Once Again, It’s Good to Be Rich…


…especially if you also have genius taste to go with the cash.


This was clearly the case with Hudson River School painter Frederic Church, who was born into a rich family, married rich, became successful in his own right and then built Olana, which has to be the finest Victorian house in the finest setting in America–or at least, the only one whose decorative principles I can stand.

Church traveled widely in the Middle East and gave his marvelous house, designed by Calvert Vaux with I'm sure an annoying degree of interference from Church, a Persian flavor.

Unlike in most Victorian houses, the rooms are calm and peaceful. No wallpaper! Just marvelously chosen colors and Islamic-style stenciling on the doors and around them. Beautiful Persian rugs, wonderful tiles, a little bit of carving, bunches of more or less okay paintings–the whole thing is super-sophisticated and warm and bohemian at the same time. I'm trying unsuccessfully to emulate this mood in my own modest and decrepit Victorian house.

I wish I could show you the interiors of Church's house, which is owned by New York State, but we weren't allowed to take photos and the website could not be stingier with the images. Really, people, if you want visitors, show the goods!

In fact, I think old Church was a much better interior decorator than painter, where he concentrated on all the unsubtle stuff in landscapes all over the world–you know, raging waterfalls and big mountains glamorized by showy light effects at sunset and sunrise. Sorry, but I cannot take this stuff seriously at all.

Church may have had some excuse for all that landscape-oriented melodrama.

Take a look at Church's yard:

That's me and my old friend Jerome, the funnest possible person to tour anything with. Please excuse the foreground darkness–but, you know, all the better to show off the ridiculously beautiful Hudson Valley.

Here's another photo from a porch:

Again, dark foreground and just an absurdly picturesque background. In fact, that is the feeling everywhere in the house–but I can't show you, because no pictures.

It's also the mood of what seems to me to be Church's best painting, "El Khasne, Petra." ElKhasne

This painting is a little pinker in life than it is reproduced here, and it hangs above the mantle in the most beautiful little room.

Olana has helped me solve one of the thorniest problems facing the Obama administration: what to do about insane executive pay at all those companies that took government handouts during our recent financial crisis.  We clearly need to cut the Goldman Sachs bonuses in half and then set up an architecture and decor pool for deserving painters. My plan is not in any sense fair, except that the American landscape would probably get some really amazing houses and gardens out of the deal.



  1. Interesting tour. The house exterior reminds me of a kasbah in Marrakesh, Morocco.

    The painting of Petra, Jordan is very nice — I’ve seen “the Treasury” in person during my travels in the MIddle East. The facade is carved into the pink rock of the mountains. Inside, it is just cave rooms. That narrow passage has old aqueducts carved into the sides of the mountains. The Nabataeans used the aqueducts to flood out intruders. Talk about a defense system!


  2. I’m with you on the critique of his paintings. Not impressed. Maybe even a little nauseated. Oh & the “pool for deserving painters” ? Yes ! Please !

    Another thing : I’m a rabid-but-amateur photographer. When I tour anything, half the fun is to take photos. I can understand the “no flash” rule, but no photos at all ? I just don’t get why certain museums & sites refuse any photos at all. Were I to visit the area, I’d probably pass Olana over for a place that didn’t mind my camera. Contrary to popular belief, when I’m photographing a person/place/thing I feel more attached to it & involved, not detached. It enhances my experience.

  3. Thanks for this post. I talk about Olana when I discuss American Romanticism in History of Art & Design II class, and you’re right about the website’s stinginess. I highly recommend Robert Hughes’s video from his American Visions series (“Wilderness and the West”)in which he visits Olana and gets a bit snarky about Church. Like you, I have little patience for Church’s landscape fantasies, and I really appreciate Hughes’s take–and yours.

  4. At my first glimpse of the house I was thinking, “Strange offspring of the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Alhambra.” But the (wonderful) painting makes it seem it was Petra he had in mind, with the mini version tacked on to the far end of the house. Thanks for the fun intro to the house and the Hudson Valley!

  5. “Again, dark foreground and just an absurdly picturesque background”

    I think this is funny: dismissive of the style, but using this language reveals how influential these painters were in developing an aesthetic appreciation for the Hudson area views.

    There are others I prefer too, but you know it was 150 years ago and parochial America.

  6. “super sophisticated and warm and bohemian at the same time.” –How I like to think of myself. Probably not true, but I’m pretty good at self-delusion. 😀

    I like your plan for the executive bonus give-back.

    Oh, and respectful defense for the Hudson River School: It does have a place in the history of American art, especially when you consider that it reflects changing attitudes toward wilderness (which are themselves kind of peculiar). Didn’t really like it myself until I started studying that aspect of it.

  7. At least the executives were working for the money which is more than you can say for the Congreessmen/women who gave themselves a raise while the food stamps bureau can’t keep up with the demand of the out of work and hungry. Those people need the stimulus more than Congressmen.

  8. I have wanted to go here for years. I am not that far away – it should be possible! Maybe early next year when spring is creeping up the Hudson, but will not make it to the hills of Heath for some weeks.

  9. Stunning! I have never seen the Hudson River Valley and you’ve just spawned a very deep need for me to get there! That house looks to die for. I do love Victorian architecture and my husband is Turkish. That house is a perfect match for us! Ha!
    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Michelle: you almost had to pay The TROLL a toll! I live just 5 miles from Olana and it is indeed a beautiful home and stunning views. My kids loved to go there when they were 5-ish.

    Now they hunt antiques and coins at every junk shop we come across.

    The TROLL

  11. While I sometimes feel like I’m going to be trapped in some romantic 19th century goo when I see some of Church’s paintings, they were definitely part of the nature-worship that has shaped an awful lot of positive environmental positions in the subsequent years. I wonder how many Goldman Sach execs have their own little Churches in their laundry rooms…

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