Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Big Old Houses: Persia on the Mountaintop

Persia on the Mountaintop
by John Foreman


Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) painted "Twilight in the Wilderness" in 1860, when he was 34 years old. I finally "saw" it (like Jake 'saw' Neytiri in 'Avatar') when I was in my middle 40s. I'd been given a book for Christmas titled "The Hudson River School, Nature and the American Vision" and in its illustrations I had glimpsed the infinite. Okay, sounds hokey, but in the wake of the experience I found myself haunting museums, classy bookstores and the Hudson River School collection at the New York Historical Society in search of more of the same. I never again took the sky for granted.

Here's Church, photographed in 1868 on a camel in Beirut. That's his little boy, Frederic Joseph, in his lap, a little boy who looks none too certain about his father's plans. Those plans, had he known at the time, would soon take tangible form on top of a small mountain in the Hudson Valley. Houses in Beirut "are often quite grand," Church wrote to a friend at home. "They have a large room called the court in the center ... and smaller rooms on each side ... I have got new and excellent ideas about house building since I came abroad."
Mrs. Church, nee Isabel Carnes (1836-1899), married Church in Dayton, Ohio in 1860. She gave him 2 children, both of whom died early, then picked herself up and gave him 3 more boys and a girl, all of whom survived to adulthood. A daughter-in-law, Mrs. Louis Church, nee Sally Goode, was the last of the Churches to live in the Persian house above the Hudson.
Artistically and professionally, Church was on fire from his late teens on. Thomas Cole's pupil at 18, a full member of the National Academy of Design by 23, he was a household name at 31, when he painted "Niagara," seen below. But painters and paintings, like everything, move in cycles. Church was barely 50 when fashionistas dropped the Hudson River School with a thud, and took up with the new Impressionists. By this point, perhaps fortuitously, Church had refocused his creative energies on his house.
And here it is, "Olana," named after (what else?) an ancient city in Persia. Church traveled quite a lot, but evidently no place made as great an impression on him as the Middle East. Olana is located about 4 miles south of the Hudson Valley city of Hudson, and looks extremely unlike anything anywhere nearby — or far away. Church began accumulating land in 1860 but didn't acquire the house site until 1867. When he did, he hired Beaux Arts-trained Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895), future Vanderbilt palace builder, to design the house. Something evidently didn't click, since by 1870 the architect of record was Calvert Vaux (1824-1895), famous co-designer with Frederick Law Olmsted of the "Greensward Plan" for New York's Central Park. During the planning process of Olana, Vaux deferred so totally to Church's and his wife's aesthetic decisions that he described himself as a "consulting architect" only — which may have been the root of the problem with Richard Hunt.
Distracted by the jaw-dropping views, visitors understandably overlook the subtleties of Church's planned landscape. It's a tossup as to which is more distracting — the obsessively decorated Muslim confection perched at one's back, or the sublime views of the Hudson and the Catskills in the other direction.
That's the Rip Van Winkle Bridge in the image below, connecting the east bank city of Hudson with the west bank village of Catskill, home of Church's first teacher, Thomas Cole. Olana originally sat at the heart of 250 acres of scenic drives, ornamental orchards, dense woods, an artificial lake, planned viewlines and (would that we all had one) a "ferme ornee" ('ornamental farm,' in case your Marie Antoinette cheatsheet is locked up somewhere), planned and executed in an un-obviously Vaux-ish kind of a way. Under New York State stewardship the property has grown to 520 acres, not counting viewshed restrictions on several thousand more. Much is made of Church's artistic integration of house and grounds. Personally, I'm more of an Achille Duchene, Beatrix Farrand or Charles A. Platt kind of a guy, but that's just me.
During this bitter winter, if the mid-river channel weren't kept open the Hudson would be solid ice from bank to bank.
The winterized front door faces southeast. Before going inside, let's scout around to the back.
Olana's back wall, despite its service and delivery functions, is a more appealing composition than its blank looking entrance facade. Let's glance at the handsomely restored stable — "handsome" being the operative adjective for ALL of Olana's high quality restoration work — then circle back to the front door.
In the wake of the Civil War, American architecture entered an era of either adventurous experimentation or crazy excess, depending on your point of view. The stately march of pre-war revival styles — Greek, Gothic, Italianate — seemed calm in comparison to the unleashed exoticisms of the 1870s. Olana is a product of the exoticism era, a period of national astonishment terminated finally at century's end by Beaux Arts discipline. Olana is not the work of a great architect, but rather that of an artistic amateur and his wife who rendered in stone and paint their personal vision of beauty. As a work of art, it's amazing. As a place to live, it's less successful.
Winterization aside, Olana's entrance is still slightly forbidding. This is due, I suspect, to its owners' infatuation with the grand houses of Beirut, where heat and dangerous streets were a greater factor than they were at Hudson, New York.
Notes on the plan below: The heart of the original house — the Corridor and Studio being 1888 additions — is the Court Hall. I'm sure the similarities are accidental, but Church's Beiruti-inspired Court Hall bears a strong resemblance to the Living Halls in soon to be fashionable shingled manses designed by McKim Mead & White and Peabody & Stearns.

