The majestic Olana State Historic Site, situated along New York’s Hudson River, features an eclectic house that fuses Victorian architecture with Middle Eastern motifs.
Built in 1872, the Olana estate was designed by Frederic Edwin Church, a landscape painter and luminary of the Hudson River School, founded by his mentor Thomas Cole.
Church originally intended to build a French chateau on the site. But his travels to the Middle East inspired him to embark upon a vastly different endeavor. The 18-month tour, which took place in the late 1860s, included visits to Alexandria, Beirut, Damascus, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Petra.
The sight of a home in a valley in Lebanon captured the imaginations of Church and his wife, Isabel. In a letter, she wrote:
We came upon an Arabian Nights looking house….The most beautiful verdure surrounded the enchanted spot… [with] glimpses of the river and mountains one caught over and over.”
In the Middle East, Church “admired hilltop homes with their impressive views,” write Olana curators Evelyn Trebilcock and Valerie Balint. Church believed he could achieve something similar at home. He told a friend, “I have got a perfect situation and a perfect site on it.”
That site, of course, was Olana.
Olana House: An American’s Imagined Persia
Church returned to America to devote much of the rest of his life to building a Persian-style estate in the Hudson Valley with “glimpses of the river and mountains.” He would name it “Olana” — derived from the name given by Greek geographer Strabo to a treasure-storehouse house said to be located on the Araxes or Aras River in the Caucasus.
Olana defies categorization. It is a hybrid of Middle Eastern and Western architecture and design. Church himself described the home as “Persian, adapted to the Occident.” But he never actually visited Persia. The “Persia” we see at Olana is one of Church’s imagination.
Church wrote to a friend in 1871: “…for having undertaken to get my architecture from Persia where I have never been, nor any of my friends either, I am obliged to imagine Persian architecture.”
But Olana is more than Persian-inspired. It is a heterogeneous mix of Middle Eastern forms and motifs in a Victorian structure that also replicates the layout of a traditional Damascene home.
Cornices below Olana’s Victorian mansard roof and on its turret tower feature colorful, floral and geometric stenciling inspired by traditional Islamic motifs. Olana’s main entrance is framed with an iwan-style pointed arch. The exterior is constructed of local rock, patterned brickwork, and other material.
Like Olana’s exterior, its interior is also decorated with stencil drawings that imitate designs from the Alhambra in Spain as well as a grand mosque and other buildings in Isfahan, Iran.
Calligraphic embellishments imitating the Arabic or Persian script appear in parts of the residence, though they do not contain intelligible language.
American and Islamic Naturalism Come Together at Olana
Church designed not only the residence at Olana, but also the landscaping of the 250-acre compound. A trained landscape artist, this was Church’s grandest project in the physical form. What Church — a devout Christian — produces is a conversation between American and Islamic naturalisms that is not only intelligible, but also profound.
“Islamic” pointed arches served to frame views of the Hudson River — the waterway that Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted wrote, “represented American perceptions about being at the ‘center of the world.'”
Olana is true to the ethos of the Hudson River School, which presents “the American landscape as a new Eden in a benevolent universe, blessed by God and providing an uplifting moral influence.” Strikingly, the view of that American landscape from Olana is framed by Islamic arched windows. It is an eastern lens on the west — through western eyes.
The Olana Historic Site in New York’s Hudson Valley designed by Frederic Edwin Church. (Image Credit: Ɱ/Wikimedia Commons)
Similar spiritual and paradisiacal themes are integral to Islamic building and landscape architecture. For example, the Taj Mahal, which sits on the banks of the Yamuna River and is preceded by a charbagh, represents the Paradise of the Holy Qur’an, which promises the believers, “gardens beneath which rivers flow.”
A view of the Taj Mahal from the main gateway or darwaza-e rauza. (Image Credit: Herojit Waikhom)
Olana is one of a handful of American masterpieces that juxtapose Western and Islamic architectural features. They include numerousMoorish Revival buildings across the United States as well the Untermyer Garden, located a hundred miles down south along the Hudson, which appropriates the Persian charbagh. Together, these sites form a genre one might call “Islamic Americana.”
Olana House as Islamic Victorian Americana
The interior and exterior structures of the Olana residence feature intricate Middle Eastern designs. These include arched windows and doorways, carved balconies, as well as extensive stencil work with floral designs and geometric patterns adopted from the tile work at mosques in the Muslim world.
There are also a number of fireplaces decorated with the tile work of Persian ceramist Ali Mohammed Isfahani. A master potter, Isfahani, gained notoriety among Europeans in Tehran. His tilework was commissioned by Westerner buyers as Qajar-era Iran’s contacts with Europe grew. Outside Iran, his work, which features Safavid-era motifs, is preserved not just at Olana, but also at the V&A Museum, which has dozens of Isfahani pieces in its collection. The French consul in Tehran purchased the Isfahani tiles for Church, according to Life Magazine.
Teakwood carved by artisans in Ahmedabad, India frames the fireplaces. They were produced by craftsmen from the workshop of Lockwood de Forest, a founder of the Ahmedabad Woodcarving Company and a relative of Church by marriage. De Forest learned woodwork in India.
Other woodworks produced in Ahmedabad include Kashmiri chairs and a carved wall niche. The niche was inspired by a stone minaret attached to a mosque de Forest saw in Ahmedabad, art historian Roberta A. Mayer notes in her study of the artist.
The main staircase leads to an amber glass window that radiates golden light to the Court Hall, imitating the sun of the East in the cold winter of the West. Made of patterned cut paper placed between two glass panes, the window had fallen into disrepair. Its stencil paper was restored in 1984 by Pamela Dalton, a local artist trained in scherenschnitte, the northern European cut paper art.
The staircase, art historian Mary Roberts writes in a close study of Church’s drawings, was inspired by the Islamic mimbar or mosque pulpit. Brass finials cap the end of the staircase.
Situated along the staircase are a large Persian candlestick, Japanese cranes, and a statue of the Buddha — all made of brass. The home also includes woven handicrafts like Suzani textiles and Persian rugs, the latter of which were acquired for Church by a missionary in Beirut.
Restoring Olana as a Citadel of Cosmopolitan Naturalism on the Hudson
When Church returned from the Middle East, he pledged that the Olana house “will be a curiosity in architecture” and said that “the picture from each window will be really marvelous.”
Church fulfilled his promise. Olana, sometimes referred to as a “castle” by Church, succeeds in marrying eastern and western forms to provide a cosmopolitan lens on the natural landscape. And for that, it is indeed a marvelous curiosity in architecture.
This marvelous curiosity was almost destroyed in the mid-20th century. In 1966, Church’s descendants almost sold the estate and Church’s artwork. Roughly three years after the old Penn Station was demolished, Olana faced a similar potential fate.
Aware of the existential threat to Olana, preservationists banded together and raised funds to purchase the site and all its contents. That year, it was designated a New York state historic site. The Olana State Historic Site, as it is known now, has since operated as a state park, open to the public.
In 2001, a comprehensive restoration of the Olana house, including its painting and stenciling, began. Olana has not only been saved, but also revived, thanks to the efforts of many.
Olana State Historic Site Interior and Exterior Gallery