Tour Olana, the Quirky Estate of Frederic Church


There are a number of beautiful old mansions along the Hudson River. One of those mansions is a quirky villa unique among all the others. If you’re visiting the region, Olana is one of the must-visit mansions along the Hudson. It is, literally, unlike any other old mansion you’ll ever visit.

Its owner, American painter Frederic Edwin Church was one of the major figures in the Hudson River School of landscape painting. He created his mansion according to his vision and interpretation of what he believed to be Persian design. After touring Olana, my sister (who’s much wittier than me) quipped “it looks as if Moorish architecture had an illicit liaison with the Victorian era.”

Church was best known for painting large landscapes, often depicting mountains, waterfalls and sunsets. In fact, Church chose to build on a site where he and his mentor, Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River school, had often sketched years earlier.

About Olana

Church poured himself into designing and decorating his eclectic villa. He situated it on a bluff overlooking parkland and a working farm which he also designed. Built in 1872, the villa offers broad scenic views of the Hudson River Valley, the Catskill Mountains and the Taconic Range. Church and his wife Isabel probably named their estate — Church never explicitly said — after a fabled Persian treasure house and fortress of antiquity, which also overlooked a river valley.

Church and his wife furnished Olana has exotically as they’d designed it. As you tour the mansion, you’ll see furniture and objects from Church’s global travels. It’s also a bit of an art museum: the walls display some 40 paintings by Church and his friends. The house is intricately stenciled inside and out.

Olana is also unique because it has the most intact artist studio in existence. When Church died, his son and his daughter-in-law lived in it for decades, changing very little. All that exotic furniture and personal items remained in place.

When Church’s son and daughter-in-law died, their heir didn’t want the old mansion and put it up for sale. Lucky for us today, an art historian recognized the significance of the place, believing it to be Church’s greatest piece of art. The art historian negotiated a public-private partnership with NY State, and was able to purchase Olana to preserve Church’s home and studio for posterity.

Church and His Art

Church was not a starving artist — he was lucky enough to have the founder of Aetna Insurance as his dad. His family’s wealth allowed Church to pursue his interest in art from a very early age. In 1844 at age 18, Church became Thomas Cole’s pupil. Unlike Cole, who tended to paint landscapes as allegories, Church’s paintings attempted to capture the wild realism of an unsettled America that was quickly disappearing, and the appreciation of natural beauty.

In his prime, Church was a commercial as well as an artistic success. Church’s art was very lucrative; he was reported to be worth half a million dollars at his death in 1900. In late 1867, Church and his family traveled to Europe, and then to various places in the Middle East, Egypt, Constantinople and Lebanon among them. and It was there that he and Isabel became inspired by the idea of Persian architectural design.

Know Before You Go

We didn’t get a chance to explore Church’s estate beyond his amazing mansion. However, there are extensive grounds, themselves designed by Frederic Church with 5 miles of artfully designed carriage-ways. You can easily spend three hours at Olana, if not longer. Reservations for house tours are recommended.

Getting there: 5720 NY-9G, Hudson, NY
Hours: The park is open daily 8 a.m. – sunset. Tours are operated Tuesday – Sunday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Website: Olana Historic Site

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