LEARN: The House
History of the House
When Frederic Church purchased the property for Olana in 1860, he hired architect Richard Morris Hunt (who was later to build several of the "cottages" in Newport, R.I.) to design a small house in which he could raise a family. Called "Cosy Cottage", the house was occupied in the early summer of 1861. Soon Church and his wife had two children filling Cosy Cottage, but, tragically, both children died of diphtheria in 1865.
In 1867 Church purchased an additional 18 acres at the top of the hill overlooking his property. Before building his new house, he and Isabel and their infant son Frederic Joseph left for an extended tour of Europe and the Middle East.
Frederic and Isabel Church, impressed by the architecture they saw in cities like Beirut, Jerusalem and Damascus, envisioned a home at Olana that incorporated Middle Eastern elements and designs. Drawings by Richard Morris Hunt document that Church considerd using him as an architect, but ultimately decided on Calvert Vaux. Church spent the next two years working with Vaux designing and building a home that would be, as he called it "Persian, adapted to the Occident"
In the fall of 1872, Church and Isabel and their growing family of children moved into the second story of the new house while Church continued to decorate the ground floor. He designed stencils and chose the colors with which to decorate the walls and ceilings. Eclectic furnishings soon filled the house, gathered from NYC and abroad, and eventually, from the Church family home in Hartford, Connecticut. Frederic even designed a few pieces of furniture. The couple filled the house with thousands of objects meant to direct the attention to the great civilizations of the past.
Church continued to work on the house for much of the rest of his life. In 1885 he began a campaign to repair and improve the house, and in 1888, began the studio wing, with guest rooms and a glassed- in observation room in the tower. By 1891, the house was essentially complete, looking much as it does today.
The House Today
When Frederic Church died in 1900, Olana was willed to his youngest son Louis Palmer Church. The following year Louis married Sarah Baker Good (known as "Sally") and the two of them moved to Olana. After Louis's death in 1943, Sally stayed on at Olana until her death in 1964 at the age of 96.
Throughout her life, Sally had insisted that the decorative scheme at Olana remain unchanged. Upon her death, her nephew Charles Lark, Jr. inherited the estate and undertook to have Sotheby's auction the furnishings that had been collected by Church over so many years. David Huntington, learning of the upcoming auction, convinced Lark to allow time for funds to be raised with which to purchase the estate. Read more about David Huntington's efforts in "The Campaign to Save Olana", edited by Dorothy Heyl.
Olana Preservation was formed to raise funds for the purchase of Olana. In a race with time, Olana Preservation solicited donations even as Sotheby's tagged the furniture with lot numbers for the upcoming auction. At the last moment, with help from the State of New York, the property was purchased in 1966 and the furnishings saved with the house, still looking much the same as when Church had lived there almost a century before.
The contents of the house today, accumulated by Church over a 30-year period, include furniture, tapestries, rugs, bronzes, paintings, sculptures, and the myriad objects collected by Church to represent the major civilizations and religions of the world. The color scheme and stenciling that Church designed in 1870 remain, and from Church's studio the visitor can still see the vistas recorded in Church's paintings.
Cosy Cottage, the Church family's original house, reamains; the simple white clapboard structure serves now as the headquarters of The Olana Partnership, the successor to Olana Preservation and the Friends of Olana.
Did you know you can take a virtual tour through many of the rooms in the Olana house? Just click on any of the views below, and when the movie loads, click into the scene and move your mouse left and right or up and down to take a 360 degree tour!
The Great Hall
The Dining Room
The Sitting Room