Upstairs at Olana: Frederic Church Slept Here
During the period (c. 1869) that the great Hudson River School painter Frederic Church was dreaming up his home Olana with the architect Calvert Vaux, Victorian-era domestic architecture was going through it’s most flamboyant and fantastical stage. Though Church was too artistic and cosmopolitan to follow the lead of rich burghers, he was subject, nonetheless, to the same mysterious forces that shaped popular taste. That year, he and his wife Isabel returned from a trip to Beirut, Jerusalem and Damascus determined to incorporate into their plans for their family’s new home some of the design elements that had dazzled them in the Middle East. The result is an haute-bohemian fantasy, part folly, part delightful family home, in a style Church described as, “Persian, adapted to the Occidental.”
Nearly a century later, in 1964, when the widow of the Churches youngest son died there, Olana was, thanks to her vigilance, still virtually as it had been when Frederic and Isabel lived there. The next Church heirs were not nearly so reverential—they opted to auction the furnishings and sell the house. To prevent this, the Olana Preservation was hastily formed. Even as Sotheby’s tagged the lots, the Preservation (today called the Olana Partnership) arranged to lease the house and its contents for a year, to give themselves time to raise funds. At the end of the year, having nearly reached their goal, they appealed to the State of New York, which came up with the rest. With the house and its contents now safe, the Preservation embarked on a and, lengthy restoration, finally opening the main floor rooms for public tours in 1967.
Last summer, two of the upper floor bedrooms were opened as gallery spaces. “The furniture that had been in the Best Guest Room is no longer in the Olana collection,” says Evelyn Trebilcock, curator of Olana. Once that room and its adjacent bedroom had been restored, rather than bring in substitute period furniture that had nothing to do with the Churches or their taste, Trebilcock and her associates used the opportunity to create a small gallery that would permit visitors to see some of the Church paintings and sketches that had been in storage. The current shows are of oil-on-paper studies Church had done as preparation for larger works, and an exhibition of photographs and art relating to an extended trip to Jamaica the Churches had undertaken after the tragic deaths from diptheria of two of their children.
This Saturday, June 6, for the first time, the Churches restored second-floor bedroom and dressing room will be added to the tour. For those of us who have taken the tour of the main floor countless times, it is a dream come true to be allowed to ascent the stairs and enter the inner sanctum.
Alas, sensibly, it is a back staircase one climbs, not the splendid one in the Main Hall, shown above. This is both necessary and wise, as the transition from the spirited public spaces to the relatively calm and spare master bed and dressing rooms might otherwise be too abrupt. Upstairs there is less of the inspired, Church-designed decorative painting and artful clutter that makes the downstairs so entertaining. “The rooms look spare now because we have not completely furnished them yet,” Trebilcock explains. “We are going to bring down more furniture from storage, and there also will be plenty of ‘artful clutter’ soon.” Still, the main attractions of these rooms, now and then, are the wallpapers, which have been painstakingly reproduced from scraps found in obscure, protected spots, such as beneath mantels and moldings that were added after the paper was hung. There is also an interesting “golden oak” chest of drawers that gives further insight into the Churches’ taste. Their choice of this popular genre (not to be confused with the mass-produced next generation that was sold through catalogs such as Sears) indicates that the couple’s inclinations were not so far from those of their fellow mid-to-late 19th-century bourgeois.
For their bedroom and the Best Guest Room next door, the Churches chose a wallpaper pattern inspired by French textiles of the period. The preservationists at Olana relied on Laura McCoy, an expert in historic wallpaper, to draw the full repeat, filling in any missing bits with highly educated guesswork.
In a dressing room adjacent to the master bedroom, built-in drawers are fitted beneath a staircase that leads to the nursery. The new paper in this room is a leaf pattern handblocked in gold paint onto Japanese kozo (mullberry) paper, just as the original was, using the methods and materials that had been employed in Japan during the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries. This process, called momigami was replicated by Adelphi Paper in Sharon Spring, NY. Olana’s next wallpaper project is for yet another guest bedroom.
Olana State Historic Site
Route 9G, just south of Route 23
Greenport, between Hudson & Germantown, NY
Guided house tours: Tuesday - Sunday & holiday Mondays, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Reservations recommended; 518.828.0135
The Evelyn and Maurice Sharp Gallery
Thursday - Sunday, June 6 - October 31, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.
Free lecture, Olana, Salon for Jamaican Journeyers
Sunday, June 6, 2 p.m