the following, which all depict skies and weathers over the Catskills. These four sketches are suggested because they each provide good visual evidence for the way that Church watched the skies over the Catskills and reported, in drawings and words, the meteorological phenomena he saw. Whichever pencil drawing is chosen, its verbal notations should be presented in an accompanying caption.]


1. Sunset from Church's Farm, Hudson. 9 August 1862, graphite and gouache on light brown paper, 9 13/16 x 15 15/16 in., inscribed in graphite. OL1977.18 (no. 410 in Carr).

[A useful pencil sketch for two reasons: first, Church's accompanying written notations are vivid; for example, areas marked with "10" refer to "delicious greenish prussian blue." Second, Church transcribed the pencil sketch into an oil sketch (OL1980.1887 & no. 411 in Carr), so one gets some sense of how Church translated his observations into a color sketch. Unfortunately, this sketch is very weak (Seamon ranked it the lowest of all 29 oil sketches in the Olana collection; see Olana report). This pencil sketch is light and would need enhancement, but it is one good example of Church's keen observational powers and the way he recorded what he saw in pencil].

2. Storm Clouds Approaching the "Sleeping Giant." c 1870-75, graphite on white wove paper, 4 1/2 x 6 15/16 in., inscribed in graphite. OL1980.1509 (no. 515 in Carr).

3. Storm on Overlook Mountain. c 1870-75, graphite on light gray-green paper, 7 1/2 x 9 7/16 in., not inscribed. OL1980.1500 (no. 514 in Carr).

4. Cloud Study. c 1870-75, graphite on off-white wove paper, 4 7/8 x 7 15/16 in., inscribed in graphite. OL1980.1496 (no. 518 in Carr).


Board 6: Nature as the Word of God

For Church, Olana was not only an observation tower from which he could see beautiful scenery. Olana also provided a place from which to look out on a world that Church believed was an expression of God.


In the first half of the 19th century, many Europeans and Americans held the belief that nature was a divine reflection. Landscapes, places and things of nature were believed to express religious significance and sometimes were interpreted as portents of historical events motivated by Divine Plan. In part, the strong belief in the spiritual significance of the natural world arose from the European Romantic movement and the work of poets and artists such as William Wordsworth, William Blake, and J. M. W. Turner.


Church and other conservative Americans redirected these Romantic ideals into a powerful Protestant faith. These Americans believed that a Christian God could speak to men and women through the things of nature. Through looking for and feeling this divine expression, human beings could redeem themselves spiritually. People, Nature, and God were seen to be a spiritual trinity.


Also like many other Americans of his era, Church believed that America was destined to become a great country and that its geographic expansion and economic development were God-given truths. This expansionist impulse--most commonly called "Manifest Destiny"--became an important theme for Church and other Hudson River painters, who felt the responsibility to "celebrate the newness of this vast, half-claimed continent."


As he looked out from Olana on a crisp, clear day, with mountain ridges breaking the southwestern horizon some sixty miles away, Church could experience a firsthand vision of the expansionist America in which he believed.



Board 7: A Landscape in the Romantic Style

Between 1860 and 1891, Church carefully designed the grounds of Olana. He shaped the landscape as if it were a painting and created a pleasure ground and ornamental farm. Influenced by the Romantic style of landscape gardening, Church adopted a free, informal arrangement of landscape elements such as vegetation growing naturally, irregular planting arrangements, and meandering paths and lakeshore.


In a Romantic landscape, the roads were of utmost importance. At Olana, Church built seven-and-one-half miles of roads, which he used to compose landscape scenes as if they were a series of paintings to be experienced in an intended sequence. Thick woodlands surrounded the house, grounds, lake, and farmstead. The woods visually separated the varied uses of the property and provided a buffer from the world outside. From the 1860s to 1890, Church also planted trees, since the original land had largely been cleared for farm use. Carefully considering the visual affect of their locations, Church planted maples, birches, hemlocks, chestnuts and oaks singly and in clusters throughout his property. He also had his workmen dig a lake with edges sculpted to echo the shape of the Hudson River as it widened to form the lakelike expanse that Church came to call "the bend in the river."




1. A Bird's Eye View of Olana, 1891

[A redrafted version of R. Toole's map from the Olana Landscape Brochure].

2. An appropriate farm photograph.

The farm occupied one-half of the 250-acre property and was an important part of life at Olana. As a practical Yankee, Church insisted that the farm pay for itself, and so hay, oats, rye, corn, apples, cherries, grapes, peaches, plums, pears, and strawberries were produced and shipped to market. At the same time, Church made aesthetic use of the farmstead, creatively manipulating the views of pastures, fields, and orchards.

3. House and South Park from the Lake, c. 1892.

Olana, south park from the lake, near the Pond Road, c. 1892, unknown photographer, albumen print, 4 3/4 x 7 1/16 in.

