August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
High on a hill above the Hudson River Frederick Edwin Church indulged his passion for building an exotic dream castle
“Sometimes the desire to build attacks a man like a fever—and at it he rushes,” the successful young landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church wrote from abroad to his friend and patron William H. Osborn in 1868. Church, his wife, and his young son were on an eighteen-month tour of Europe and the Middle East, but it was clear that he had other things on his mind than the average tourist did. Soon after they arrived home with boxes of “rugs—armour—stuffs—curiosities, etc. etc. etc.” and “old clothes (Turkish), stones from a house in Damascus, Arab spears—beads from Jerusalem—stones from Petra and 10,000 other things,” they set about building a suitable showplace for them—a thirty-seven-room “personal Persian” villa perched on the crest of Mount Merino overlooking the Hudson River not far south of Albany.
This exuberant and exotic structure, which the Churches named Olana (Arabic for “our place on high”), celebrated its hundredth birthday this past year and stands today very much the same as it did when built and occupied by this imaginative couple. The entrance, or Court hall, left, has recently been restored to its original condition thanks to the fact that the Church family, who remained in the house until 1964, never threw anything away but simply stored what they didn’t want in the spacious attics. Since 1964, due largely to the heroic efforts of Church enthusiast David C. Huntington, Olana has become a state-owned historic site open to the public from May to November.
The majestic Hudson River setting was not only perfect for Olana, but it was an area intimately connected to Church and his painting. As a young man of eighteen he had come to the town of Catskill, directly across the river from Mount Merino, to study painting under the best-known landscape artist of his day, Thomas Cole. The young pupil, whom Cole praised as having “the finest eye for drawing in the world,” soon outdistanced the master. In 1857 Church’s painting Niagara achieved instant success. Two years later Heart of the Andes , “a masterpiece among the masterpieces of the world,” in the words of one contemporary critic, dazzled a steady stream of visitors who paid twenty-five cents apiece to see it on exhibition. For Church 1860 was a doubly good year. He met and married the lovely Isabel Carnes of Dayton, Ohio, and Paris and finished Twilight in the Wilderness . He was now a widely recognized artist, and he somewhat immodestly wrote to a friend that he could not avoid “creating a sensation” wherever he went. “Oh! the miseries and annoyances of being known.”
Church took his bride to the Hudson hillside that was later to be the site of Olana and there built a small dwelling they called “Cosy Cottage.” Eight years later they set sail for their first and his only trip abroad, but the ideas they brought back and put to use as they began to build their dream house were far removed from a “cosy cottage.” “I never did believe in small houses,” Church declared as the ground was broken for Olana.