HUDSON - One of the most spectacular views of the Hudson River, especially in autumn, is from the top of the hill where Frederic Edwin Church's estate Olana is located. Even when looking through windows, which would have fit perfectly in a mosque, from inside the fabled house, the scenes are as perfect as paintings.
That's just what Church had in mind.
"Each window frames a landscape," said Robert Burns, the vice president of development for the Olana Partnership, a non-profit organization that oversees the 373-acre site.
Church dreamed of having a house that would integrate the landscape outside with the art inside. But he had to become one of the most famous American landscape painters of the mid-19th century before that dream was realized.
Born in 1826 in Hartford, Conn., to a wealthy family, Church came to Catskill, which is just across the river, during his teens to study with Thomas Cole, who eventually became known as the father of the Hudson River School of painting. As Cole's only pupil, the two would sometimes come across the river to paint from the very hill where Olana is now located, Burns said.
Church went on to study at the National Academy of Design in New York City for a few years and then in 1857 painted "Niagara" (Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.). He became an overnight sensation. Two years later, his "The Heart of the Andes" (Metropolitan Museum of Art), which was a dark landscape set in Ecuador, fetched the amazing price of $10,000.
"It was then the most ever paid for a landscape," Burns said.
To market his product, Church often toured with his paintings and produced small prints, much like today's museum postcards, for visitors to take home. After Church married Isabelle Carnes, he purchased 126 acres of land below the summit of the current site - the hill top was not then available to buy. In 1861, he built a house, which they called Cosy Cottage. Five years later, as they toured Europe and the Middle East, Church became enthralled with the cultures and the region's colorful and exotic designs.
When they returned in 1867, he bought the 18 acres at the hill top where Church decided he could fulfill his dream of what would become Olana. Except for some sketches architect Calvert Vaux made, Church designed the structure himself and involved himself in every aspect of its construction. The shade of paint for one cornice was a pale green but another had to be ochre. The field stone, which forms the walls in a topsy-turvy design, had to be placed so that the mica in the stone would glint in the sun.
Stencils, which he painted in metallic paint, are on many doors. The furniture reflects the many cultures he and Isabelle visited and are all in different architectural styles. Some chairs and desks are very small to accommodate Isabelle's less than five-foot frame (Church was 6 feet 2 inches tall). Other chairs, deliberately chosen for their uncomfortableness, were used to seat visitors in a front parlor where they were allowed to wait for 20 minutes in hopes of meeting Church, Burns said with a laugh.
Fireplace mantles are in teak wood with exquisite tile work down the sides; sight lines from room to room are clear and open. Persian rugs are on most floors. Windows are everywhere, although only the dining room has enough light to see clearly. Decorative art and paintings grace every wall, including some from his mentor, Cole. Typically for the period, the overall impression is one of ornateness, with some clutter.
Church spent almost $40,000 (almost $1 million today) over two years (1870 to 72) to build Olana (a Persian word for a fortress/treasure house). He and Isabelle took another four years to furnish it. Church also laid out the gardens (planted currently with many historically correct blooms); orchards; dredged a marsh to create a 10-acre lake, which still supplies the house with water; and designed the winding carriage drives for more views. The landscape is considered one of the finest remaining U.S. examples of the picturesque style.
Although Church continued to paint, landscape paintings fell out of fashion as Impressionism gained favor. Arthritis forced the artist to spend winters in Mexico until his death in 1900. Isabelle died just before him. Although the estate was passed on to Church's four children, by 1964 the family intended to auction the estate to Sotheby's.
Local enthusiasts who formed the Olana Preservation Inc. staved that off, but were unable to raise enough money. They approached then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who agreed to have the state purchase it. In 1966, it became a state historic site.
Since 1967, as many as 131,000 annual visitors have been able to view many of the 40,000 objects and Church's 736 sketches and finished works. An $8.9 million restoration of the house and collections, the construction of the $11.3 million visitor center and an ongoing fundraising campaign sustains the site.