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Saving of Olana

Saving Olana

David P. Schuyler, Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of Humanities and American Studies, Franklin & Marshall College

“Olana is the essence of the Hudson River school of painting, one of the most important American contributions to the history of art.”

The New York Times, editorial, June 10, 1966

“Do you know that Mrs. [Sally Good] Church has died?”1

When in September 1964 David C. Huntington heard these words from Stuart P. Feld, then a curator in the Department of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he contemplated an ominous development—the sale and possible destruction of Frederic Edwin Church’s magnificent Persian-inspired dwelling, the subdivision and development of the handsome landscape the artist meticulously created on approximately 250 acres, and the dispersal of the contents of the house. 2 A forty-two-year-old art historian then teaching at Smith College, Huntington was a scholar of Church, then largely forgotten but today generally considered the greatest of the Hudson River School landscape painters. Alarmed, Huntington contacted Charles T. Lark, Jr., Mrs. Church’s nephew and a New York City attorney who was one of the heirs to the estate, as Sally Church and her late husband Louis were childless. Lark had decided to sell the property, he told Huntington, because he had four children and “needed money to send them through college.” 3 In speaking with Lark, Huntington made two requests: that he be allowed to document Olana prior to its sale, and that he have time to organize an effort to purchase and preserve it.4

Robert and Emily de Forest, "Court Hall, Main House at Olana," October 11, 1884, albumen print, 6 x1/4 x 8 3/8 in., OL.1986.378.28a (Collection Olana State Historic Site, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation)

Robert and Emily de Forest, “Court Hall, Main House at Olana,” October 11, 1884, albumen print, 6 x1/4 x 8 3/8 in., OL.1986.378.28a (Collection Olana State Historic Site, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation)

Huntington had been doing research at Olana for his Yale dissertation since 1953, and during his first visit was stunned at how intact the house was in the half-century since Church’s death. He later recalled:

I was absolutely staggered in the attic, just the abundance of material that was still there, hundreds of drawings by Church, scores and scores of oil studies by the painter, and cancelled checks, journals, prints that the artist had had, photographs (hundreds upon hundreds of photographs), some paintings by other artists, paintings by the artist himself stored in the attic, and so forth and so on.5

Huntington was “absolutely bewildered” by what he saw, “not at all expecting such a relic of the 19th century, almost virtually untouched, unchanged since the 19th century”.6 Huntington immediately recognized what a remarkable resource Olana was, and as his admiration for Church and the place he created increased he became more deeply invested in the artist’s career.

Olana was, from 1860 until 1964, a sprawling enterprise. Church had acquired much of the property in 1860, months before his marriage to Isabel Carnes, and then began construction of a dwelling, Cosy Cottage, designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt. Seven years later, Church acquired an additional eighteen acres that included Sienghenbergh (or Long) Hill, which he had undoubtedly visited during his two-year apprenticeship with Thomas Cole, the first important Hudson River School painter, and where, beginning in 1870, he would erect a spectacular house of his own design, with architect Calvert Vaux as a consultant, that he described as Persian in inspiration. 7 As the house was nearing completion, Jervis McEntee, who had studied painting with Church, visited the house and recorded his impressions in his diary: “It is certainly a beautiful house and commands one of the finest views of river & mountain in the country. Church devotes nearly his whole time to building his house, and with his peculiar talent has produced a satisfactory result. The color of the house on the outside by the judicious use of colored bricks with the stone is very harmonious and agreeable. It looks like an artist’s work.” 8

Frederic E. Church, "East Facade, Main House, Olana," c. 1870, watercolor, ink, and graphite on paper, 14 11/16 x 21 7/8 in., OL.1980.41 (Collection Olana State Historic Site, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation)

Frederic E. Church, “East Facade, Main House, Olana,” c. 1870, watercolor, ink, and graphite on paper, 14 11/16 x 21 7/8 in., OL.1980.41 (Collection Olana State Historic Site, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation)

The estate Church and his wife named Olana was a house and ancillary buildings, a working farm, a carefully designed landscape, and woodlands—a total environment on which the artist lavished enormous time and money. As Church scholar Franklin Kelly has explained, Olana is the “last great work” of Church’s life and “a thing of astounding complexity in its details, but remarkable harmony in its whole.” 9 Church’s productivity as a landscape painter declined in the 1870s, as the taste of the art-buying public shifted away from Hudson River School paintings to ones by European or European-trained American artists, 10 and when he was increasingly restricted by rheumatoid arthritis. In his late years Church poured his energies into Olana. “I have made about 1 ¾ miles of road this season, opening entirely new and beautiful views,” he wrote his friend, sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer, in 1884. “I can make more and better landscapes in this way than by tampering with canvas and paint in the studio.”11 Ridge Road, one of the carriage drives constructed in 1884, was built on the additional fifty acres Church had acquired in 1878. The end result of all his efforts, the totality that is Olana, is surely the greatest artistic creation of Church’s life.

