Persian Fantasy Meets Hudson River School at 19th Century Painter’s Dream Home


    Editor’s Note: This post originally ran in 2010 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.

    The visual feast that is Olana is painter Frederic Edwin Church’s 1870s dream home overlooking the Hudson River near Hudson, N.Y. Church was one of the masters of the Hudson River School and this house is as much of a personal masterpiece as his magnificent landscape paintings.

    A native of Connecticut, Church arrived in the Hudson Valley in the 1840s as a student of landscape painter Thomas Cole. In 1860, Church purchased a 126-acre working farm near Hudson, N.Y. After his marriage to Isabel Mortimer Carnes, Church commissioned architect Richard Morris Hunt, now famous for his Newport, R.I., cottages, to design a small house on the property. The house was dubbed ‘Cosy Cottage’ and the couple lived there while Church worked on improving the land. By 1865, the couple had two young children but, sadly, they both died that year of diphtheria. Frederic and Isabel embarked on a long journey to Europe and the Middle East in 1867, not returning for 18 months.

    While Church had already begun plans for building a larger home on the property, he was inspired during their travel by excursions in the Middle East, including Petra, Beirut and Jerusalem. When Church and his wife returned, work began on a house incorporating the themes and elements of Islamic architecture, adapted to the West.

    They called their new home Olana, perhaps after an ancient Persian treasure fortress. Church considered again hiring Hunt for the new house, but ended up collaborating with Calvert Vaux, best known for his work with Frederick Olmsted to create Prospect and Central parks. Olana was to be Frederic Church’s project for life, as he added to the house, and changed things constantly, always with the purpose of wedding the Persian East to the American and Victorian West.

    Church designed the stencil patterns, color palette and decor, and he and his wife chose myriad objects to showcase the civilizations and cultures of the world. They eventually had four children who grew up in the unusual house.

    Isabel Church died in 1899 and Frederic in 1900, leaving the house to their son, Louis. He lived in the house with his wife Sally until his death in 1942. Sally insisted that the house remain as Frederic Church had designed, untouched by progress, and she continued to live in the house until her own death in 1964 at age 91. When Sally died, the house went to a nephew who arranged for sale of the property and the auction of the furnishings and artworks.

    A committee was hastily formed, and the nephew allowed some time for the sale of the house and furnishings to the Olana Preservation. Sotheby’s was literally tagging the furniture when the funds were acquired with the help of New York State. The house and furnishings were purchased in 1966, and it was open to the public in 1967.

    Today, the grounds and the house are open and looking much as they were when left by Frederic and Isabel Church. The magnificent vistas that inspired Church’s paintings can be seen from the house and it, and the surrounding landscape, have become recognized as part of his artistic achievement, as much as the landscapes he painted.

    How to Visit
    Address: 5720 Route 9G, Hudson, N.Y.
    Hours: The grounds are open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to sunset year round; the house is open Tuesday to Sunday from May to October and Friday to Sunday the rest of the year (advanced booking for house tours highly recommended).
    Admission: Free access to the grounds; house tours are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and students, children under 12 free.
    Directions: Take Amtrak to Hudson, then a taxi (about a 10-minute ride). By car, Olana is about 2.5 hours from Brooklyn via the Taconic State Parkway.

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