Frederic Church’s Olana: Home as Performance Space

I’ve always wanted to visit Olana, the home of 19th century painter Frederic Church, since Joe Thompson, the director of Mass MoCA, flew me over it in his Cessna several years ago. Church, the great Hudson River School landscape painter who worked everywhere from Labrador to Ecuador, is one of my heroes, and Olana one of the greatest artist homes in the world. It’s an early example of a space meant as much to display a life as to be lived in.

This week I’m in New York, both mid-state and in the city, and it’s the first time I’ve been near Olana when it’s not been closed for renovation, repair, restoration, reclamation or some other rehabilitation. Although it was pouring this morning, and the Taconic Parkway closed here and there due to cars hydroplaning into one another, it turned out to be a sublime day. As we arrived at Olana, just outside of the town of Hudson and on a hill high above the river, the rain backed off, the clouds retreated, and there was the Hudson far below, a gray and silver inlay among the deep green hills. Above the front door in gold Arabic script was the symbol for Al’ana, “our home on high,” which was transliterated into Olana.

The house, by deliberate contrast with the 250 wooded acres sculpted by Church with more than 5,000 trees, is a towering Moorish folly done up in red, orange and tan hues of brick, slate, and polychromed tiles. Designed by Church himself and covered with elaborate Persian-inspired patterns, it’s as if the spirt of the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain had been translated into a pan-exotic domicile. If the arched windows and interior walls evoke the Middle East, the artifacts inside from Japan, China, Mexico, Central America serve to broaden the fantasy.

Church was renowned worldwide for travel to exotic locales and combining what was seen from various vantage points into a compelling, unified, and encyclopedic vision that wasn’t exactly real, but nonetheless created a unified and accurate picture of an exotic landscape. His home accomplishes something similar with the built environment. Hanging in a small room just off the entryway is a small oil-on-paper study for his famous painting hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Heart of the Andes. It’s a painting about which I’ve written many times, a fictional scene that serves to catalog a South American environment, and is a nice allusion of Church’s penchant for the mashup in art, as well as in architecture.

Throughout the house hang dozens of paintings by Church, his mentor Thomas Cole, and others. They are joined this summer by a small and revealing show of paintings created from his vacations in Maine, where he also owned property on Desert Island. Perusing his pencil sketches and oil studies, it is obvious what an acute eye Church possessed, and how firmly his vision was linked to his hand. He could start and finish a small study of a sunset before the light was completely gone from the sky, a painting you might think it took days to create.


Frederick Church’s studio at Olana, as much a live-in performance space as a work room. Image courtesy of


Showing in the coach house nearby was a tidy collection of works by various contemporary artists made in response to, or inspired by, Olana and Church’s paintings. One of Annie Liebowitz’s large color photos of Niagara Falls done in 2009, seemingly made from a vantage point almost impossible to believe at the lip of the falls, is a terrific soul-mate to Church’s painting at the same location in 1857. A map piece by our friend Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, letters out the latitude and longitude of Olana, a fitting homage to an artist who traveled the world in quest of paintings that not only glorified the sublime, but also acknowledged the mathematical tiling of cartography across the planet in the very design of his house.