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Olana - Treasure House of Patterns and Stencils
Written by Robert Selkowitz
Photography by Alexander Casler

Adapted from an article in "Victorian Homes" magazine, Fall 1994


Artist Frederic Edwin Church (1862-1900) lavished his skill and attention on the creation of Olana, his Hudson River villa. The culmination of his embellishment was the design and painting of fanciful stencils on exterior cornices, and interior spandrels and borders. More than 100 stencils are in the collection of the Olana Historic Site, along with 500 drawings of architectural details and stencil motifs. I had the pleasure of a leisurely tour of Olana's rooms and the opportunity of viewing the original stencils and drawings under the care of curator Karen Zukowski.

Olana is truly one of Church's masterpieces. Conceived as a great romantic landscape composition, the grounds of the estate undulate over 250 acres with the house set on the crest of a tall hill overlooking the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River near Hudson, New York. Drawn to the site as a student of Thomas Cole, the premier artist of the Hudson River School who lived just across the river, Church began to purchase land in 1860 and added the hilltop building site in 1867. Working with architects Richard Morris Hunt and Calvert Vaux, Church's conception of Olana evolved over several years into an eclectic Persian-inspired treasure house. Traveling in the Near East, he collected 15 trunks full of furnishings and artifacts. In particular he studied two books on Persian and Arab architecture: Monuments Modernes de La Perse, by Pascal Coste, and Les Artes Arabes by Jules Bourgoin.

Church executed rapid pencil sketches of stencil details and motifs, then proceeded to paint color sketches of the motifs he and his wife preferred. The stencil patterns were drawn on heavy paper; a ledger book's pages and a calendar were used for some stencils that still exist today. The designs were cut out and the same stencil was sometimes used for two or three colors. The designs ranged from simple, four-petaled flowers to ornate stars and arabesques.

The stencils were used to decorate borders around interior doors and baseboards. They also covered the spandrels in the central court hall. Borders in several rooms shared motifs with variations of details and coloration. Maltese crosses, multi-petaled flowers, and fleurs-de-lis are used repeatedly in varying forms.

Church mixed colors on his palette and made sketches and notes on pigments used for each hue. He developed a personal and subtle combination of colors which was exotic and surprising yet tasteful. In the entry hall, purple walls and a pumpkin ceiling are bordered by a dark mustard band decorated with sage green Maltese crosses with yellow and violet accents. Between the crosses in the border are flowers with red-orange petals and blue center dots on a gold background. Church united the palette of the house in the central court hall, where all colors used in the house are found in the elaborate stenciling of the spandrels. For example, the purple of the entry hall wall is used as a background color for the court hall spandrels.

The interior stencils are original and date from the early 1870s. The interior doors are stenciled in gold and aluminum on a slate blue background, but these metallics have faded and lost their luster. The exterior cornices were stenciled twice, first in 1872 with 12 stencils in bright colors, and later in 1888 with 11 stencils in darker subdued colors. The exterior cornices were repainted in the early 1900s and are now in the process of being restored using patterns from the original stencils.
While being a time consuming process, the stencils did away with the need for heavy moldings around doors and ceilings. The borders are about six inches wide and are edged with an incised bevel cut into the plaster wall. The doorways are framed with a simple 2"x2" dark wood molding. Imaginative accents were added to border motifs by using wooden buttons and brass upholstery tacks for medallion centers. Karen Zukowski said, "Now you can use jean studs and buttons from notion stores." Olana was purchased intact from Church's daughter-in-law in 1966 by the State of New York and is open to the public in spring, summer, and fall. An excellent essay by Olana site director James Anthony Ryan entitled, "Frederic Church's Olana: Architecture and Landscape as Art" covers the intricacies of Olana's construction and decoration and was published in a recent catalog Frederic Edwin Church by Franklin Kelly (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989). Ryan's essay includes reproductions of stencils and examples of working drawings and palettes used in creating Olana.

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