Olana reflects other Victorian tastes, as well--what Trebilcock jokingly calls "horror vacui," or fear of empty space. Objects of all kinds fill every void. The central Court Hall has a chair from Kashmir next to an American Shaker rocker; sculpture includes statues of Mexican quetzals and rare birds from Japan. The Church children raised an owl and fed it here. "Eclectic detail was the taste of the time," says Trebilcock.
The nature trails at Olana are simple paths for walking and light hiking. Descending the heights, you pass the Church's first residence here, a modest white structure called Cosy Cottage, designed by Richard Morris Hunt. Hunt offered a plan for a larger house in the French Renaissance style, but it was rejected after the couple returned from a trip to the Middle East.
The lake that Church dredged is down a long hill from the main house; from the crest, the lake mirrors the surrounding trees, and then, in the best tradition of Romantic landscaping, seems to blend in with the sight line of the larger water of the river further beyond.
Signs along the way help you follow Church's planning, which involved cutting out roads, planting thousands of trees and contrasting bucolic pastoral meadows with shadowy woodlands. "I can make more and better landscapes in this way than tampering with canvas and paint in the studio," Church once wrote.
Be warned about the lake: Don't trek down unless you are ready to burn some energy walking back up. You can park by the lake--and picnic if you carry in and out.
Church died in 1900 at age 71, a year after Isabel's death. Olana remained in the family until 1964, when the house--with artifacts carefully preserved--was put up for sale. Later that year, a preservation group intervened and struggled to raise the funds to buy the place. Two years later, it was purchased by the Olana group and the state, becoming part of New York's park system.
Now it's a state historic site, but that title doesn't really do the place justice. Looking back up to the mansion from the lake, "earthscape" is more like it.
Tom O'Brien is managing editor of the Arts Education Policy Review in Washington.
DETAILS: Frederic Church's Olana
WHEN TO GO: Olana State Historic Site offers guided tours Wednesday through Sunday, April through October (reservations recommended). Admission is $3, though access to the grounds is free. Fall hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the last tour at 4; the grounds are open from 8 a.m. until sunset, which can be spectacular. Olana also plays host to special events, such as holiday celebrations in December; a summer arts camp for children; a Saturday lecture series; and a "Victorian Day" in August with hot-air balloon rides, an art auction, kite-flying, environmental walks and puppet shows. Details: 518-828-0135, www.olana.org.
GETTING THERE: Olana is off New York Route 9G in Hudson. It's about a six-hour drive from Washington: Take I-95 and the New Jersey Turnpike to the Garden State Parkway (but not at rush hour), to I-87 north to Exit 21 in Catskill, N.Y. Take Route 23 east, cross the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and go south on Route 9G for about one mile.
From New York City, Hudson is an easy day trip, only two hours each way, and the route is quite scenic. Head north on the Henry Hudson, Saw Mill River and Taconic parkways, which connect. Cruise the Taconic (a prime fall foliage route) to Route 23, go west to Hudson, find 9G, then head south to Olana.
Or take Amtrak to New York's Penn Station and connect to a train for Hudson, a two-hour ride ($33). The route is richly scenic--past the Palisades, Bear Mountain, West Point and the brooding Storm King Mountain. From the Hudson Amtrak station, it's a 10-minute cab ride to Olana. Or you can get off in Poughkeepsie, 30 miles south of Hudson, and rent a car.
WHERE TO STAY: Colorful inns abound. The best is the Beekman Arms (6387 Mill St., Rhinebeck, 845-876-7077, www.beekmanarms.com; $95 to $145 per night), 20 miles south of Hudson. Visitors can choose from the inn, a motel or the sprawling Delamater House, a Gothic mansion dating from 1844. Also in Rhinebeck is the highly touted WhistleWood Farm B&B (52 Pells Rd., 845-876-6838, www.whistlewood.com; $95 to $325). Closer to Hudson, 10 miles south on Route 9, is the Inn at Blue Stores B&B (2323 Route 9, 518-537-4277, www.innatbluestores.com; $95 to $195).