The view from Olana

Olana (photo by Dion Ogust)

Olana (photo by Dion Ogust)

When you speak of the farm, are we talking about a working farm?

Yes, Frederic Church did actually grow things and farm the land at Olana – I think it was approximately 60 of the 250 acres that were devoted to farming. It was an operating farm, and he was pleased when it made money; he was very invested in his farming practices. There were orchards, with apples, peaches and plums, and a one-acre vegetable garden he maintained. In fact, until he built the main house, Church called Olana “the farm.” He even signed his letters “from the farm…” There were grazing fields, a dairy barn, chickens and cattle for meat. That’s why it’s a very unique confluence at Olana: It’s so rare to have a place where you can merge art, history, architecture, farming and education.


Have the types of educational programs you offer at Olana changed over the years?

There are new aspects of Olana, always, to interpret and reinterpret. We try to evolve the programming to reflect what it is that people are the most excited about. And we are always trying to come up with programs that will get people out into the landscape. We have five miles of carriage roads throughout the property that were designed by Church – as was every square inch of this landscape – designed to open up new views and have the visitor traipse through any number of different environments: woodlands, meadows, deep forest, open parkland…He was always intending you to see new glimpses or a different view at different times. We try to have activities that allow you to see Olana as Church wanted you to see it.


What do you do to keep things fresh and relevant for the visitors?

We keep finding new things to discover that will resonate with people. One of the key themes we are developing is the critical influence that Frederic Church, Thomas Cole and other Hudson River School painters had on the beginnings of the environmental conservation movement. Church was credited early on by Frederick Olmsted in sounding the alarm about the degradation of Niagara Falls, which was getting very developed. Church called this an abomination, and said that it needed to be preserved; and Olmsted, who ended up leading the movement that made Niagara Falls the first state park in the country, later credited Church with opening his eyes.

Thomas Cole was writing about how the forests were being denuded, and how important it was to keep the beauty of the wilderness of the American landscape. That is what these paintings were all about: They were opening America’s eyes to the beauty of its own wilderness, and by doing that, they were saying we need to preserve that natural beauty.

So we’re making more and more connections at Olana between the role that Church and Cole had early on and looking at the continuity of it. There has been a progression all these years at different times, like when a nuclear plant was being planned in 1979 across from Olana and its plume would have obscured the Catskills. One of Church’s paintings was used in the proceedings; and through that and other measures, the proposal was defeated and withdrawn. There is a continuum of focus on environmental issues, and we can look at places like Olana as emblematic of the beginnings of that movement.


How has the Partnership protected Olana’s viewshed? What exactly does that involve?

We have a number of organizations we work with, including Scenic Hudson, the Open Space Institute and the Columbia Land Conservancy. With them, and with the state, we’ve been able to protect the outright purchase of land within our viewshed, the most vulnerable areas, or have conservation easements put on the land so that it will be forever protected. We have a long history of legal involvement, dealing with major potential viewshed intrusions including the St. Lawrence Cement plant, as well as the Athens generating plant on the other side of the river. It’s a continual process…but we are steadfast in trying to work with our neighbors. The viewshed is an integral part of what makes Olana this tremendously successful economic engine for the region.


Have you made changes in the types of art exhibits you offer?

Our new exhibit, “All the Raj: Frederic Church and Lockwood de Forest: Painting, Decorating and Collecting at Olana,” is something new and daring of us. One of the most significant developments here has been the creation of a gallery on the second floor of the main house that brings a range of people who come year after year to see what exhibits we’re doing. This is the fifth year, and for the most part, we’ve focused on Frederic Church’s artwork as the core component of our exhibits. Now for the first time we’re focusing on the relationship between Church and one of his protégés, Lockwood de Forest.

[De Forest traveled to India in the 1880s to start a decorating business providing beautiful Indian and Kashmiri decorative objects to an American audience, and provided Church with carved teak for fireplace mantels, painted furniture from Kashmir, engraved brass trays and a number of other lavishly decorative Indian objects.]

The house is full of decorative arts from all over the world, which are in many cases significant. We haven’t focused on those as much, and we feel they are worthy of greater exploration.

Another initiative that we’re excited about is our ever-growing integration with the contemporary art scene. We have a number of artists who come to paint at Olana, and we’ve developed wonderful relationships with them. We’re planning a very exciting exhibit for next year with some very significant artists, who will have their works both on the landscape and in the houses of both Olana and the Thomas Cole house. We make that effort as well: to bring contemporary art into what otherwise might be thought of as a relatively staid historic site.

The Olana State Historic Site is located at 5720 Route 9G in Hudson. There are guided tours of “All the Raj” beginning at 12:15 p.m. on Saturdays through November. For detailed information on exhibits and upcoming programs, including a “Night under the Stars” exploration of the night sky on Saturday, June 14 from 7 to 9 p.m., call (518) 828-0135 or visit



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