Monday, November 13, 2017

Famous Homes: Olana

Frederic Edwin Church (1826--1900) was an American artist who was of the second generation of the Hudson River School and the pupil of Thomas Cole, the school’s founder. Church and his wife Isabel bought a plot of land on a hillside near the town of Hudson in New York and built a house for themselves called Cosy Cottage. When their two infant children died of diphtheria in 1865, they consoled themselves by traveling to Jamaica for six months. Upon returning, Church bought an additional 18 acres at the top of his property and began to plan a mansion based on a style that was very popular at the time, a style that is referred to as Orientalism. Although the term itself is no loner politically correct, the Victorians used this term to denote anything opposite of the Occident (the Western world) which included countries and cultures east of the Mediterranean Sea and Southern Europe. They had a preoccupation for what was to them the exotic nature of these lands. And we use this word today without malice to indicate this period of Victorian interest in motifs and designs from this part of the world.

Named after a fortress castle in ancient Greater Persia (in what is now Armenia), Olana was constructed between 1870 and 1872 after the Church's spent a year and a half traveling throughout Europe and the Middle East. When they returned home, Church hired architect Calvert Vaux and worked closely with him to realize a fanciful home based on architecture they had seen in Beirut, Jerusalem, and Damascus. The resulting stone, brick, and polychrome-stenciled villa is an unusual mixture of Victorian structural elements and Middle-Eastern decorative motifs from different times and places. In his book GEOGRAPHICAL SNAPSHOTS OF NORTH AMERICA, author Donald G. Janelle says of Olana that Moorish elements mix with contrasting Italianate themes. And the hybrid, which served not only as a home but as an artist studio as well, is unique even to the Orientalism of the period.

The official Olana website has the story of the house after Mr. Church died:

"When Frederic Church died in 1900, Olana was willed to his youngest son Louis Palmer Church. The following year Louis married Sarah Baker Good (known as “Sally”) and the two of them lived together at Olana. After Louis’s death in 1943, Sally stayed on at Olana until her death in 1964 at the age of 96. She was the last Church family member to inhabit the estate, and she willed the property to her nephew, Charles Lark. In the mid-1960s, the Hudson River School had not yet seen the revival of its popularity, and Olana was seen as a curious remnant of the Victorian era. Lark planned to sell the land and auction off the contents of the house, including all of Frederic Church’s art. The art historian David Huntington had for some years been researching Frederic Church’s art and had been visiting Olana. He learned of Mrs. Church’s death, and after ensuring that her nephew would give him a little time, began to contact individuals who might be able to assist. Olana Preservation, Inc. was formed and began the two-year task of raising funds with which to purchase the property and contents of the house.

At the end of the two-year period, Olana Preservation, Inc. had raised over half the funds necessary to purchase the property, but was unable to raise the full amount. Lark made arrangements to have the contents of the mansion put up for auction, and to sell the property to a developer. At that moment, in September of 1965, Life Magazine ran a story on Olana, with the title “Must this Mansion be Destroyed?” This galvanized local and national attention. By June, 1966 the New York State legislature under Governor Nelson Rockefeller had passed a bill authorizing the purchase of Olana, with Olana Preservation contributing the funds it had already raised. Olana opened as a New York State Historic Site in June, 1967.

Olana Preservation, Inc. disbanded, but several of its key members rejoined to start the non-profit Friends of Olana in 1971, which changed its name to The Olana Partnership in 2000. The Olana Partnership continues to play an integral part in supporting New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation’s efforts at Olana."

Here is a selection of his paintings which displays his propensity for the lyrical, the lush, the Romantic, and the exotic.

This historic home is open for tours and events. Visit the official Olana website for details.

Happy designing!

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