To visit the Olana estate in Hudson, N.Y., is to walk upon a work of art. This could be said metaphorically of many beautiful locations. But in the case of Olana it is the very literal truth. Every view of the Hudson Valley locale has been planned for maximum aesthetic effect.
Like all works of art, this one came from the mind on an artist. Frederic Edwin Church was a painter who thought his landscape paintings could be improved by first improving the landscape itself. In 1861 he began his life’s work: an ambitious project taken on by an artist who had already achieved fame and fortune through his painting. His terraforming was no small feat. Church planted thousands of trees, dug out a lake, and designed pockets of open viewpoints among the vegetation to maximize the best views of the valley. While this all may sound tedious, the breathtaking vistas speak for themselves. There are certainly worse ways to spend one’s fortune.
But Olana was not just an elaborate landscape model for Church’s paintings. It was also a functioning farm complete with a variety of crops and a dairy herd. Church and his family lived in a Persian-inspired house at the top of a hill in the center of the property. They had moved a mere 120 miles north of New York City but it must have felt like a different planet. Perhaps a family living there full time could get used to the surroundings. But it must have been nearly overwhelming for visitors (which included luminaries of the day such as Mark Twain) to climb up the switchback roads in horse-drawn carts in order to gaze upon the meticulously handcrafted landscape.
The contrast of going from urban landscape to Church’s living work of art is even more drastic today. The perfectly preserved grounds make one feel like they’ve stepped directly into the nineteenth century. Only the pavement on the roads and the occasional passing car serve as reminders of what year it actually is.
The house at the center of the property now serves as a sort of museum and exhibition hall. Church’s artwork is featured, of course. So are other landscape paintings from Church’s prominent contemporaries. Rotating exhibitions and lectures give visitors a more modern perspective on the property and its place in the art world.
Wildlife abounds on the property. Birds sit in the tree branches, float on the water, and soar across the treetops. Fish swim just below the surface of the lake and frogs nestle on the bank. Small animals rustle through the underbrush just off the paths that guide visitors through the woods. There are insects, to be sure. But they buzz and flit and mostly keep to themselves. Still, it’s worth wearing long sleeves and long pants when venturing into the wooded area.
The lake and the wildlife are but preludes, however, to what makes the property so stunning and so unique: the views. The views from near the top of the hill look, ironically enough, as if they’ve been painted. As you walk the winding paths the trees on the side will suddenly open and you’re faced with acres of rolling greenery. The tops of the trees rise and dip below until they come to a stop at the faraway Hudson River. The Catskills beyond zigzag against the crisp blue sky with only a few wisps of clouds lazily remaining on an otherwise clear day.
Even those who are not artists are ready to pick up a brush in those moments.