When roaming around historic Hudson Valley in upstate New York, there is no shortage of things to do—from antique shopping on Warren Street to gorging on pumpkin tortelli at the beloved Fish & Game restaurant. But one must-stop for any design-driven tourist is Frederic Church’s delightfully eccentric, Moorish-Oriental-style fantasy home turned museum (and surrounding 250 acres of grounds), Olana.
Church was part of the Hudson River School movement, a mid 19th-century art movement of American landscape painters. Think of him as the J.M.W. Turner of America; he was known for his dazzling landscapes of saturated sunsets (basically the OG Clarendon filter), romantic waterfalls, and majestic mountains. His home, perched atop the rolling hills just outside of downtown Hudson and overlooking the Catskills, is as impressive a masterpiece as his artwork.
In 1867, before embarking on an 18-month global voyage through Europe and the Middle East that would put Rick Steves to shame, Church purchased 18 acres of farmland with spectacular views of the Hudson River. The original house plan by Richard Morris Hunt was for a French-inspired home, fashionable (and predictable) for that era's elite. Upon returning to the States, however, Church abandoned those designs for something much more exotic, a home that today remains one of America’s best examples of Orientalist architecture.
Church hired family friend Calvert Vaux (who was working on the buildings of Central Park at the time) to design the Persian palace of his dreans. A rare blend of Victorian architecture juxtaposed with Middle Eastern decorative motifs sets Olana apart from so many of the grand country houses that dot the American landscape.
Since designing a completely Middle Eastern-style home would be hard in a cold climate, Vaux attempted to distill that same feel by creating a complex of stone rooms built around a central courtyard with a roof. One big trend of the era was stenciling—and Church ran wild with it. While interior stenciling was extremely popular, exterior stenciling was rare. Being an artist, it is no surprise that Church designed the stencils himself, inspired by tile work, metal work and stone carving of Islamic mosques.
On the inside, the home continues its blend of styles. Lucky for us, the interior stencils have never been retouched, just cleaned, so you can imagine how the metallic paint would have glimmered by candlelight when the family was entertaining guests, such as Samuel Langhorne Clemens (aka Mark Twain).
Speaking of the interiors, most of the furniture and paintings today remain just as the Church family left them. Of course, most of the paintings are by Frederic, although there are works by other impressive artists of his day, including Martin Johnson Heade, John Thomas Peele, and sculpture by Erastus Dow Palmer. The furniture is an eclectic mix of Middle Eastern and Asian and American. So richly layered are the interiors, you really need three or four visits to completely absorb everything going on in this house. Like most Victorian homes, it’s a complete sensory overload from the doorknobs to the mantels. Be sure to scope out the amber glass windows that Church overlaid with cut paper patterns to resemble ‘Mashrabiya’ latticework, characteristic of Arabic homes.
While we're fascinated with the home's design, the grounds and gardens (also designed by Church) are well worth a stroll, too. The parklands are so extensive the website even has maps you can print out to prepare for your visit, and the barns and cottage are well worth a peek.
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