Olana: A New Perspective
Second Annual Historic Viewshed Tour
By Jonathan Ment
Photo by Stan Ries, courtesy of Olana State Historic Site
On Saturday, October 24, 2009, The Olana Partnership and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation will join with 10 neighboring landowners and two historic sites to celebrate the beauty surrounding Olana’s 250-acre landscape. The 2009 self-guided tour captures the excitement of last year’s successful event. Participants will stand high above the Hudson River Valley in rarely-seen locations where they’re invited to walk across meadows, beside ponds and streams, through orchards and gardens, often looking back at Frederic Church’s Olana. They will experience first-hand the variety and magnificence of the region Frederic Church called “the center of the world.”
The ten unique private properties featured are located along the Hudson River and the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, and include an 1870s Calvert Vaux-designed home constructed for Church’s cousin, the former estate of landscape painter Charles Herbert Moore, a biodynamic farm, working fruit farms, and pristine examples of a 1743 Dutch barn and an 1801 Palladian barn. Members can reserve one of the few available spots to ascend to Olana’s Bell Tower, with its unparalleled river and mountain views. Following the tour there will be a Viewshed Benefit Party with wine and hors d’oeuvres at sunset at a privately owned 1850s farm with beautifully restored barn and 180-degree views of the Catskill Mountains.
Two organizations integral to the preservation of Olana’s viewshed will be represented in Olana’s Wagon House Education Center during the introductory part of the Viewshed Tour. Scenic Hudson and Columbia Land Conservancy will have representatives on hand to discuss their work to protect and restore the Hudson River and its majestic landscape as an irreplaceable national treasure and as a vital resource for residents and visitors.
The Olana Viewshed Tour is a benefit to support the restoration of Olana’s historic landscape. The tour is from 10 am to 4 pm, tickets are $50 per person ($40 for Olana Partnership members); the Viewshed Benefit Party from 4:30 to 6:30 pm, is $100 per person ($75 for members). A combination tour/party ticket is available at $150 per person ($100 for members). A limited number of Bell Tower tours will be conducted between 10 am and 1 pm and must be reserved in advance. Bell Tower tours are $50 per person (free for current members). The Olana Partnership also needs volunteers to assist on the tour. For information or to reserve tickets call Melanie Hasbrook at 518 828 1872 ext. 103 e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The early Chinese called it a “borrowed view.” Today, landscape experts and preservationists refer to it as a viewshed. In New York State, landscape historians, environmentalists, community members, art patrons and land conservation organizations have all joined forces to protect the famous viewshed of one of the region’s major historic sites, Olana. Viewshed protection is a modern concept, and an effort on this scale is the first-of-its-kind for an historic site in the Northeast. This concept has also taken root elsewhere in the United States. Efforts in viewshed protection can also be found in California’s Napa Valley where ordinances to protect ridge lines have been enacted; at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia, where 330 acres were purchased to protect the primary western views from the site, and in March 2009 the State of Florida rescinded an ordinance that would have allowed tall buildings to be situated adjacent to the historic Viscaya Museum and Gardens.
Olana was the home of Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), one of America’s most important artists, a student of Thomas Cole, and a major figure in the Hudson River School of landscape painting. Church, a contemporary and colleague of Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, designed Olana’s Persian-inspired house amidst a 250-acre picturesque landscape and working farm, all now under restoration as a masterpiece as important as any of his paintings. Many consider the Hudson River School to be the beginning of the American environmental movement, and the Olana Viewshed is a manifestation of those historic ideals.
Olana is unique as the designed landscape of a renowned artist. Developed in the period 1860 to 1900, the Olana landscape design focused on the main house and included a dozen outbuildings, two long approach drives and miles of additional pleasure drives, parkland, a lake, wooded land and farmland, all integral components of a single, man-made landscape entity. In addition, the Olana landscape featured numerous vantage points toward prospects of the Hudson River Valley, Catskill Mountains, Berkshire and Taconic ranges, and intervening farms and hamlets. As Church created his paintings, he designed the views from Olana to feature carefully arranged foregrounds, plunging middle grounds and vast panoramic backgrounds.
The effort to preserve the Olana Viewshed was spearheaded by Scenic Hudson, a non-profit organization which has been a crusader for the Hudson Valley since 1963. Scenic Hudson works to protect and restore the Hudson River and its majestic landscape as an irreplaceable national treasure and as a vital resource for residents and visitors. So far, Scenic Hudson has protected 1,248 acres in the Olana Viewshed, largely through conservation easements with private landowners and working farms. The group’s campaign to Save the Land That Matters Most—a collaboration with fellow land trusts, governments, individuals and businesses—seeks to protect 65,000 acres of great scenic, ecological and agricultural significance throughout the Hudson Valley. The Olana Viewshed has also greatly benefited from the work of the Columbia Land Conservancy, a local non-profit land trust which works with the community to conserve the farmland, forests, wildlife habitat and rural character of Columbia County,
Olana State Historic Site, one of seven historic sites and 13 parks administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP), Taconic Region, is a designated National Historic Landmark and one of the most visited sites in the state. The Olana Partnership, a private not-for-profit education corporation, works cooperatively with New York State to support the restoration, development and improvement of Olana State Historic Site. To learn more about Olana, please visit www.olana.org.