The Olana Strategic Landscape Design Plan: Restoring an American Masterpiece
Analysis and Planning
Hudson, NY, USA | Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects | Client: The Olana Partnership and The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
We really need to develop the context of our historic landscapes without overdesigning them.
- 2017 Awards Jury
Lead Designer/Landscape Architect
- Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects
- Thomas Woltz, FASLA
- Mark Strieter, ASLA
- Charlotte Barrows, ASLA
- Matthew Seibert, Associate ASLA
The LA Group – Landscape Architects
- David Miller
- Timothy Larson
Suzanne Turner Associates – Landscape Historian
- Suzanne Turner, FASLA
Camoin Associates – Economic Analysts and Economic Development Planners
- Michael N’Dolo
- Christa Ouderkik Franzi
Zach Wolf – Farm Consultant
Located on 250-acres in the Hudson Valley, the Olana State Historic Site is the home, studio and landscape of celebrated Hudson River School painter, Frederic Church, and is considered one of his greatest works of art. The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP), working alongside The Olana Partnership (TOP), commissioned the landscape architects to assess Olana programmatically, operationally, and ecologically. The resultant Strategic Landscape Design Plan (SLDP) provides the path for reactivating the historical relationship between the residence, its landscape, and the greater context of the Hudson Valley. It proposes three main areas for intervention, offers site-wide recommendations, and provides a market and financial feasibility analysis. The SLDP focuses on expanded access and educational opportunities in support of the client’s mission for deeper visitor engagement and increased attendance. The plan provides a grounded vision that reestablishes a holistic experience of Olana as Church’s designed home and landscape.
Documented in drawings and paintings by Church and other Hudson River School artists, Olana has been an iconic American Landscape for nearly two centuries. As noted by the landscape architectural historian who guided the plan: “Olana is one of the largest, most deliberate, varied, and expressive of American estate-scaled picturesque compositions. The landscape as a whole possesses a high degree of integrity; the elements that comprise the landscape’s pictorial effects are still very much intact [ … ] Olana is particularly important as a designed landscape because the complex and varied site Church selected provided the opportunity for him to apply a full range of picturesque techniques, creating a multitude of visual and experiential landscape effects.”
Three landscape architecture firms closely collaborated to facilitate the complex planning process. The lead firm guided the consultant team in terms of overall planning and design vision. The second firm, with an established relationship with the NYSOPRHP, led the group in the development of overall site guidelines, phased costing, and planning of the Maintenance Complex. The landscape historian, quoted above, provided critical assessments of archived documentation ensuring a final design rooted in the conservation and interpretation of this important cultural landscape. A master farmer, economic analyst, and strategy consultant further ensured synergy between mission, design, and feasibility for implementation.
The design process for the SLDP was significantly informed by historical documents (photographs, letters, and previous historic and planning reports), site investigations, and workshops with TOP and NYSOPRHP representatives. The consultant team produced a series of geospatial analyses on the Olana property and its environs. Utilizing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data supplied by New York State and national agencies, the team generated cartographic diagrams to investigate existing conditions and land use, historic land use, boundaries, hydrology, soils, and slope aspects.
This analysis informed maps and diagrams that allowed the designers to established viewsheds, identify the Historic Core, and sensibly siting the new proposed Olana Center. Historic viewsheds – from the Main House to the Lake, from Crown Hill to the Farm, from Cosy Cottage to the Farm, from Ridge Road to the North Meadow, and from Ridge Road toward the Hudson River were documented and recommended for preservation. External views from Olana to areas beyond the historic boundaries - river, neighboring hills, valleys, and distant mountains - were deemed equally important and essential in understanding Church’s command of this landscape. He designed a procession of views from carriage roads and hilltops, orchestrating a diversity of experiences that recall the picturesque devices used in his paintings. Over the last thirty years, Olana, with the help of partnering organizations, private landowners, and governmental organizations, has worked to protect these viewsheds. The plan’s design interventions respect and elevate these important internal and external views.
