The Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) designed Olana in Hudson as his family home, studio and a working farm. The unique integration of art, architecture and landscape at the site is at the heart of why the picturesque Persian-inspired house full of treasures and its grounds that incorporate panoramic views of the Hudson Valley are considered so important to preserve.
And while it’s easy to think of our great historic sites as “done deals” – after all, didn’t everything of note that happened there take place long ago? – behind the scenes of every historic Hudson Valley estate like Olana are organizations that support the preservation of the sites and maintain their historic significance, but also work actively to make them relevant to the 21st-century visitor.
Take the Olana Partnership, for example. When its president and CEO Sara Johns Griffen first became involved with the organization as a board member 25 years ago, the Partnership was a modest “Friends of Olana” grassroots effort. Since then, under her leadership, it has partnered with New York State and grown its operating budget tenfold, raising more than $18 million in grants and donations for capital projects. The organization took on a major restoration of the main house and landscape at Olana, along with protection of its viewshed and construction of the Wagon House Education Center – all while continuing to grow and search for ways to offer the public a fresh take on an important part of American history.
Griffen will be one of the honorees at the Frederic E. Church Award Gala in New York City on June 19 at the New York Public Library. She’ll be recognized for her accomplishments along with architect Peter Pennoyer, interior designer Katie Ridder and Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, who will be fêted by the Olana Partnership at the affair for exceptional work in their respective disciplines.
Almanac Weekly’sSharyn Flanagan checked in recently with Sara Johns Griffen to find out where Olana is at with the restoration of the property and what’s on the horizon, in terms of both its conservation efforts and the development of new programs and exhibits.
What changes in the public perception of Olana have you seen over the 25 years you’ve been with the Partnership?
There has been a significant increase in the pure recognition of Olana during this period. I think it had been very much a well-kept secret to almost all but a few of the most knowledgeable people involved in the arts; but greater recognition now by a very diverse group of people is reflected in visitation, which now heads up toward 150,000 people a year from all over the world. The fact that we have been able to restore the site to the degree that we have is a huge achievement and makes it that much richer an experience for our visitors.
Are the restorations done?
With a property of this size, there will always be a need for continual restoration, but I would say that the house itself is about as intact as it has ever been, with a $1.5 million roof that just went on last year. That was the capping of a good ten-to-15 year project to restore every aspect of the house inside, as well as the exterior. We have improved a number of the outbuildings and built the Wagon House Education Center. Now we’re looking at focusing on the landscape. It’s about 50 percent restored, so we still have a ways to go.
What types of projects are in the works for the landscape?
The farm is really the last piece to get restored. We did a comprehensive plan in 2002, but we didn’t really focus on the farm at that time, or have any grand ideas of what we would do with that very significant portion of the property. In the last ten years, of course, there’s been this explosion of interest in farming in the Hudson Valley, so now we’re completely reconsidering that. We’re looking at possibly having a farmer, an educator farmer, come and recreate a number of the orchards that were here, and have that as part of our educational programming. The fact that we’re an educational facility allows us to share what we know of and continue to learn about 19th-century farming practices, and so much of this area is still being farmed; we want to work with our neighboring farms and we cherish those relationships. We’re just beginning to think about how to restore the orchards and interpret them when they’ve been restored. It’s a case of “stay tuned” for lots more that is going to happen.