They Are Among Us

You expect to find castles in Europe. Here, a local author introduces us to five majestic castles right in the Valley


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In 1867, the Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church and his wife Isabel — accompanied by their one-year-old son, Frederic Joseph — set off on a two-year journey to Europe and the Middle East. After brief stays in London, Paris, and Marseilles, they headed east to Alexandria, Egypt. The family then remained in Beirut, Lebanon, while Frederic traveled on to Jerusalem and Petra, Jordan. Commenting on his trip to fellow artist Martin Johnson Heade several years later, Church wrote: “I like the houses. They are solid and capacious and are decidedly effective.”

The end result of this trip was Olana, Church’s Moorish-inspired castle near Hudson, which combines Persian artistry with Western practicality. Olana Castle’s central courtyard is surrounded and protected by thick, fortress-like walls, while its interior rooms reflect the complex designs of the Middle Eastern houses that Frederic Church so admired.

Conceived as a three-dimensional work of art (and as a home for his young family) the castle took Church nearly 30 years to build. He enlisted noted architect Calvert Vaux — who, along with Frederick Law Olmstead, designed Central Park — to help with the plans. Fashioned of stone and brick, the exterior is an Oriental red color, and boasts polychrome stenciling in patterns the artist himself created.

Inside, the castle looks just as it did during Church’s lifetime. The elaborate stenciling continues through to the interior of the house. Some of the exotic furnishings include objects collected by Church during his travels, as well as paintings by friends and associates. Olana also contains the last of Church’s studios, which was built as an addition in 1888-90.

I stand beneath the central tower of Olana Castle, which looms high over my head; the silence is palpable. Just over my shoulder is a view commensurate with heaven: The Hudson River stretches from the densely foliated foreground to the expansive reaches of the sun-bathed horizon. Here before me is the living realization of Church’s dream — a place of peace, grandeur, and self-discovery. Among the delicate inlaid mosaic designs of the cube-shaped tower lies Frederic Church’s message: that at Olana, the crossroads of two disparate cultures — East and West — meet.

Olana State Historic Site is located at 5720 Rte. 9G, Hudson. 518-828-0135

Next stop: Cat Rock


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