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Stealing Beauty: the Olana Viewshed Tour

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It’s like having a license to trespass on some of the most felicitously sited private properties on earth.  On Saturday, November 1, friends and supporters of Olana, the Frederic Church historic site in Greenport, NY, will be permitted, thanks to the generous owners of twelve Olana-adjacent properties, onto private land that has the sorts of vistas that inspired Church, his mentor Thomas Cole, and the other painters of the Hudson River School.  Participants will visit farms and estates, they’ll walk across meadows, climb hills, stroll along the edges of ponds and streams, and amble through orchards.  And from nearly every vantage point, there will be spectacular views of the Hudson River and the Catskills in one direction, and, in another, glimpses of Olana, Church’s haute bohemian, Persian-inspired house and property. 

Perhaps the most striking view of all, however, is from Olana’s own bell tower, which also will be open for current members to tour in the morning.  Then, later in the day, there will be a sunset wine and hors d’oeuvres benefit reception in a restored barn on private property (below) within the Olana viewshed.

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The point of all this snooping around, besides feeding our insatiable curiosity about how the lucky live?  To raise money for the restoration of Olana’s artist-designed landscape, work that has really just begun.  Not surprisingly, Church never thought of Olana as just the house.  To the artist, the house and its 250-acre setting were one indivisible entity.  Once designed, the house was quickly built; Church worked on the land from 1860 until his death in 1900. 

But the tour has another purpose—to drum up sympathy for the very concept of “viewshed preservation,” a modern notion spawned in California’s Napa Valley and later applied to the region surrounding Monticello, the Thomas Jefferson historic site in Virginia.  Scenic Hudson, the crusading organization that spearheaded the Olana viewshed preservation movement, has, with assistance from the Columbia County Conservancy, thus far placed 1,248 acres under protection.  The effort to protect Olana’s viewshed, as experts dub the natural environment surrounding a particular vantage point, is the most ambitious such project to date in the Northeast.

In the 19th century, when Church designed Olana and its surrounding landscape, he employed the Chinese concept of a “borrowed view,” carefully manipulating plantings and vantage points to reveal and frame exceptional vistas of land, mountains, and, of course, the Hudson river.  Thanks in part to this savvy manipulation of the assets at hand, Church’s 250-acre working farm has come to be regarded as a masterpiece, every bit as important as any of his paintings.  Moreover, the paintings, and those of other Hudson River School artists, while long revered for their contribution to art history, are now also credited with inspiring the American Environmental Protection Movement.  The idea that a majestic landscape is an irreplaceable national treasure, a vital resource for residents and visitors, was triggered and furthered by the wide public exposure of the Hudson River School paintings, each of which was eagerly anticipated, and most of which went on tour immediately upon completion to be granted rock-star-like receptions in cities across the U.S.

Olana Viewshed Tour
5720 Route 9G, Greenport; 518.828.1872 ext. 103
Saturday, November 1, 10 - 4  
Tickets, maps and box lunches may be picked up on the day of the tour at the Wagon House Education Center at Olana

Viewshed tour only, $50 non-members; $40, members
Benefit party only, $100 non-members; $75 members
Tour and benefit, $150 non-members/ $100 members
Free bell tower tour for members only
Boxed lunches: $15
Memberships: $40 - $100
To receive members’ discounts, advance reservations are required, as they are for the bell tower tour and for all who wish to buy box lunches and/or attend the benefit.

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 10/27/08 at 04:44 AM • Permalink