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Writing About Architecture As If Only Art Matters

A new coffee table book about Frederic Church's Olana combines resplendent photography with essays reflecting architectural myopia.

By Norman Weinstein
October 25, 2018


The visionary American landscape painter Frederic Church (1826-1900) created an extraordinary house and 250-acre landscape he called Olana. It was rechristened Olana State Historic Site, a National Historic Landmark in the 1960s. And this year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed that the Olana Historic Site becomes a keystone of what he has futuristically labels “Hudson River Skywalk Project,” a plan to enhance tourism in the Hudson Valley. I have visited the Olana home and landscape repeatedly since the 1960s. There were pleasure visits, taking time off from my student days at Bard College, about a half-hour from Bard’s lush mid-Hudson Valley campus to where Olana crowns a hilltop in Greenport, New York, adjacent to the equally small town of Hudson’s little commercial center. Later trips involved research in the Olana archives, reflecting my curiosity as to the religious ideas that shaped Church’s design. This is why I was thrilled with the announcement of a lavishly produced art book, Frederic Church’s Olana on the Hudson: Art, Landscape, Architecture, edited by Julia B. Rosenbaum and Karen Zukowski, with photography by Larry Lederman (Rizzoli Electa, $60.00).

 

The title might have alerted me to trouble: architecture is treated after art and landscape. As an afterthought? There are eight essays accompanying Lederman’s atmospherically dramatic photography – the most compelling justification for this book. Another reason for the book would be Karen Zukowski’s astute and poetically crafted essay on the Olana house as an embodiment in architectural form of Church’s vision for his Christian family home. That sounds terribly old-fashioned and even puritanically stuffy, perhaps – but it is a facet of the complex truth of the man and his home design. Also keep it mind that Church entertained his friend Mark Twain, no churchy prude, pleasurably at Olana. And while digging around remnants of Church’s personal library, I discovered the painter had a taste for reading theosophy and other Oriental-tinged mystical systems. But returning to Zukowski’s essay, here is her sense of Olana’s architectural beauty and the rationale for its design. She begins singling out two Church paintings of Middle-Eastern themes that hang prominently at Olana:

 

El Khasne, Petra, and the entire design of the house and its furnishings establish an iconography of spiritual devotion that was activated by the daily life of the family. . . . They built a house of golden stone, ornamented with many colors, its interior rich with shining gold and silver, and a salmon-pink temple that glowed with its inner light.

 

I’m quoting Zukowski because this is one of the only evocative architectural descriptions in this book! Too bad her lyrical writing is somewhat lacking in architectural details. Here is a contrast. In Frederic Church’s Olana: Architecture and Landscape as Art, the late James Anthony Ryan, the site manager for decades at the Olana State Historic Site, offered this helpful architectural description:

 

In October 1872, the artist’s cousin Henry Mack visited the house and thought it “a unique structure.” He saw a massive, cubelike, two-story structure with two towers projecting above the roofs. The thick stone walls of the first story were “of a thick brown color”; the material from which they were built had been quarried from the house site. The second-story façade was more complex, with red, yellow, and black bricks forming geometric patterns in the stone. . . .The exterior massing reflected the interior divisions. Double-height entries pierced the centers of the east and south façades . . .

 

Clearer now in your mind’s eye, architecturally?

 

If you want that lucid image of the Olana house instantly clouded, read art history professor Julia Rosenbaum’s reduction of Olana’s architectural features to Art. We are informed that the Olana house and grounds “defied measurement.” And best of all, “Church applied the techniques he perfected in his two-dimensional paintings to the landscape and the house itself, transforming them into an animate, multidimensional art object.” Translated from ponderous acadamese, the professor states Church’s paintings influenced his architecture – so much so that it is wise to treat Church’s architecture as quintessentially an art object.

 

I hate to disappoint the professor, but Church designed (co-designed, really) Olana and grounds for himself and his family for daily living. He was articulate in his correspondence regarding Olana about how the house was going to be lived in. By analyzing its architecture as art, the essential form and spirit of the place, for me, gets diminished. In Rosenbaum’s description there is a loss of Olana’s faux-Orientalist vitality, its Victorian-flavored dramatic effects, its humor and charm, and its absurd towers for scanning the Hudson River (the river barely gets acknowledged in these essays!). Olana perhaps was, and arguably is, a kind of home-as-incubation chamber for magnifying and celebrating artistic, religious, and architectural experiences. Olana is an architectural home and theater simultaneously, and that is why it has a small stage for children’s theatric presentations as a feature.

 

Don’t take my word for it. Take the money you’d spend on this overstuffed souvenir of a book and experience it for yourself. Rosenbaum’s essay reinforces the interpretation that several essayists favor: that Church’s house and grounds were his ultimate artistic masterpiece. Let’s just treat his paintings as preludes to this historic site that could suddenly become, in some marketer’s vulgar mind, “a painting that comes to life!”

 

That interpretation ignores the considerable role that the American architect Calvert Vaux played in Olana’s design. Here is Ryan again:

 

. . . Church’s vision of the house had to stand on Vaux’s technical competence. Because Vaux was not regularly on the building site, one can imagine Church encountered frequent construction difficulties, as Church suggested in a letter to artist John Ferguson Weir . . .

 

In a great book about Olana, some scholars and architects (assuming they won’t always share the same brain) would have explored how a great landscape painter learned the practical necessities of home design through intensive dialogue with a major figure in 19th-century American architecture. That would have been a great story. What we have instead is one astute essay on Church’s art, a compact study of how Olana’s architecture was inspired by Judeo-Christian and Islamic devotional imagery and texts, and Larry Lederman’s finely-detailed and exquisitely composed photos that are worth plenty, arguably worthy enough to compensate for an architecturally-challenged text.

 

Go to Olana like I did. Repeatedly. Jot your own interpretations, take photos when possible. Go with an architect’s eye as well as with an artist’s vision.

 

Editor’s note: Norman Weinstein’s essay on Frederic Church and Olana was published in Parabola magazine, Summer 1996.

 

Norman Weinstein is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part ArchNewsNow.com series about writing as a keystone of a successful architectural practice. He's authored several books of poetry and books about music and literature. Weinstein is currently learning weaving in order to deepen his understanding of architecture, music, and poetry. He can be reached at nweinstein25@gmail.com.

 

More by Weinstein:

 

Weinstein: From Ada to Zaha and Everything In Between

Op-eds, book reviews, musings, and debate.

 

Words That Build

An exclusive 21-part series that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication.

 

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