Olana State Historic Site: A three-dimensional landscape

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HUDSON, N.Y. — Frederic Edwin Church's two-dimensional landscape paintings ("Niagara," "Heart of the Andes") are legendary, but The Olana Partnership wants you to know about a less-heralded three-dimensional work by the Hudson River School artist.

"You are in the design right now," said Mark Prezorski, the Olana Partnership senior vice president and creative director, to this reporter on a recent mild afternoon at the Olana State Historic Site, spreading an 1886 map of the artist's property on a platform next to the old home.

Essentially, while many in the art and tourism worlds solely associate Olana with Church's elaborate abode sitting high above the Hudson River, the artist envisioned the entire 250-acre property as a landscape piece.

"Olana is not [just] the house," Prezorski said.

More than five miles of walking paths snake through a property that also includes a lake and a farm. Church sketched his concepts for the land, a domain with stunning views of the river and the Catskill Mountains in the distance.

"Earth work," The Olana Partnership President Sean E. Sawyer called it while standing next to Prezorski.

Today's Olana, however, has a design problem: The main parking lot is tantalizingly close to the house. Church imagined the residence as a sight to be glimpsed at the culmination of a grounds tour. Guests wouldn't be able to spot the home until they climbed to the intersection of a carriage road approaching from the south and the east lawn.

Instead, today's visitors are often immediately pulled from the north, unable to resist the allure of the building's ornamental exterior, which draws from Middle Eastern and European architectural influences discovered during Church's ambitious travels. Moreover, around the corner awaits a breath-taking vista. In the fore, a rolling meadow meets dense woods; in the back, the Hudson twists around a bend, and the Catskills threaten the clouds.

The idea is to make this visual treat a dessert, not a first course (or the entire meal, for that matter). Putting the map to the side, Prezorski began flipping through the organization's Strategic Landscape Design Plan from 2015 that, among other things, outlines several stages of construction intended to restore Church's original vision for the property. While state budgets will ultimately determine this project's success — The Olana Partnership is a private not-for-profit that collaborates with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation — the first phase is now underway. Part of the initial plan is to introduce a new bus drop-off area and provide more direction for pedestrians to follow Church's intended path.

They will perhaps opt for walking or electric carriage landscape tours during the warmer months. Those tours aren't offered during the winter, but an audio tour can be accessed on a mobile device throughout the year. According to Sawyer, the site attracts more than 170,000 visitors annually. Of those 170,000-plus, about 25,000 or 30,000 are currently paying for programming. (People are allowed to roam the grounds for free from 8 a.m. to sunset.)

Gathering his materials, Prezorski led a slightly longer version of the traditional walking tour. (Sawyer, Prezorski and development and marketing communications manager Melanie Hasbrook found this reporter taking in that river-and-mountains view by the house.)

The path's starting point is accessible from the main carriage road. Early on, Prezorski stopped at a clearing that provided a view of Hudson. On days with more visibility, the Berkshires and even Vermont are in sight, he said. The ability to see these locales in detail was a vital aspect of Church's three-dimensional creation.

"Without the views, it wouldn't be a work of art," Prezorski said.

Viewsheds, as they are called on Olana's campus, are a focus for the organization overseeing them.

"A real pillar of our work is viewshed protection," Sawyer said.

Over the years, the organization, which Sawyer said is not "anti-development," has opposed some construction projects in geographic areas visible from the site. In 1979, Friends of Olana (the organization's prior name) helped persuade the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to abandon a plan for a nuclear power plant across the river. And more recently, The Olana Partnership strongly disapproved of St. Lawrence Cement's proposal to build a 40-story structure near the river, too. That building would have dominated a vista largely captured in Church's 1870 painting, "Sunset from Olana."

Wrapping around the home, the tour eventually begins to ascend, coming to an area where Church built a studio in the mid-1860s after purchasing a 126-acre farm in 1860. Plein-air artists often seek out this spot. In the distance below, the lake and the Hudson River almost appear to touch.

"It's really interesting how they're visually connected," Prezorski said.

A steeper climb leads to "Penetrable," an outdoor sculpture by Jes s Rafael Soto that features yellow bands hanging from a flat surface. It will be on view through November. A couple twists in the path later, the house looms. Church and his wife, Isabel, decided to build the towering structure after returning from a trip to the Middle East and Europe in 1869. Architect Calvert Vaux assisted in its construction. By 1872, the couple had moved into the new house. For all intents and purposes, it was finished in 1891, well after the peak of Church's career.

The interior represents Church's passion for collection during his travels. Paintings and objects line walls and fill shelves. For example, the main house connects to a studio in which Church kept artifacts from his many journeys to Mexico. That space also includes a window facing the Hudson and, perhaps intentionally, Thomas Cole's old home and studio. (Cole was Church's teacher and, to many, the father of the Hudson River School artistic movement.)

Visitors may be tempted to spend their time at Olana poking in and around a home that has been compared to a castle by some. But, in the spirit of the Hudson River School tradition, The Olana Partnership is aiming to expand its visitors' experience.

"What we're working on," Prezorski said, "is much bigger."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.

If you go ...

What: Olana State Historic Site

Where: 5720 State Route 9G, Hudson, NY 12534

Hours of operation: The grounds are open daily 8 a.m. to sunset, year-round; Tours of the house at Olana are held 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, until March 25, then until the season opens in the spring, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

Cost: It is free to roam the grounds; House tours $9, seniors $8

Information: www.olana.org, 518-828-0135


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