|Frederic Edwin Church|
A prolific landscape painter within the Hudson River School, Frederic Edwin Church bought a parcel of land on the side of the hill just south of Hudson, New York, and built a cottage, later purchasing the hill itself on which he built his mansion - Olana.
|Twilight in the Wilderness|
Crowning the top of the hill, Olana is Persian style house that commands an iconic view of the Hudson Valley. Conceived as a refuge, residence and artist's studio, it was built by Church for his wife and four children after having lost a daughter and son to diphtheria and a long tour of the Near East - a trip which inspired the design for the house.
I first saw Olana three years ago after traveling two hours north from Manhattan to Hudson, a town that is now experiencing a Renaissance. Visiting the house was a heady experience for this writer since the interiors had been preserved as they were during Church's lifetime- a rare thing.
Polychrome stenciling on ceiling, doors and walls is ubiquitous as is the use of vibrant color. This, together with the layering of objects, architecture, layout of rooms, oriental carpets and placement of paintings, gives the interior an unusual beauty.
|Olana in Winter as photographed buy Robert Near|
The overall effect is not one of cluttered Victoriana, but rather, that of refined sensibility. The exterior is ornate, with tilework in intricate patterns outlining the stonework. One has the sense that everything has been contemplated, considered and executed with care and attention to detail.
|Entrance to Olana|
The bold use of color starts just outside the front door which is painted a vibrant red. The visitor then enters an entry hall which is deep lavender purple with amber colored stenciling which surrounds the doors all of which are painted Renaissance blue.
Turning left, one enters the East Parlor. Its Moorish windows and brown and muted green colored walls give it an air of formality. Church's paintings hang here, as they do in every room, their gilded frames creating windows to other realms.
In contrast to the reserved East parlor, the Court Hall is a sunflower yellow which elevates and excites the eye. The landing leading to the second floor (not open when I was there unfortunately) is bracketed with oriental carpets hung as curtains. Evoking the Near East, the room is furnished with brass objet and inlaid ivory tables.
The window on the stair reveals Church's ingenuity. Since he could not obtain the glass he wanted to create the desired effect, he placed cut paper between colored and clear glass which warms the cool Northern light and burnishes the wall color.
The doors are as decorated as the walls, being finely stenciled by Church's own hand. They recall the kind of metalwork that would be seen in fine houses and buildings in Syria and Egypt.
The West Parlor was used by Church's wife Isabel as an office. Here Church installed one of his great paintings - El Khasné, Petra (1874) - over the pink marble fireplace. The wall color is a grayed blue which has a calming effect.
From the height of the desk and chair, one surmises that the occupants were not very tall! Of course, this would have made the high ceilings that much more majestic. The paintings are hung gallery style.
The courtyard atop the main part of the house has amazing views of the surrounding countryside. The windowed view above is seen from a room above Church's studio, a photo of which is below. One could reach the room above through a stair enclosed in a corner of the room.
Church's studio has northern and western light, the walls being a rich terracotta color with deep blue doors. Here the ceilings are higher than in the rest of the house, giving one the sense of having entered an inner sanctum.
Just outside Church's studio, the porch at the southern end of the house polychromed Egyptian Revival Style. The use of bold color extends to the porch ceiling which is painted the deep blue of the interior doors.
The tilework on the exterior of the house is simply stunning. The more you look up the more you see.
My aesthetic has been greatly shaped by this house even if I don't think of it consciously, the striving towards a clear and happy confluence between form, space, color and pattern being key. That is what Church achieved. There is a joy about Olana that is palpable, one which must be experienced firsthand to be fully understood.