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The living landscape at Olana

Mark Prezorski waxes enthusiastic when it comes to the Olana landscape.  He not only lives in the shadow of Olana, but he is its landscape curato, a job as vital to the preservation of Frederic Church’s legacy as the preservation of Church’s house.  As Mark points out, Church considered the Olana landscape a work of art, one of which he was most proud.  Mark calls Church America’s one of the first landscape preservationists.

Prezorski was giving us a private tour of the carriage roads in a new GEM, an electric golf cart that seats six. 

Prezorski recalls how Church identified the hill across the river from Catskill where he studied landscape painting with Thomas Cole in the years 1844-46.  The impression of that landscape stayed with him so when he looked for a place to build his house in 1860 he returned to that place on the Hudson, then called Sienghenburgh.   He built Cosy  Cottage on the first farm he acquired.  The foundations of the original farmer’s house, recently re-discovered, dating to the mid 18th century, are now a landscape feature of the old farm section of the property.  It took a decade for Church to acquire the top of the hill and settle on the design of his house, but in those years he developed his ideas of a created landscape and planted thousands of trees, conscious of using trees as an artist uses paint to create scenery. 

A network of carriage drives winds around the house and through the forested hillside.  The drives were carefully laid out much in the manner of those in Central Park.  As we progress, the views change from the intimate views of the forest right around us to stunning views of the house over the lake through an opening in the trees.  Then we look out over a stretch of countryside to the Hudson and the Catskills in the far distance. 

As Mark describes these views and Church’s role in selecting them he mentions the effort it took The Olana partnership and Scenic Hudson to protect them.  It took an historic six-year battle to defeat the St. Lawrence cement plant that would have destroyed the view up the Hudson.  Blue Hill and it surrounding farmland was under threat, and again the partnership turned to Scenic Hudson which purchased easements and made sure the remainder was under conservation easements and protected.  But, Blue Hill is once again threatened, this time by a cell tower that was approved by the Town of Livingston.  That tower is now facing a Section 106 review under the National Historic Preservation Act before the Federal Communications Commission.   Once again Scenic Hudson is playing a vital role in the battle to protect the view from Olana. 

On the north side, Scenic Hudson purchased a critical parcel on Merino Hill,  making it a part of Olana’s protected viewshed. Merino Hill was painted by Church and many other painters who continue to come to Olana to sketch and paint. Scenic Hudson has played an active role, with the help of others, in protecting nearly 3,000 acres in the Olana viewshed, a remarkable contribution that is fully recognized by Mark Prezorski as he takes us around the Olana carriage drives.  If it were not for them we would be looking at a 20th century landscape littered by industrial and residential sprawl.  Prezorski says “We work hard to keep it as rural and protected as we can.  Thousands of acres in the viewshed are under conservation easements.”The landscape under Prezorksi’s care (he points out that legally the stewards of the Olana are The Olana Partnership and New York State Parks) is being restored following plans developed  by the firm Nelson Byrd Woltz led by Thomas Woltz.  Views are being opened, the farm area will be restored, an orchard is planned and the drives made suitable for hikers, strollers, painters, photographers all of whom will be awed by how a 19th century artist’s legacy lives on. For more info on Olana, it hours and guided tours, go to www.olana.org.