The rest of Olana's interior plan is a Casbah of snaking corridors and multiple levels whose intricate decor is the result of literally hundreds of sketches of finials, balusters, moldings, stencil designs, etc., etc. "I designed the house myself," Church wrote in 1877, underscoring Vaux's self-deprecation. He furnished it himself too, with, according to his daughter, much unacknowledged help from his wife. Olana is decorated with Shaker rockers, Kashmiri tables, Rococo Revival chairs, Syrian metalware, etc., etc, the sole common deniminator being an appeal to its owners' extremely catholic tastes.
Adjacent to the front door is the East Parlor, a logical reception room location.
Nowadays, between clever lighting, specialty lenses and above all Photoshop, it is possible to take pictures which, frankly, are not very honest. When I photograph a house, however, that's what it really looks like. These pictures aren't publicity stills, they're documents. In the case of Olana, they document the "artistic" palette of the late 19th century, meaning everything is either brown, beige, moss green, rust or not quite 50 shades of grey. What can I say about a room like this? I am fascinated to be up here on top of the world. How amazing it is to look out the windows and see ... all of that. How wonderful that this curious submarine from the 1870s is all still here. None of this alters the fact that "artistic" back then reads as "gloomy" today.
Doors from the vestibule lead to the Court Hall, whose Middle Eastern ancestors were probably unroofed.
The Court Hall is amazingly unchanged, as you can see from the image below, photographed by Robert and Emily de Forest on October 11, 1884 (courtesy Collection Olana State Historic Site, NYSOPRHP). The unchanging quality of Olana, a leitmotif in its existence, was not mirrored in the career of its creator. When the de Forests visited Church and his wife in the mid-1880s, the Hudson River School was in retreat from public favor and Church himself was suffering from progressive rheumatism. Luckily, he had his scenic roads, planned vistas, decorative farmstead and Persian house to keep him busy. In 1888 he added the studio wing; in 1889, he closed his Manhattan studio and moved everything up to Olana. Church continued to paint, but his former celebrity was on the wane.
The Sitting Room, reached through the door in the image below, would more logically be a library if the bookshelves weren't in an alcove off the Court Hall. French doors at its western end lead to a delicious piazza overlooking the Catskills.
The Cloak Hall was a sort of Victorian mudroom containing closets, a sink (not sure why), and a half bath which, alas, I could not see. During its entire career as a private house, unless I missed something, Olana had a grand total of one and half bathrooms. Attached to the western end of the cloakroom is the Corridor, it being a sort of ceremonial approach to the owner's Studio.
Almost everything in this room has been sitting in the same place, and/or hanging on the same spot on the wall, for 125 years.
We're going to retrace our steps down the Corridor, cut across the top of the Court Hall, and have a look at Olana's combination dining room/picture gallery, where wall space is abundant and daylight is not.
Connected to the Dining room is a Serving Pantry — big on light, short on counter space, full of charming cabinetry and original dishes, but not very ergonomically laid out. A restoration is wisely planned for the kitchen beyond.
The Servant Hall overlooks the kitchen court at the rear of the house. The door leads to a back stair — down to the laundry and storage rooms; up to the maids' rooms.
This short flight of stairs — a necessity, given the difference in ceiling heights for the help and the gentry — connects the servants' quarters to family bedrooms on the second floor. No servants' stairs for us, however. We're doubling back to the Court Hall and taking the grand stair up.
There's a lot of stuff in this house and not always a place to put it, which is why the Chinese bed is in the middle of the bedroom hall.
There are only 2 bedrooms, 1 bath and a not-all-that-big owner's suite on the 2nd floor.
This was originally the ONLY full bath in the entire house.
The door in the first image below connects the upstairs hall to what passes for an owner's suite — a corner bedroom with drop dead views and an adjacent study whose primary architectural feature is an oddly located stair to the 3rd floor.
In 1953, the late Frederick and Isabel Church's bedroom was occupied by their elderly daughter-in-law, a sweetly dotty old lady named Mrs. Louis Church (nee Sally Goode). Out of nowhere that fall, Mrs. Church's companion read a letter to her from a 3rd year Princeton graduate student named David Huntington, requesting permission to visit Olana. It had been suggested to Huntington, who'd returned to Princeton after fighting in the war and kicking around the country for a couple of years, that the obscure and (probably) irrelevant Hudson River School painter Frederick Edwin Church might be a good subject for a thesis.