The Olana Center
Olana’s existing visitor center is located in the Carriage House, directly adjacent to the main House. The SLDP proposes to relocate the visitor center to a new facility - The Olana Center - to engage visitors early in their experience of the site, before they enter the Historic Core. At the new Olana Center, visitors will have the chance to experience and interpret the whole landscape: carriage roads, lake, woodlands, and meadows. Walking tours would launch from there: short tours would take visitors along the carriage roads to Crown Hill and around the lake; longer tours might be farm-oriented; self-guided tours could take visitors throughout the woodland; food would be available for purchase, and visitors could picnic at one of Olana’s many picturesque spots. The Olana Center would, for the first time, present the whole story of Church and Olana, offering an array of programmatic options to supplement tours of the House.
Frederic and Isabel Church invested abundant energy into cultivating their land. Central to the property’s sense of place, the farm measured over one third of the property by the 19th century. Church cared deeply about his farm and took pride in the fact that, after some years of establishment, it became profitable. Church painted there and considered it as much an aesthetic endeavor as a productive one, in keeping with the European Ferme Ornée gardens of the 18th century. The farm yielded a diverse array of fruits, vegetables, and flowers, and sometimes included exotic varieties; and was divided into specific gardens, orchards, and fields, intentionally located by Church to take advantage of the appropriate soil condition per type of crop. The proposed plan to restore the farm will reinstate the historic land use, provide educational opportunities for visitors, and provide revenue opportunities. The SLDP seeks to reestablish Church’s intention for an aesthetically considered agricultural landscape.
The House Environs
The House Environs are defined as the areas adjacent to the House historically consisting of the Lawn Terrace, East Lawn, Mingled Garden, and Fern Garden. This landscape played a significant role for the experience of the House, with each primary window situated to frame a view of the immediate gardens and the distant prospect. Currently, visitors are drawn to this area to see the views painted by Church of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains. Unfortunately, many visitors leave disappointed because the nearby woods are overgrown and obscure the view; the lawn terrace is devoid of grass; and the approach to the house is compromised – visitors are guided away from the original route that Church designed and are lead instead to the utilitarian side of the house. A number of discrete restoration projects, detailed in the SLDP, guide visitors along the route that Church originally orchestrated from the driveway to the house. The proposed design restores landscape areas to accurately reflect the quality of design and materials as well as the spatial conditions of the House Environs that existed during Church’s time.
Among several site-wide recommendations are projects that restore the carriage road system and the woodlands. The Church-designed carriage roads provide an unfolding of the landscape, a controlled exercise in revealed views and created experiences through movement. The landscape architects propose to restore the system of carriage roads, once again allowing them to animate the larger experience of the place. Woodland projects include a planting plan, as well as a clearing plan to more closely achieve the balance of woodland and meadows at Olana during Church’s time. Woodland restoration also relies on a plan for invasive plant management and deer control to restore the sub-canopy layer that the woodland currently lacks.
The SLDP makes manifest the intricate relationship between Church’s designed landscape and art form. The plan and the proposed design interventions engage themes explored by Church that have tremendous significance in how we shape, preserve, and experience landscape: the use of plants and topography to reveal the richness of a unique site, the exploration of the aesthetic possibilities of productive farming, and the creation of both visual and physical connections to large ecological systems.
The SLDP provides a vision for wider access, education, and engagement for a 21st century audience, reframing the physical experience of the landscape to facilitate a deep exploration of Church’s vision and art. Through a commitment to excellence and a shared responsibility to articulate of one of the most fascinating stories of American art and landscape, the team of landscape architects created a plan for the creation of a truly resilient cultural landscape: one that considers the elemental facets of endurance - ecological, programmatic, financial, educational, historical, and cultural. When fully implemented, the design and program of Olana will celebrate the awesome beauty of Hudson Valley and the cultural treasures that it has engendered.