This except is from an essay adapted from the original article appearing in The Hudson River Valley Review Volume 32, Issue 2, Spring 2016. You may preview and purchase the issue or subscribe to the journal at: http://www.hudsonrivervalley.org/review/.

 

David Schuyler is the Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of the Humanities and American Studies at Franklin & Marshall College.

 

Acknowledgements

I could not have written this essay without the support and research help of the professional staff at Olana. I am especially grateful to Evelyn Trebilcock, Valerie Balint, Mark Prezorski, and Ida Brier for their help with the research. I am also grateful to them for comments on an earlier version of this essay. Others who have given me the gift of their time and insight in commenting on this essay include Wint Aldrich, Stuart P. Feld, Sara Griffen, James Hamilton, Dorothy Heyl, Franklin Kelly, Townley McElhiney, Sean Sawyer, Richard T. Sharp, Kay Toll, and Karen Zukowski. Andrew S. Dolkart shared with me his encyclopedic knowledge of historic preservation in New York. Molly Cadwell, my Franklin & Marshall College Hackman Scholar, contributed significantly to the research for this article.

This publication honors J. Winthrop Aldrich, whose life has been devoted to New York’s history and the preservation of its architectural heritage.

 

  1. Charles B. Hosmer, Jr., oral history interview with David C. Huntington, 1988, typescript copy, p. 15, David C. Huntington Papers, Series 6, Olana Archives, Olana State Historic Site, Greenport, N.Y. All page numbers in the citations below refer to this copy. The original is in the Oral History Series of the Papers of Charles Bridgham Hosmer, National Trust for Historic Preservation Library Collection, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park, MD. A letterpress edition of the interview, edited and printed without Hosmer’s questions, was published by Dorothy Heyl as The Campaign to Save Olana: An Oral History by David Huntington (n.p., 2009). Mrs. Church’s maiden name was misspelled Goode in the typescript, and I have silently corrected it. Huntington’s statement in the oral history continued, “and that the contents of Olana are to be auctioned off?” Stuart Feld recalls that at the time he contacted Huntington he did not know that the estate would be sold and its contents auctioned off. Feld, telephone conversation with David Schuyler, June 22, 2015.
  2. Stuart Feld, email to David Schuyler, June 17, 2015.
  3. Huntington, oral history, p. 16.
  4. Ibid., pp. 15-16.
  5. Ibid., p. 8.
  6. Ibid., p. 7.
  7. The authorship of the design of the hilltop house at Olana is complicated, as the surviving documentary evidence is inconclusive. Church told a writer for the Boston Sunday Herald that he had designed the house: “I made it out of my own head.” Vaux prepared a preliminary design for the exterior, as well as a floor plan, but the house as built is significantly different from Vaux’s study. Vaux’s biographer, Frank Kowsky, convincingly argues that the cross-axial floor plan, centered on the Court Hall, is surely the architect’s contribution to the design. Less convincingly, he speculates that the “most enduring contribution of Vaux to Olana” was his role in “orchestrating architectural space and outdoor vistas.” Church is quoted in Frank J. Bonnelle, “In Summer Time on Olana,” Boston Sunday Herald, Sept. 7, 1890. See also Francis R. Kowsky, Country, Park, & City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux (New York, 1998), pp. 206-14.
  8. Jervis McEntee diary, July 22, 1872, Jervis McEntee Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  9. Franklin Kelly, “Frederic Church’s Olana: An Introduction,” in James Anthony Ryan, Frederic Church’s Olana: Architecture and Landscape As Art (Hensonville, N.Y., 2001), p. 11. Ryan’s handsomely illustrated book is largely a new printing of his essay in the National Gallery of Art’s 1989 exhibition catalog, Frederic Edwin Church. See also the chapter on Olana in David C. Huntington, The Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church: Vision of an American Era (New York, 1966), pp. 114-25.
  10. On the declining interest of the picture-buying public in Hudson River School paintings, see my chapter on Jervis McEntee in Sanctified Landscape: Writers, Artists, and the Hudson River Valley, 1820-1909 (Ithaca, 2012), pp. 110-32, and Eleanor Jones Harvey, “Tastes in Transition: Gifford’s Patrons,” in Hudson River School Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford, ed. Kevin J. Avery and Franklin Kelly (New York, 2003), pp. 75-89. See also Doreen Bolger Burke and Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, “The Hudson River School in Eclipse,” in John K. Howat, et al., American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School (New York, 1987), pp. 71-90.
  11. Church to Erastus Dow Palmer, Oct. 18, 1884, McKinney Library, Albany Institute of History and Art.
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