After the third or fourth time I'd sung, "What's that on your head? / A wig!" Mark finally asked me why I was channeling the B-52's. I smiled and said, "I like to call my wig, 'Olana'." Because it was true, we were driving off to the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and the magical family mansion of Frederic Edwin Church, Olana. We'd first discovered Olana last January, and between Mr. Church's over-the-top writing about it and all the sumptuous interior designs we knew we had to go.
As we crossed the bridge over the Hudson, we saw the square tower rising over the trees on an overlooking hill.
After a brief snack in the parking lot, we walked to the carriage house, which now serves as the museum and gift shop. The house had lots "gingerbread" on in, which made Mark wonder which came first, the houses in San Fransisco or Olana. Then we saw the main house.
I wanted to take photographs, but they weren't allowed inside. I wanted to sketch, but sketching wasn't allowed, either.
Mark and I probably won the Gay Men's Laser Eye Award for Interior Motif Recognition. The house was filled with chachkies from Egypt and Damascus. The whole house, especially the yellow Central Hall, was designed for family nights of children's plays and guests' tableaus. Everything that wasn't imported from the near East was designed or painted by Church. One picture frame that stuck with me was based on decagons and star zelige. Upstairs, there were samples of imported tile work Church had probably used for the exterior.
The funniest moment was learning that the meticulously stenciled Arabic script in Mrs. Church's office was complete gibberish. The most useful factoid -- he sandwiched black paper between clear and amber glass to create a stained glass window effect.
The servant's quarters were much more plain but still nice; even the utility stairs were wide with low risers.
After the tour I photographed the outside of the building. The day was mostly sunny, and it was just after the sun had passed through the local meridian. Olana strikes me as one of those buildings that demands being photographed ninety minutes within sunrise or sunset. There are so many rich details tiled or carved into the walls that navigating the contrasts proved to be an almost insurmountable challenge for my camera's light meter and auto-focus.
I also sketched some of the curiously shaped windows. Mr. Church had fun working out the brickwork and the geometry for the keyhole shaped casements.
More photos here: John's Olana Photos
After Olana, we went to a Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park. Mark called it a McMansion of its day. Whereas Olana had been a grand family chateau, Vanderbilt was a family hotel. Olana was welcoming like a Vegas show; Vanderbilt was welcoming like an Edward Gory Chase - I fully expected an urn to thud into the earth next to us.
Our Vanderbilt guide was a Park Ranger. She had long blond hair and used the word "costed", as in "it costed twelve million." I can't decide which part of the tour was funnier, learning that Mrs. Vanderbilt died in Paris on a shopping trip or the following exchange as the tour guide and I were speaking about Olana and I pulled out my sketchbook. TG: "Oh, are you an architect?" Me: "No, but I play one on TV." TD (Obviously missing the 70's TV commercial reference): "Oh, are you an actor?" Me: "No, I'm just a computer geek." (Note to self: jokes based on 70's culture only work with people born between 1950 and 1970).
Our Park Ranger Guild was less formal than our Olana Docent, and let us wander on the floors more. Although the French Empire chairs and tapestries and sculptures were cool, the most interesting thing to me was how the natural convection of air from sub-basement tunnels up through the skylights allowed for fairly good 1880's air conditioning.
After the mansion tour, Mark and I walked through the garden. Mark surveyed the landscaping and made a few note for how we could respond to our neighbor's recent construction with layered plantings of bamboo, lily, iris, and shrubbery.