Olana's Viewshed: The Past Protecting the Future

The Hudson River Valley abounds in magnificent viewsheds, some of which belong to historic sites, private residents, or from public lands that inspire and trace our history deep in to the past. 

Olana, the home of preeminent 19th century landscape painter Frederic Church, offers magnificent sweeping vistas of the Catskill Mountains, the Hudson River and the Taconic Hills. Today, Olana is a State Historic Site as well as a National Historic Landmark.  It is one of the few artists’ home, studio, and estate-complexes that remains intact. It is owned by the New York State and is operated by the Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation with support from The Olana Partnership - a new affiliate member of the Environmental Consortium.

The Olana Partnership’s mission is to inspire the public by preserving and interpreting Olana, and to create the most widely recognized artist’s home and studio in the world, vibrant with the activity of students, visitors and scholars. As part of that mission they are working to protect the Olana viewshed.

A Look at the Past

Frederic Church (1826-1900) was born in Hartford, Connecticut. As a young man of eighteen, he became a pupil of the Artist Thomas Cole, who founded the art movement known as the Hudson River School. After success at the National Academy of Design, Church settled in New York and continued to paint in the Hudson River School tradition.

The Hudson River School of art is most known for the romantic landscape paintings that frequently depict the area for which it is named, The Hudson River Valley, including the Catskill, Adirondack and White Mountains. The themes of the artwork tend to reflect discovery, exploration and settlement.  Artists often juxtaposed agriculture and wilderness, presenting the viewer with a sense of peace between man and nature.  Because of their often idealized but realistic and detailed portrayal of nature, the landscapes created by the Hudson River School were a monumental success and are still recognized as one of the most influential artistic movements.

Between 1860 and 1867, Church purchased the parcels of land, including a 126-acre farm and wooded hill top in Columbia County, New York, that would become the 250-acre estate.  He hired renowned architects, including Calvert Vaux, to help him design a home.  He himself designed the landscape, incorporating meadows, farm fields, orchards, a lake, five miles of carriage roads and magnificent borrowed views. He and his wife named the estate Olana.

Framing the Viewshed

In April 2011, over 200 attendees joined prominent speakers for an afternoon of lectures and conversations about art, advocacy and landscape. Framing the Viewshed: The Transformative Power of Art and Landscape in the Hudson Valley, celebrated the Hudson Valley's extraordinary natural and designed landscape.  The symposium, organized by The Olana Partnership and held at Columbia-Greene Community College, highlighted the international importance of viewsheds, from the Hudson Valley to the park surrounding Brancusi’s Endless Column in Romania, to the current threats to the city center of Seville, Spain. The high attendance was affirmation of the great interest in exploring the value and significance of viewsheds.

”Framing the Viewshed” symposium was an opportunity to explore the intersection of art history, historic preservation and landscape design in regards to viewsheds, with lectures by Linda S. Ferber, Vice-President and Senior Art Historian, New York Historical Society, Laurie Olin OLIN / Partner, RLA, FASLA and Harvey K. Flad, Emeritus Professor of Geography, Vassar College. Harvey K. Flad’s presentation, “Art of Protecting Scenic Views Nineteenth-century Artists and the Preservation of Modern-day Landscapes”, highlighted the fact that Church’s painting, The Hudson Valley in Winter from Olana (c. 1871-2) was a component of the compelling testimony against a proposed nuclear power plant in the Olana viewshed in the 1970’s. Flad concluded that the “views from Olana remain as the signal point in which the twentieth-century and twenty-first-century cisual assessment can be traced.”

The Olana Partnership works with Scenic Hudson, Columbia Land Conservancy, Open Space Institute, and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to protect land in the Olana viewshed.  Over 2,000 acres have been protected with conservation easements; these lands include farms and ecologically sensitive lands.

The largest challenge to viewshed protection is having people understand the importance of protecting this viewshed – that it is a crucial part of what many people describe as Church’s greatest work of art, and that it contributes significantly to the economic impact of Olana, which is $7.9 million a year.

Programs and Support

The Olana Partnership offers numerous programs that support this mission, including the three year old state-of-the-art education center on the footprint of the former wagon house. This building houses educational programs, such as creative writing workshops and sessions that teach children how to recognize patterns in nature, as well as special events including a recent lecture on this year’s exhibition “Rally ‘Round the Flag”, about Frederic Church’s role in the Civil War. The Olana Partnership also offers in-depth tours of the house and landscape of Frederic Church’s Olana.

The Olana Partnership welcomes visiting scholars and assists with research questions. They have fielded more than 40 requests just in the past year in various disciplines including history, art history, English and science.  They present lectures by academic experts and have co-sponsored symposiums with Bard, Marist, SUNY New Paltz and Vassar College.  Additionally, students from SUNY Albany and Geneseo, Cooper-Hewitt program of Decorative Arts, Marist and Vassar College have participated in the Olana Partnership’s intern program.  The staff lectures widely, most recently at Bard College, Cooper-Hewitt, and the University of Albany’s Public History Program.