High above the Hudson Valley, in Columbia County, New York, sits a mansion that encapsulates so much of what defines the region, draws people to visit and keeps them here to live.
With commanding views of the Hudson River, Olana State Historic Site is towering in its presence and inspiring with its design. A landmark like no other, a point of reference for an entire region and a compelling destination that offers cause to ponder the majesty of nature, art and history, Olana awaits your arrival. Atop its perch, looking out on the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains, one almost feels as though you have been invited to join in on a collective exhale.
Located in Hudson, New York, about an eight-minute drive from the Hudson Amtrak Station in the City of Hudson, Olana is magnetic. You can credit the guy who built it more than a century ago, painter Frederic Church, who is described on olana.org as “a world traveler, a family man, and a self-taught architect, farmer and landscape designer.”
Olana State Historic Site marks the home and studio of Church, who was a painter in the Hudson River School of Art. Encompassing 250 acres with five miles of carriage roads, the grounds of this National Historic Landmark are open year-round with free admission.
Visitors at the moment are welcome to enjoy hiking, picnicking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and guided, outdoor tours. An upcoming outdoor art exhibit set for the warmer weather — it opens May 1 — will build on Church’s propensity for including fallen trees in his paintings, and illustrate the ties between history and art that bind the region together.
But more about this artist, his home and this destination in a minute.
Your visit to Olana begins at the Amtrak Station in Hudson, a municipality that, according to officials, was the first city to be incorporated after the 13 colonies became the United States.
Situated between the Rhinecliff and Albany-Rensselaer stops, the Hudson Amtrak Station was built for the New York Central Railroad in 1874 and sits on the river shore, within walking distance of the city’s downtown.
That downtown’s origins date back to the late 1700s. According to the City of Hudson, that’s when owners of whaling ships from outside the Hudson Valley sought a foothold to defend themselves and their industry from a British monarch they believed would not relinquish the colonies.
“Sailing up the Hudson, they found what they were looking for about a hundred miles north of New York Harbor: a high bluff on the east bank of the river with a natural harbor on either side,” reads cityofhudson.org. “They bought the land on the bluff and along the river from Dutch families whose ancestors had purchased it from the Mohicans generations before, and they set about to create there a seaport far from the sea.”
The City of Hudson today is well-known for its stores, antique shops and restaurants. This community is framed by architecture that evokes our nation’s colonial period and is most certainly undergoing a transition. But at its heart there is an alluring edge.
Helsinki Hudson, prior to the pandemic was a sought-after destination for fine food and live music, but like many entertainment venues is closed at the moment. The owners are looking forward to reopening safely at the right time.
But Hudson still has plenty to offer, starting with lodging. So after disembarking from your train at the station, you can head to Wm. Farmer and Sons, which according to wmfarmerandsons.com offers plenty for those seeking “a romantic getaway, a family trip with the baby (and the dog too) or a more apartment-like suite for a longer stay.”
This establishment also offers a coppery restaurant and barroom with rustic-chic décor that is open Thursday through Sunday for dinner, craft cocktails, light bites and culinary offerings inspired by local Hudson Valley farms. The menu each week offers subtle changes based on what’s arriving fresh in the kitchen, or what is “just sounding extra delicious to our chef,” according to wmfarmerandsons.com.
Along with Wm. Farmer and Sons, the cozy Nautical Nest Hotel sits in proximity to Warren Street, Hudson’s main boulevard, where you can also grab something to eat.
If you’re craving barbecue, American Glory BBQ offers plenty to delight the taste buds, including House-Cured Slab Bacon, Chopped BBQ Beef & Brisket and Sliced Texas Brisket. Locally made craft beer, wine, prohibition and standard cocktails, Kentucky Bourbons, American Ryes and Single Malt Scotches will wet your whistle.
And the Grazin’ Diner, located in an old classic diner with plenty of charm, bills itself as “the first completely Animal Welfare Approved restaurant in the world.” The beef, pork and chicken served at Grazin’ Diner comes from Grazin’ Angus Acres, a farm in nearby Ghent run by the diner owners.
Accessible by rental car and Lyft, the journey to Olana takes you due south of Hudson, down a stretch of Route 9G and up a winding road to the crest of a peak upon which Church’s famed mansion sits.
The son of a silversmith who showed artistic talent early, Church studied with painter Thomas Cole, in Catskill, New York, on the western side of the Hudson River, according to olana.org. Church traveled the country and the world, with stops for painting along the way in Labrador, Canada, and South America.
He later bought 126 acres of hardscrabble farmland on a south facing hillside, that would become the home for Olana. As a farmer and landscape artist, he planted crops, maintained a dairy herd and built a studio on the highest point of land.
He and his wife Isabel “were pious, well-read, and fun loving,” and they raised their four children on the estate overlooking the Hudson River, according to olana.org.
In 1866, Church purchased an additional 18 acres of land atop their hill and plans were put in place for a new house on the site. But a far-reaching journey would come first. In 1867, Frederic and Isabel Church brought their family on an 18-month trip to Europe and the Middle East, taking lengthy stays in Rome, Beirut and Jerusalem along the way. Inspired by the architecture of the Middle East, they returned home and construction began on the main house at Olana.
The structure is a unique mix of architectural elements and Middle-Eastern decorative motifs, according to olana.org. The building is a villa with an asymmetrical massing of towers and block masonry punctuated by fanciful windows and porches. The irregular silhouette of the exterior stands in contrasts with the more regular rhythm of rooms, which are arranged around a central hall. Exterior Middle Eastern motifs are carried out in colored brick, wood, slate, ceramic tile and stenciling. Underscoring everything is Church’s vision, which is hard to categorize.
The main house is closed, so best to visit olana.org for the most up-to-date information on when inside tours will resume. However, an outdoor tour on the grounds is available.
The Outdoor Olana Tour: Landscape and Architecture, is a one-quarter mile long walking tour focusing on the integration of landscape and architecture in the siting and design of Olana’s main house. Held Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., the cost is $15 for non-members and free for members.
As for the outdoor exhibit beginning May 1, “Fallen” by Jean Shin runs through Oct. 31 on Olana’s east lawn. This exhibit evokes Church’s planting of thousands of native trees on a hillside that had been previously logged and deforested for use in the tanning industry.
Last year, the eastern hemlock tree on Olana’s east lawn died of natural causes after the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation attempted to save it. It stood high among new native plantings, which were installed to complete the first project in Olana’s award-winning Strategic Landscape Design Plan.
“As a part of an ongoing commitment to engage contemporary artists at Olana, the Olana Partnership has commissioned the nationally-renowned artist Jean Shin to create a site-specific work in response to the loss of this hemlock tree,” according to olana.org. “Fallen” will invite visitors to reflect on the lifespan of the tree and history of this region.
This exhibit is part of Olana’s larger, 2021 collaborative exhibition with the Thomas Cole National Historic Site and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, “Cross Pollination: Heade, Cole, Church, and Our Contemporary Moment.”
Visit olana.org for information.