Permission to visit duly arrived from a New York lawyer, and in December of that year Huntington stepped across the threshold of Olana. He was, according to a 2009 interview, "absolutely bewildered by what I saw, not at all expecting such a relic of the 19th century ... virtually untouched (and) unchanged ... I had lunch with Mrs Church (who) was senile and wanted to feed me much more than I really wanted to eat ... (The staff) then said that I would have to have it appear that I was just there for lunch ... leave by the front door and say goodbye to Mrs. Church ... (T)hen they said, 'You just come in the back door, and we'll let you up into the attic by the back stairs.'" What he found was a veritable elephants' graveyard of forgotten art, including everything that had been hauled out of Church's studio in 1889.
Eleven years later, upon learning that 96-year-old Mrs. Church had died, and that the contents of her house were about to be auctioned off, Huntington embarked on a personal mission to marshall friends, politicos, philanthropists and cultural figures to save Olana. In an era when New Yorkers couldn't even stop demolition of Penn Station, this was no easy project. "I can recall bringing Mrs. J.M. Kaplan up to Olana," he described years later. "She apparently had been interested in preservation ... I met her at the station in Hudson and drove her up the hill. And as soon as her very first glimpse of the house she said, 'Oh, how bizarre.' The whole visit was painful."
Despite which, after 2 years of passionate lobbying, on June 27, 1966, Governor Nelson Rockefeller posed with assorted dignitaries by the front door of Olana and signed the Lane-Newcombe Bill, which provided the funds to save it.
The preservation of Olana has enriched us all, but from the standpoint of architecture Mrs. Kaplan wasn't that far off the mark. I can't imagine much privacy in a study like the one below, containing an open stair to childrens' rooms running along one wall.
Bedrooms at the top of that stair (we're now on top of the double-height dining room) are laid out like a railroad flat. A corridor at one end connects to the servants' quarters over the kitchen. A stair at the other climbs up to the tower.
The chock-full-of-old-stuff attic that mesmerized David Huntington in 1953, is today free of dust, leaks and old stuff. From a maintenance and engineering standpoint, Olana is in spectacular physical condition.
Naturally, I had to look at the basement. The laundry is now a conference room.
Both Church's reputation and his house have today been rehabilitated. 150,000 people visited the property last year, 25,000 of whom also climbed through the house. Museums fight for the right to pay multiple millions for Church's paintings, and people like me continue to look at them and glimpse the infinite. Olana is a major Hudson Valley tourist attraction. The link is www.olana.org.
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