A sneak preview of the Thomas Cole House restoration

‘Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill)’ by Thomas Cole, 1825

Thomas Cole’s home on Spring Street in Catskill has left behind its near-death experience of the 1970s and as an independent non-profit organization affiliated with the National Park Service has been engaged in a recovery that would have seemed miraculous a generation ago. Once called Cedar Grove, the historic 1815 home of the founder of the Hudson River School of Painting has been brought back to life step by step, and is now on the cusp of becoming both a model for intelligent restoration and a significant destination for regional heritage tourism.

Betsy Jacks, executive director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, has lofty aspirations for the five-acre property. “The opportunity now is to transform it into a destination renowned worldwide as the birthplace of American art,” she wrote in the Catskill Daily Mail on January 13. “That transformation, which will benefit Catskill and the entire Hudson Valley, is well underway, and some pivotal developments will unfold this spring.”

The site, Jacks said expansively, “has the potential to serve as the first step and primary source for the exploration of American visual culture.” With the prominence in the art world of the metropolitan colossus a little more than 100 miles to the south, the status of the Cole House as “primary source” may be a tall order. It may be a primary source, but hardly the primary source.

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Thomas Cole

The restoration of the two downstairs parlors of the house, featuring the amazing detailed decorative painting on the walls by Cole himself (his father was in the wallpaper business), is “the most historically fascinating” discovery at the house. Working with a respected national design firm called Second Story, the facility will concoct a participatory interactive experience in the restored parlors: “Instead of looking at a period home from behind velvet ropes, visitors will enter the rooms and participate in the events that took place there.”

The reconstructed New Studio built originally in 1846 will be the site of an exhibition from April 30 to October 29 of the work by Hudson River painter Sanford Gifford (1823-1880), curated by Kevin Avery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Avery was a major author of the “American Paradise” show of 1987 that did so much to solidify Cole’s reputation as not only the founder of the Hudson River School but also its most distinguished figure.

A project to complement the existing Hudson River School Art Trail with a walkway via the Rip Van Winkle Bridge between the Cole House and Olana, Fredric Church’s hilltop fantasy, is also the recipient of both federal and state funding.

Considering that Cole’s great-granddaughter, Edith Cole Silberstein, used to hold yard sales outside the deteriorating house in the 1950s — who knows what was forever lost? — the comeback of the Cole House has so far been an extraordinary accomplishment, with more to come.

Emanating from a seminar at the Yale Center for British Art called “Landscape and Identity in Britain and the United States, 1770-1914” and on other work, a show entitled “Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings” will be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from January to May 2018 and after that at the National Gallery in London. This exhibition, which will show Cole’s engagement with European art, is likely to garner greater public involvement with the Thomas Cole site in Catskill.  The Cole House will present a companion show in the New Studio next year entitled “Thomas Cole’s Trans-Atlantic Inheritance,” curated by Yale art professor Tim Barringer and two Yale colleagues.

Cole was born a few miles northwest of Manchester, England, perhaps 50 miles from the Lake District so celebrated by Wordsworth and other figures of the Romantic movement, and he came to America as a 17-year-old immigrant eight years before achieving fame as the first accomplished painter of American landscape. Cole’s subsequent extended trips to Europe influenced his oeuvre considerably thereafter.

For the first wintertime, the Cole House is giving same-day behind-the-scenes tours and art lectures (“Sunday Salons”) in the afternoons of the second Sunday of each month. Though the snowstorm was making travel difficult this past Sunday, the dual event seemed worth checking out. Lloyd DeWitt, chief curator at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, was scheduled to give a talk on the influence of the Dutch golden age of painting on the Hudson River School. The Cole House website promised “a sneak preview” of the parlor restorations and the digital integration of the project, scheduled to open to the public in May.

Because of the inclement weather, I was the only person on the tour. My sneak preview was a solo. At the lofty top of the two twelve-foot-high parlors were the friezes painted by Cole, uncovered but as yet unrestored. The vivid original colors on the remainder of the walls will contrast with the dark Federal-period furniture. Cole apparently used to invite potential buyers to see his work on the walls of these parlors (the high ceilings and wonderful light helped). Part of Second Story’s plan includes 13 reproductions of the artist’s best-known landscapes on the parlor walls. I can’t wait for the participatory interactive experience that has been promised.

Twenty hardy guests braved the heavy snow to show up for the lecture, which consisted of DeWitt’s commentaries on a series of two slides, one by Cole or his local successors and the other of 17th-century Dutch landscapes, the majority by Jacob van Ruisdael. In the early stages of his research, DeWitt was still feeling out the commonalities and the differences between the two artists. Both were attentive to light and atmosphere. Living in new republics whose landscapes were denigrated by outsiders as unworthy, both produced work that valued local character and humility. Both were part of a religious revival. In the tradition of earlier landscapists, both believed that the journey was at least as important as the destination and that a love of landscape can be transformative.

As DeWitt put it, Ruisdael and Cole may have spoken different languages, but they used the same symbolic code. The major difference between the two that DeWitt identified was obvious: They portrayed different places, Ruisdael the peaceful settled Dutch countryside and Cole the still relatively untamed Catskills wilderness. Almost two centuries later, that difference between Europe and America, with all its symbolic overtones and emotional consequences, yet persists.

For those interested in the lecture-tour combination, two more will be held on March 12 and April 9, both at 2 p.m. In the first lecture, two experts on historic interiors, Jean Dunbar and Matthew Mosca, will talk about the discovery of Cole’s decorative paintings on the parlor walls of Cedar Grove. At the second, independent scholar John McGuigan Jr. will discuss the twelve months Cole spent in Florence, Italy in 1831 and 1832. Tours will take place at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. both days.

To launch the first day of the Cole House’s 2017 public season in the New Studio on Sunday, April 30 at 2 p.m., Kevin Avery, now resident scholar at the Metropolitan Museum, will lecture on the show of Sanford Gifford’s work.

According to its 2014 IRS tax return, the non-profit Thomas Cole Historic Site listed $1.56 million in total revenues (about $246,000 in government grants), considerably higher than the $865,000 the previous year. The increase came mostly from additional contributions, gifts and grants.

Salaries and benefits for 2014 were $286,000, up about $30,000 from 2013. The Cole House has very recently been advertising for a full-time development associate “to grow and develop a community of supporters.” Total assets of the Thomas Cole Historic Site at the end of the year were about $4.2 million.

The organization has been blessed with well-placed political support. U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was an early supporter, and senator Charles Schumer, a recent one, was instrumental in NPS funding for the present parlor restoration. The Cole House could have done worse in terms of political rabbis.

Project support from the National Park Service has been considerable. But the Cole site is also on the state government’s radar. In the latest round of state REDC funding last December, the Cole House received grants of $582,650. Some $417,650 was for “the complete restoration of the earliest known interior decorative painting by an American artist, increased visitation, and the preservation and protection of the main house.” An additional $165,000 was for the interactive technology “to tell one of American history’s greatest stories using methods designed for the next generation of visitors.”

Raymond Beecher, leader of the Greene County Historical Society who died in 2008 at 91, was the single pivotal figure in saving the house and making its present ascendant status possible. His steadfast support and unwavering vision provided the leadership needed for the long transition to the present. As I trudged along the narrow path from the New Studio through the snow past Cedar Grove last Sunday back to the Cole House parking lot, I could not help but think that Ray Beecher would have been very pleased by what was now happening.

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