The Olana Partnership, which has fought to preserve the home and studio of painter Frederic Church, is celebrating 50 years of preservation this month with an awards gala at the Metropolitan Club in New York. The residence, located in Hudson, New York, was at risk of being sold 50 years ago, and was rescued by a group of advocates including politicians Assemblyman Anthony Travia and Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, museum curators, renowned architects like Philip Johnson, and art preservationists like Jackie Kennedy, who raised the nearly half-million dollars needed to purchase and preserve the estate.
This year’s gala recognizes the contributions of Washburn and Susan Oberwager as well as the legacy of Governor Rockefeller. Sean E. Sawyer, president of the Olana Partnership, chatted with EAL about the history of the organization—and its present-day significance.
View of the Main House at Olana from the Olana Summer House location; photo by Beth Schneck Photography, 2016
What does Olana symbolize for the art, architecture and landscape worlds?
Olana is one of America’s most significant places—an essential place for those who want to understand how art and nature have intersected in America and came together to create one of America’s most beautiful, intact and significant artist-designed environments. [Art historian] David Huntington, the leader of the campaign to save Olana, [said] “Olana is the monument of Emerson’s, Thoreau’s and Whitman’s America.” If you want to understand America, you must experience Olana: the landscape, the architecture and the art.
What’s on your mind as you mark this anniversary?
Olana is celebrating its 50th anniversary season of the preservation and opening to the public of America’s most intact and important artist’s home, studio and designed landscape in 1966. Our next event recognizing the 50th anniversary of Olana is our annual Frederic Church Award Gala, being held on Thursday, October 13, at the Metropolitan Club in New York City. The Frederic Church Award, named after Olana’s creator and the preeminent American artist of the mid-19th century, recognizes outstanding accomplishment in American art, culture, and landscape design and environmental conservation. This year’s honorees are Washburn and Susan Oberwager and the cultural legacy of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, particularly his crucial role in saving Olana in 1966.
The anniversary is a time to celebrate the groundbreaking coalition of public and private people who saved Olana from destruction and to learn more about that critical moment in Olana’s history. So on June 27 this year, we gathered over 200 people—our state and local elected officials, citizens from across the region, and veterans of the 1964–1966 preservation battle—on the steps of Olana, where Governor Rockefeller signed the legislation that saved Olana, but we are also interviewing these veterans to capture their oral histories and supporting research and writing about the preservation story.
We assisted Professor David Schuyler, a member of our National Advisory Committee, with his article “Saving Olana,” published in The Hudson River Valley Review this spring, and WMHT (Albany PBS affiliate) in their production of “Frederic Church’s Olana: An American Treasure.” One of the most dramatic discoveries has been a letter from Jackie Kennedy to Russell Lynes, editor of Harper’s Magazine and a leader of Olana Preservation, saying how she urged her brother-in-law, Senator Robert Kennedy, to assist with moving the legislation that saved Olana through Albany. We had known of her support for fundraising around the battle but not of her behind-the-scenes political role.
What are your hopes for the next 50 years?
We believe that the next 50 years will see Olana become a national and international destination. We are working on plans to dramatically enhance the visitor experience at Olana, so that everyone who comes will leave with a fuller and deeper understanding of the place. We are leading this development through our educational programming, and we are particularly excited about having launched tours of Olana’s 250-acre historic landscape this season—they have been a hit and will be expanded next year.
Sean E. Sawyer