by Melanie Hasbrook

Mark Prezorski, Landscape Curator

“Because I have always enjoyed the juxtaposition of architecture and landscape, I see Olana’s carriage roads as architecture. They function the way the windows in Olana’s house do by arranging your position and relationship to the landscape. What is revealed from each window or turn in the road — the window framing, the road dividing – is all manipulated by Mr. Church.”
Margaret Saliske, Artist and Hudson Resident

Starting in 1860 and continuing until his death in 1900, Frederic Church created Olana’s 250 acres as a large-scale composition.   Much in the way a painter steps forward to adjust color and form on canvas, Church periodically focused on building and shaping Olana’s landscape over many years and many seasons.   Olana evolved through thoughtful and incremental changes by Church – the shaping of the lake, the addition of architectural elements, tree-planting and earth-moving.  Today Olana is considered Frederic Church’s masterwork, and its landscape represents Church’s evolution as an artist.

In 1884 Church wrote: “I have made about 1-3/4 miles of road this season, opening entirely new and beautiful views. I can make more and better landscapes in this way than by tampering with canvas and paint in the studio.”  Church had been America’s most famous painter in his earlier career, and it’s telling that he compared this talent to his later road-making efforts at Olana.   In many ways, the carriage roads at Olana – more than 5 miles, all designed by Church – are the lens through which Olana can best be seen and experienced.   Church’s carriage roads trace Olana’s ridges, zigzag up and through woodlands, circumscribe meadows and a lake.  Church’s roads approach architectural features at certain angles, they rise past orchard fields, and they provide far-reaching views in all directions.  To understand Olana as an experiential work of landscape art, the carriage roads are the key to the puzzle.

For those fortunate enough to live close to Olana, none of this is a secret.  Olana’s historic landscape is also a public park, open every day of the year, free of charge, morning to sunset.  On any given day, some of Olana’s supporters can be seen walking along these carriage roads, connecting with nature and enjoying the views.  Yet for many who visit Olana throughout the year (approximately 170,000 visitors annually), these carriage roads have remained largely undiscovered.  Landscape maps were made available, specialty programs were developed, but guided tours were only offered in the main house.  The majority of Olana’s visitors tended to drive directly to the top of the hill, spend most of their time in or near the main house, then leave.  Much of Olana’s landscape remained out of sight, out of mind.

Timed with the 50th anniversary of the saving of Olana from near-destruction in 1966, The Olana Partnership is launching a new public program in 2016:  Historic Landscape Tours along Frederic Church’s carriage roads.  A collaboration between The Olana Partnership’s curatorial and education departments, these tours were developed to offer visitors three variations: guided walking tours, guided tours in an electric open-air vehicle, and self-guided tours through a podcast.  These tours will provide a holistic view of Frederic Church and Olana – past, present and future.  Topics include art and design, the native woodlands and meadows, the farm at Olana, the constructed lake, Church’s original painting studio, the mingle garden, architectural elements, regional ecology, viewshed protection, and Olana’s ongoing preservation story through public and private support.  All three tours culminate with an arrival experience at the main house for Olana’s singular Hudson Valley view.  Please join us this year to discover Frederic Church’s Olana.

Olana’s Historic Landscape Tours begin on May 20, 2016.