4. Olana's South Road, 1906.

Olana, South Road, 1906, John A. Eberle, gelatin print, 12 x 10 in.

5. Ridge Road, looking west, c. 1890.

Ridge Road, looking west, c. 1890, unknown photographer, albumen print on mount, 6 1/2 x 8 7/16 in.


Board 8: A Vision of a Hopeful Mid-19th-Century America

During the 1870s, Church was increasingly crippled by rheumatism, more than likely the result of poisoning from the pigments that he had used in a lifetime of painting. At the same time, the most popular artist in America in the 1850s and 1860s experienced the decline of his career as the taste for the Hudson River School evaporated when the work of the French and American Barbizon artists came into vogue. It is understandable that Isabel Church could write her daughter, "Your father lays on the sofa and is blue."


In the late 1880s, Church roused himself by adding a studio wing to the house. This work provided a pleasurable daily occupation that he extended as long as possible. Twenty years earlier Church had taken two years and sixty thousand dollars to build the original house. For the studio with only two main rooms, he took three years and thirty-thousand dollars. Projecting to the west, the studio features extraordinary framed views, a large north window for light, and an assemblage of objects to provide visual pleasure for the artist and his guests. "I wonder," Church mused in a letter to a friend, "whether I shall work as hard in the new studio as I do in erecting it."


After the studio was finished in 1891, Church lived another nine years. Though he painted no major works there, the studio itself, like the house and landscape, comprises Church's final contribution to American art. Like Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, which symbolizes federalist America, Church's Olana summarizes an artistic vision that defined, for 19th-century Americans, the significance of their nation. In this sense, Olana's most powerful aspect may be the way in which its design expressed one man's beliefs and world view. So fully is Olana a realization of his ideas that, when asked years later by a newspaper reporter if he was the architect, Church humorously replied, "Yes, I can say, as the good woman did about her mock turtle soup, I made it out of my own head."


At Olana, Church gathered and expressed the values, hopes, and visions of a confident and hopeful mid-19th-century America. Through architecture and landscape architecture, he found one way to draw together nature and culture, private and public life. Though our modern era is in many ways much more complicated and fast-changing than the times in which Church's lived, we can look back at his sincere and creative efforts to make a home in the midst of the world and ask how we might do the same today.                                                                                                                




1. Church in Mexico, 1895

Walter Launt Palmer, Church on a Balcony in Orizaba, Mexico, 1895, photograph, 2 1/4 x 3 3/8 in.

Beginning in the 1880s, Church spent nearly every winter in Mexico. In the spring of 1900, in failing health, Church returned from Mexico to New York City but was not able to proceed to Olana. He died in New York on 7 April 1900 at the same friends' home where Isabel had died the previous year.

2. View from Olana [one of Carr's photographs?]

            "As I looked from its broad veranda one beautiful sunshiny morning the scene that spread before me filled me with regret that I had the soul of an artist without the power to wield the brush. It seemed the spot of all others to lend inspiration, and it is no wonder that the fame of Mr. Church is so great and lasting as to live long after he has gone to his last resting place." [Frank Bonnelle, "The American Rhine," New York World, 21 July 1889, II, Olana Archive].



 In 1900, Olana was inherited by the Church's youngest son, Louis, who had returned in 1891 to look after his parents in their ill health. Louis Church married Sally Good in 1901. She loved the house and kept it unchanged during the sixty‑three years of her occupancy. Louis died in 1943; his widow lived on at Olana for another 21 years, dying in 1964 at the age of 96.


In her will, Sally Church left the house to her family, who put it up for auction. A young art historian, David Huntington, who was almost alone in believing the then forgotten Frederic Church to be one of America's major artists, formed Olana Preservation, Inc., to buy the property. After a harrowing campaign, Olana Preservation bought Olana with the assistance of New York State in 1966.  It was transferred to New York State the same year.


Designed in its entirety by one of America's greatest artists, Olana remains intact to inspire us today.  It is, however, a fragile place—especially the relationship between the house and the view. The one has no point of being without the other.


In 1977, an atomic energy plant was proposed to be sited in the center of the view.  This development was stopped, but new proposed projects remain as threats. Without continuous vigilance, this grand view will progressively deteriorate until it is gone. The Rip Van Winkle Bridge will continue to direct traffic onto highways 9G and 23, which will both be sooner or later lined with fast food and shopping malls.


Hundreds of acres on the boundaries of the property are in the hands of developers. The Town of Greenport, where Olana is situated, has no zoning ordinances. Subdivisions, factories and fast food businesses may be erected anywhere. The industry situated across the river in the center of the view will continue to proliferate unless positive steps are taken.


Do you enjoy this view?  Do you believe that this view is worth preserving as you see it today?


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