LEARN: The Landscape
Under Frederic Church's direction, Olana developed over the last forty years of his life into a three-dimensional work of art that includes the magnificent Persian-inspired home with its myriad of collections set in a 250-acre designed landscape with iconic views of the Hudson River Valley. The grounds as a whole are considered the finest surviving residential example of the Picturesque style in the United States. As the name implies, Picturesque designs frame particular views - more often a sequence of views - to create a desired effect. With deep roots in Europe, this style was popularized in the United States by another Hudson Valley resident and prolific garden writer, A. J. Downing. It reached its apex in the hands of designers like Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, designers of New York's Central Park, perhaps the most famous American Picturesque landscape. Once a Commissioner of Central Park, Church knew these men well and shared their aesthetic sensibilities in addition to a belief in the power of landscape to shape public consciousness. These similarities, growing out of the intellectual and creative milieu in the United States and particularly New York City, are evidenced in both Church's paintings and his designed landscape at Olana.
Frederic Church began his work at Olana by employing his famously keen eye in the process of site selection. According to a contemporary account, Church took three years to search for the perfect piece of property, three years at a time when his artistic successes would have made it possible for him to purchase nearly any land he desired. He had walked and sketched throughout much of New England and elsewhere by that time, but his two years in Catskill, New York, living and studying with Thomas Cole brought him an intimate familiarity with and passion for the Hudson Valley.
Once Church made his initial acquisition of a farm tucked in to a natural bowl in the landscape, he instantly set about making what was already a remarkably ideal landscape even more so. He expanded the farm complex, complete with the picturesque "Cosy Cottage" designed by Richard Morris Hunt, to highlight the bucolic nature of his new family property. He also established a profitable orchard and massive kitchen garden, of which he was justly proud. Frederic Church then carefully distinguished between land for active agriculture and land for a park, where he planted thousands of trees, created a large lake, and designed miles of carriage trails from which to experience his new composition. As time went on, Church strategically acquired additional adjacent parcels until his property encompassed 250 acres and the top of the hill where the main house at Olana now stands. He created a layer of architectural elements that further animated the landscape. His studio, now gone, was a solitary retreat for Church, but also a destination and prescribed viewing point for family and friends, much like the ruins and hermit huts constructed in European Picturesque landscapes. There was once also a summer house in the park beneath the house which offered similarly composed landscape views. Rustic benches of Church's design and rustic railings have been recreated on site. The ultimate garden folly, the oriental fantasy atop the hill, of course remains.
Frederic Church constructed the landscape at Olana in the same manner that he constructed landscapes in his paintings: with an eye to composition, balance, and fidelity to nature. Although Olana was a working farm, expected to turn a profit, Church also wanted the property to be pleasing to look at. He used the Hudson River and mountains in the distance as a background to a composition with carefully planned foreground and middle ground elements.
Like his painted landscapes, the physical landscape at Olana is composed of foreground (the house environs), middle ground (the rolling fields and forest), and background (the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains). As in his paintings, the foreground at Olana was a much more detailed landscape, where canopy, understory, and ground plane were created with richly layered plantings of choice native species. Spatially, these plantings – along with natural landforms, the very windows on his house, and the careful layout of miles of carriage drives – were used by Church to reveal exactingly framed vistas of his own property and the wider Hudson River Valley. Inspired by the great nineteenth century scientist, Alexander von Humboldt, Church used this combination of place-specific detail and evocative, sweeping views to capture and distill the genius of place for all visitors to Olana.
The landscape around the main house at Olana must be understood as the foreground to the long views for which the site is justly famous. It can further be used as a case study for the larger landscape. Approaching the main house from either of the two historic entrance routes, one does not see the river, the mountains, or have a clear view of the house. These carriage drives are densely wooded or openly pastoral, with views of the Church family park and farm, as well as the neighboring farms that still cover adjacent hills.
Stylized naturalistic plantings with layered detail near the house signaled guests that their destination was imminent. Tantalizing glimpses of the house are offered, and then, as the drive turns gently, one spots the Hudson River for the first time. If one continues along that drive, the Catskill Mountains come into view and then one arrives at Church's residence with a stunning, oblique view of the south and east elevations. The ground along the south facade (facing the river view) is shaped to form a grassy stepped terrace or plinth beneath the house. This distinctive landform inevitably draws all visitors and functions as the viewing platform for the ultimate landscape experience at Olana. From that perch, visitors experience the sublime in the truest sense of the word. The land falls away at one's feet. The Hudson River bends deeply and stretches off toward infinity. The Catskill Mountains rise up from the south to their majestic peaks just across from Olana.
For Church and his contemporaries, this view captured the very essence of our new nation: rich in references to pioneering history, present economic strength, and a distinguished literary and artistic legacy. Church's composed views from Olana also revealed a distinctly American landscape that still speaks to and of the soul. All of the land visible from Olana – the Olana Viewshed – was integral to Frederic Church's conception of site, and it remains a critical component of the designed landscape and the genius of place at Olana. To date, more than 1300 acres have been protected within the Olana Viewshed, largely through conversation easements and the collaborative efforts of The Olana Partnership with other land conservation organizations. Spearheaded by the Olana Partnership, restoration and interpretation of this significant designed historic landscape are now underway.
If you would like to read the Historic Landscape Report click here.
If you would like to read the Landscape Restoration Plan click here.
Did you know you can take a virtual tour of the landscape around the Olana house? Just click on any of the views below, and when the movie loads, click into the scene and move your mouse left and right or up and down to take a 360 degree tour!