Olana on the Frozen Hudson

Posted on February 8, 2011 at 11:35 pm
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Perched on a hill overlooking the Hudson Valley is a rather peculiar villa. The Olana State Historic Site was the home of Frederic Edwin Church, one of the major figures in the Hudson River School of landscape painting. It is difficult to affix one single style to this beautiful mansion, though “Persian” would be a good start, and it has a ring to it. The grounds are open throughout the year and I highly recommend the peaceful view of the Hudson River valley, the Catskill Mountains and the Taconic Range. I made a stop at the bottom of the site on my last visit and, inspired by the sunset on the frozen Hudson, crossed the entire Rip Van Winkle Bridge to take a few pictures.

More photos below. Click on any of the thumbnails to open a larger view, or check the full-screen Flickr slideshow if you have Flash installed.

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Frederic E. Church was very popular in the mid-19th century, his paintings characterized by “a calmness and sense of hope”. Born in 1826 in Hartford, CT, Church studied for several years with Thomas Cole, regarded as the first exponent of the Hudson River School of painting. Church moved to New York in 1849 and began his independent career. Within a year he became the youngest artist ever to be elected to the National Academy of Design.

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Church traveled widely throughout his career, using his sketches of New England, South America, Europe, the Arctic, and the Middle East, to create the landscapes that brought him fame, respect, and wealth. Church spent most of his last twenty years at his estate on the Hudson River, Olana, finally dying in New York City in 1900 (source: olana.org).

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Olana was built between 1870 and 1891. It is a New York State Historic Site, a National Historic Landmark, and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Hudson Valley and upstate New York. Climb up the hill, then walk down to the pond to get a better view of the 250 acres surrounding the house.

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Church constructed the landscape at Olana in the same manner that he constructed landscapes in his paintings: with an eye to composition, balance, and fidelity to nature. The physical landscape is composed of foreground (the house environs), middle ground (the rolling fields and forest), and background (the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains). Find out more and check the virtual tours of the exterior at olana.org.

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Church spent three years searching for the ideal property and purchased the property for Olana in 1860. He hired architect Richard Morris Hunt to design their first house, the “Cosy Cottage”. Impressed by the architecture he and his wife saw in cities like Beirut, Jerusalem and Damascus, he envisioned a home at Olana that incorporated Middle Eastern elements and designs. The new house, on top of the hill, was designed by Calvert Vaux.

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In the fall of 1872, Church and his family moved into the second story of the new house while he continued to decorate the ground floor. He designed stencils and chose the colors with which to decorate the walls and ceilings. The couple filled the house with thousands of objects meant to direct the attention to the great civilizations of the past (source: olana.org). While I love the exterior of the house, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the bazaar that is the interior, I’m not sure some of the pieces were meant to coexist in the same house. Try it for yourself, if not of course for the 40 paintings by Frederic Church and fellow Hudson River School artists Martin Johnson Heade and Arthur Parton. You can also check the virtual tours of the house at the bottom of the “LEARN: The House” page at olana.org.

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When Church died in 1900, Olana was willed to his youngest son Louis Palmer Church. He married Sarah “Sally” Baker Good and they moved to Olana. Sally stayed on until her death in 1964. She had insisted that the decorative scheme at Olana remain unchanged, and that is what you will get to see during your next visit. Her nephew Charles Lark, Jr. inherited the estate and undertook to have Sotheby’s auction the furnishings that had been collected by Church over so many years. Ooops.

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David Huntington, learning of the upcoming auction, convinced Lark to allow time for funds to be raised with which to purchase the estate. With help New York State, Olana was bought in 1966. It is now owned and operated by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and supported by The Olana Partnership, a non-profit organization.

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On our way back we enjoyed a superb sunset on the Hudson River. As we approached the Rip Van Winkle Bridge at the bottom of the site I asked K. if she could stop the car to take a few photos. I didn’t quite realize the bridge was no less than 5,040 ft (1,536.5 m) goddamn’ long. I kept pushing forward looking for different angles on the ice floating below, and soon reached the middle of the structure. Might as well keep going, right?

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The view on the Hudson was beautiful but difficult to capture. Shooting into the sun can be challenging. A tripod would not have helped much to bracket the pictures, the bridge was constantly vibrating from traffic (or was I shaking?). I’m not very comfortable with heights, the anti-suicide signs every 30 ft didn’t bring much solace either. I finally made it to the other end and called K. to pick me up on her way. In retrospect, I like the pics I shot straight down below, as if taken from a plane; the abstraction of ice vs. nature worked for me in these close-ups and is better experienced in a full-screen slideshow.

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Frederic Church put a lot of thought into this lifelong project. This is one of my favorite historic site close to home, I enjoyed each and every trip I made there. Olana is about 50 minutes south of Albany. The nearest Amtrak train station is in Hudson. Photography is not permitted inside the house (ouch). For more information, visit the official Olana site, which contents was used extensively in this post.


  1. AC says:

    The framing and light on 03 and 07 are just lovely. I’m going to Flickr now to see the full screen pics from the Rip Van Winkle bridge – - I’ve always wanted to walk across it (whisper: I’m afraid of heights, don’t tell anyone).

  2. Mike Hotter says:

    One of my favorite places – yr pictures of Olana and the grounds may be the best I’ve seen

  3. Dorothy Heyl says:

    Gorgeous photos. I like to think of the architectural style of Olana as Venetian Gothic, inspired by John Ruskin’s aesthetics (which rejected neo-classicism and embraced Venice and the Moors), as well as the popular Persian style of the time that Church admired.

  4. Sebastien says:

    Thanks guys.
    @ac: conquer your fear :)
    @dorothy: Venetian Gothic, I like that a lot.

  5. Susan says:

    Got here through your flickr page. Got to your flickr page while making sure the St Pat’s Parade in Albany is still going to be the usual time. You have captured a lot of the Capital Region. We moved away in 2003, but always return for the Parade day. You have one picture in your Larkfest with Albany’s finest riding down the street, clearing the crowd. That happened one parade day like five years ago or so. That was just terrible. Hope you get some great pictures this year. I usually get some shots myself but I don’t have them published anywhere any more since I refuse to pay for flickr any longer. Anyways just wanted to say hi and let you know that you have taken some great shots.