After spending time with the Roosevelts in the early mid-twentieth century, the next day we drove north along the Hudson River and stepped back further in time to the mid-1800s at Olana State Historic Site.
I confess I wasn’t familiar with the Hudson River School art movement before this trip. Yet the river’s mist that envelopes the Hudson Valley’s towns, vistas, and historic places, especially in the evening or after a rainfall, evokes the dream-like landscapes created by artists of this internationally acclaimed mid-nineteenth century style. Frederic Edwin Church, a prominent artist of this school, which harkens to the earlier Romanticism art movement, produced classic paintings hailed in America and Europe.
An artistic genius, Church taught himself architecture and landscape design after learning to paint from the “father” of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole. He created a 250-acre landscape and mansion masterpiece he called Olana, supposedly named after an ancient Persian treasure house and fortress. He and his family traveled internationally; the Middle East particularly entranced him.
Church designed the landscape with miles of carriage roads, an artificial lake, a working farm, and grand vistas. The Persian-inspired house embodies the mid-to-late nineteenth century with one of the most intact collections of Victorian period furnishings.
After Church’s last direct descendent and estate manager died, leaders in the art world, private investors, and eventually public support and the State of New York saved the estate from the wrecking ball and dissolution of the property in 1964. Olana is now a State Historical Site.
We spent four hours there, thoroughly enjoying the experience. I suggest taking both the landscape and first-floor house tours. A six-passenger electric tram drives through the estate, the best way to appreciate Church’s brilliant design and an opportunity to take memorable photographs. But visit the website and reserve your seats a few weeks ahead; it’s very popular. Jimmy, our guide and a Church descendent, regaled us with a wealth of stories about the family’s lives that enhanced the overall Olana experience.
From the porch of the house, perched on the property’s highest point, I could see the impressive Rip Van Winkle Bridge crossing the Hudson. And with a little imagination, I could make out the image of Rip’s body fast asleep, resting on the mountains across the river! Ask your guide to point it out.