Looking Beyond The Obvious: Olana Gives Up Five Secrets
By Jamie Larson
Olana is one of our region’s boldest and most beloved icons. A visit to painter Frederic Church’s living masterpiece outside Hudson, New York throughout the seasons is a tradition for many of us. But while exploring the ornate mansion and taking in the view from the top is an oh-so-repeatable treat, there are a lot of wonderful things you probably still haven’t seen. If you’re planning a trip before the astonishing River Crossings exhibit exits on November 1, or want to experience the amazing convergence of sound, art and landscape that is Groundswell on September 19 (and you should), there’s even more to see. Although it’s a place we know so well, Olana still has secrets. Here are a few to consider exploring.
1. Hidden foundations: the (even older) history of Olana
Olana is not just a house. It’s a beautifully curated property, and exploring all of it illuminates the scope of the painter’s unparalleled vision. In 1860, Church bought the Wynson Breezy farm. The 126 acres of hilly fields, woods and peaks were transformed over the years as Church’s imagination manifested itself in brick and mortar. Off the entrance road that leads to the main house, hidden behind the old barns and current Education Center, you’ll find a window into this early history. Beautiful wildflower-lined field paths lead to the stone foundations of the original Breezy farmhouse, icehouse and old well. From the humble footing of the old farmhouse (where the Churches later housed tenant farmers), visitors can look up the hill past the barns and watch Olana grow over time in proportion with Church’s fame and ambition, first up to the comparatively humble but still magnificent Cosy cottage (designed by the architect of the Statue of Liberty’s base, Richard Morris Hunt) and then to the architectural wonder that is the main house.
2. Secret Gummers around the lake: a gateway to the carriage roads
Crowds have been rightfully flocking to Olana this summer to witness the outstanding contemporary exhibit River Crossings, featuring works from artists like Chuck Close and Martin Puryear on display alongside Church’s own work and collection. But sadly overlooked by many are the four wonderful sculptures by renowned artist Don Gummer that line the carriage road around the lake below the house. The pieces are from Gummer’s own lakeside property (which he shares with wife, Meryl Streep), and he spent more time than any other artist placing his work at Olana to best match the location. His signature use of negative space provides openings into the beautiful wilderness of the site. The works also draw attention to another hidden gem: the lower carriage road that the Olana Partnership has painstakingly restored. It winds through the woods and up to a dead end at the top of a hill. Church had this road built so he could take in a single breathtaking view of Olana with the farm in the foreground and the big house up above. When he was constructing his road to nowhere, his mother-in-law wrote in an archived letter, “Mr. C. is building a road. He thinks it is a secret.” We suggest you make it yours, as well.
3. One really important old magazine
Inside the May, 1966, issue of Life magazine, with a cover story about how mod culture was revolutionizing fashion, there was a story about the fight to save a beautiful historic home from the wrecking ball. The story and accompanying photo spread convinced the nation that Olana had to be preserved. The Partnership makes no bones about it — it’s possible Olana wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for that story. 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the year Olana Preservation, a group of concerned art historians, preservationists and individuals living in the Hudson Valley and New York City, joined forces to save the site. This issue of Life is a totem of their good work, for which we should all be thankful.
4. Frederic Church’s favorite little monkey skull
It’s clear from one look at Olana that Church had a refined yet eclectic taste. From the Middle Eastern geometry that makes up the major design themes inside and outside the castle to the stuffed peacocks and sabres that adorn the main hall, one of Olana’s greatest draws is its strangeness — which is due to the artist’s multicultural, often whimsical and sometimes bizarre personal taste. In his studio, in a cabinet of trinkets from his many travels, is a tiny monkey skull. By what means Church acquired the spooky little item is a tale requiring further research, but it’s always an interesting secret to spot while on the tour. It’s fun to imagine how the creature sat for countless hours, lidless, watching the master paint. How many of Church’s secrets has he seen?
5. From the tiptop of Church’s world: a private view and some teapots
Photo by Rich Gromek
Sadly, the best of all views at Olana is, for safety’s sake, off limits to all but staff and lucky reporters. Fortunately, Rural Intelligence can take you up into Olana’s bell tower to show you the secret view from the top of Church’s masterpiece. The deck of the bell tower is surprisingly roomy with pointed arches that frame the views in dreamlike windows. This high up, above the river, it almost feels like flying. But we’re still not at the top. A little door leads to a perilous staircase that winds up to a crow’s nest. That, then, is the highest peak. You have to get special permission from the state to climb up to it. One last little odd secret sits at this highest point of Olana, or rather four: a quartet of smallish Asian teapots sit as finials at the corners of the crow’s nest. The pots may seem to some a random addition, where a normal designer might set crosses or gargoyles or a weathervane, but for Church these seem more than fitting, as though the house were eternally having tea with its old friend and partner, the view. The current teapots are replicas but an original is tucked into a corner of the pantry closet downstairs on the tour — another of the many secrets to be found at Olana.