Xanadu on the Hudson: Inside Frederic Church's Persian Palace in Upstate New York

A dining room on the ground floor of Frederic Church's home, including paintings from his collections, some of which he painted over and modified to his liking.
(Photo by Katya Valevich)

HUDSON, New York — On Saturday, several dozen of the hundreds of contemporary art acolytes who had traveled from New York City to visit the NADA Hudson art fair also received a special treat, taking a free shuttle about ten minutes further themselves transported back in time more than a century to a peculiar place that is part Orientalist fantasy and part eccentric tycoon's playground. Olana, the magical 250-acre hilltop estate of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church (1826-1900), features landscapes and buildings as carefully composed and assembled as his precise and panoramic paintings.

One of the most business-savvy artists of his time, Church's large-scale canvases would be unveiled with movie premiere pomp. Hundreds of ticket-buying viewers queued to see his dramatic renderings of far-flung locales. The Metropolitan Museum has three of his most famous works, "Heart of the Andes" (1859), "The Parthenon" (1871), and "The Aegean Sea" (ca. 1877), in their permanent collection, testaments to a time before tourism when people were more literally transported by painting. His countless journeys and treasure trove of travel photography — according to Olana curator Evelyn Trebilcock, the estate's collection of early photographic materials includes somewhere in the region of 10,000 pieces — not only informed his paintings but also the sprawling estate he spent the last 40 years of his life assembling.

Taken as a kind of idealized landscape painting made real, with its artificial lake, quaint farmhouses, winding approaches, carefully planted groves, and part-Persian, part-Venitian hilltop palazzo, Olana stands in many ways as Church's greatest artistic accomplishment. “Our next major project is to restore the grounds to their intended state,” landscape curator Mark Prezorski told ARTINFO Saturday. “Church wanted only native plants.”

“That’s part of Olana’s appeal,” Prezorski continues. “There’s a very green, environmental aspect to it, as well as the historic and artistic dimensions.”

The sublime beauty of the landscape, even under an overcast sky — “on a clear day the sunsets look nuclear,” Prezorski promises — is difficult to overstate. It was all nearly lost in the 1960s, when the property and its contents were almost auctioned off, and again the following decade when a nuclear power plant was proposed for a site just downriver from the estate. Preservationists — including Jacqueline Kennedy and then-governor Nelson Rockefeller — intervened, and a Church painting even served as evidence in the dispute that eventually resulted in the nuclear project being abandoned.

Today the view to the south framed by the three arches atop the house’s tower shows the mighty river winding towards the horizon (albeit with a conspicuous cement plant in the middleground) with Church’s perfectly quaint lake right at the bottom of the hill. On Saturday, for those who shuttled over from NADA Hudson — a service facilitated by artist and Olana National Conservation Committee member Valerie Hegarty, whose dealer Nicelle Beauchene is president of NADA’s board of directors — the bucolic estate and its fantastical home served as the perfect contrast to the hip contemporary exhibition’s vibe of post-industrial cool.

Olana isn’t just a place from another time; it belongs to a different imagination and aesthetic. It gives shape to a reality neither fully rooted in natural and historical fact, nor purely conjured from a visionary artist’s mind — more similar to Walt Disney's first theme park than, say, Salvador Dali’s Figueres dream house. It stands as a Gesamtkunstwerk for an artist whose most ambitious paintings strive to match the scale of the landscapes they depict. This may all sound comically rhapsodic, precisely the type of response Hudson River School painters sought to elicit from their rapt contemporaries through theatrical tricks and proto-cinematic narrative embellishments. But Olana really is that dramatically breathtaking, partly because it translates those painters’ tricks into architecture and landscape.

To take a tour of Olana, click on the slide show.