View from the porch of the Thomas Cole House. Photo Albert J. Gnidica

Day Trip: Olana & Thomas Cole Historic Sites

Hudson Valley History, Connected by Art, a Scenic Skywalk, and Towns Between

Editor’s Note: This article also appears in the print version of the August-October, 2022, issue of Out & About with The Berkshire Edge magazine. Hard copies of the magazine are available for free at high-traffic locations throughout Berkshire County and in contiguous counties of New York, Connecticut and Vermont.

Olana State Historic Site. Photo Peter Aaron

The Olana State Historic Site, located just outside Hudson, New York, and the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, across the Hudson River in Catskill, live in perpetual conversation with each other. The best way to engage in the dialogue between Olana, the home of Hudson River School of painting master Frederic Church, and that of Church’s teacher and mentor Thomas Cole, is to visit them both. That’s easy enough to do, given the sites are conveniently—and intentionally—connected by the scenic Hudson River Skywalk that spans the Rip Van Winkle Bridge.

Church and Cole are the most enduring names associated with the Hudson River School of painting, which proliferated through the 1800s. Their landscape paintings of the valley, as well as the many other locations they traveled to around the globe, captivated audiences at the time by infusing hyper-realistic depictions of the natural world with emotion and meaning. 

Cole’s home, where he lived from 1833 to1848, and contemporary studio form a handsome and engaging repository for his paintings and ephemera. Across the river, through the second half of the 19th century, his famous pupil Church built himself a grand mansion—pulling architectural inspiration from his travels to the Middle East. The house and grounds at Olana are certainly more attention-grabbing but the Cole House has its own understated appeal. 

To experience the homes, studios, and landscapes of these two sites is to tangibly enter an ongoing discussion about the relationship between historic and contemporary art, environmental preservation, and numerous other topics of consequence. A nice long excursion also provides the opportunity to hike trails with gob-smacking views and sample farm-fresh offerings at some of the Hudson Valley’s best restaurants on either shore. 

Hudson River Skywalk. Artwork reintzmap

Panoramic Prelude

Start at the Cole National Historic Site in the morning and take a tour of the modest (by comparison) house. To gaze at the mountains from the wrap-around porch is worth the price of admission alone—and the best way to gain an appreciation for the artist’s inspiration. 

Serendipitously, for Berkshire art lovers, the contemporary exhibit now on display throughout Cole’s home—A Memorial to Ice at the Dead Dear Disco, by Marc Swanson—is a companion piece to Swanson’s massive gallery exhibition currently installed at MASS MoCA. 

According to Swanson, the works exist as both “memorial and monument,” aligning climate change with the AIDS crisis. Swanson is interested in the fact that we seem to be “living in the ruins of our future, mourning a world that will no longer exist as we know it, resulting from the impending loss and inevitable impact of climate change, alongside the inability to control or change this outcome.” For Swanson, nature and the disco have been the two places he always associated with freedom. His work views these time-honored spaces through the lens of loss and fear.

The MASS MoCA exhibit allows Swanson to contextualize his sculptural statement in a grand way. In the intimate chambers of Cole’s living quarters, the bedazzled and distorted natural forms take on new character and meaning. 

“It was a challenge to pivot from MASS MoCA, where I could do absolutely anything, to the Cole House,” said Swanson, who lives lives nearby and names Cole as a primary inspiration for his current work. “In a domestic interior, people will view the sculptures in a different way. It’s a real honor because it’s Thomas Cole’s space. I’m working with his energy.”

Swanson—who walked to Cole’s modest grave, just down the street from the historic site, to commune with the painter—says he’s always connected with the darker themes of death and man’s destructive power, which resonate from Cole’s work more than any other of his Hudson River School contemporaries. The inexplicable notion that man can simultaneously love and destroy nature is examined in the work of both Cole and Swanson. 

“I’ve recently seen my work described as ‘beautiful and soul crushing,’” Swanson said. “But I think you have to be able to move through these difficult things to be able to address them. We attempt to address climate change through science and policy. This is my attempt to create a place to deal with it emotionally, spiritually, artistically.” 

After seeing the interplay of Swanson’s sculptures with Cole’s painting and quarters, head to the New Studio across the yard, which is usually used as a gallery space for notable rotating exhibitions. This year, Franklin Kelly, Senior Curator and Christiane Ellis Valone Curator of American Paintings at the National Gallery of Art, has done an incredible amount of research and labor to revert the studio back to what it would have looked like in 1848, at the time of Cole’s passing. The exhibition uses the original artifacts and paintings that would have been there at the time. Construction on the New Studio was completed just 14 months before Cole’s death at the age of just 47. While he didn’t have much time to settle in, the exhibit provides a temporal window into the artist’s methods and perspective at that pivotal moment. 

Thomas Cole main house. Photo Escape Brooklyn

By the time you’ve finished meandering through Cole’s garden, old studio, and gift shop, it’ll be lunchtime. Stroll down the hill into the village of Catskill, where New York Restaurant has been exciting folks with Polish-American fare, Creekside has pleasant outdoor dining on the water and an approachable tavern menu, and 394 Main puts out well-crafted sandwiches and “smash” burgers (which are what they sound like: cooked by smashing the patty on the hot griddle). 

Cole House Chief Curator Kate Menconeri, who’s proven to have exemplary taste in all things, also recommends Willa’s, with its bright brunch menu and treasure trove of baked goods. 

There are more things to eat and see in Catskill these days than ever before. The sleepy town is quietly experiencing a bit of a Main Street renaissance, happy to be the calmer neighbor to Hudson’s amusing but sometimes overwhelming vibe-circus. 

Eastward Ho

Now sated, cross the river by car or via the three-mile (each way) Skywalk for pedestrians, and enjoy sweeping vistas of the Hudson Valley.

Then wind your way up the bucolic carriage road to Frederick Church’s greatest work of art—the Persian-style mansion, 250-acre property, and curated viewshed that is Olana. 

This year Olana is celebrating Church’s contribution to the formation of America’s public parks. Like Cole, Church was a proto-environmentalist, serving as an early commissioner of New York City’s Central Park and a leading advocate for the creation of the first state park in the U.S., at Niagara Falls. As such, Church always intended to preserve the cultivated landscape of Olana as a landmark for future generations. 

The thematic epicenter of this year’s exhibition is Church’s massive Niagara painting, on permanent display at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. At Olana, Niagara is contextualized as a symbol of natural wonder, environmental preservation, and diverse American, social, and indigenous histories. Topics explored in Olana’s 2022 programming include the early-twentieth-century Niagara Movement, a pioneering civil rights movement and forerunner to the NAACP. Events and presentations will also illuminate the history of indigenous peoples living on the Niagara Peninsula, long before Church captured the falls in his famous work. 

Relatedly, 2022 is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Hence the Olana Partnership is collaborating with The National Association for Olmstead Parks to highlight the story of Church’s relationship with Olmsted. Turns out these two distant cousins, who grew up together in Hartford, Connecticut, eventually became peers and colleagues in the growing movement to create public parks. During his stint as commissioner of Central Park, Church worked with Olmsted, and both men were key voices in the call to preserve Niagara Falls.

“We are really trying to foreground the landscape offerings at Olana this year, and Church’s role in preserving natural spaces,” said Dr. Sean Sawyer, President of the Olana Partnership, adding that Church’s Niagara helped the 19th century public understand why the falls had to be saved from human development. “The painting is his most iconic. It holds an incredible magnetism.” 

While touring the absurdly beautiful home of Church is a must, exploring the miles of trails at Olana—by foot or by electric vehicle tour—is an equally rewarding experience. 

Church specifically designed the trail network to avail himself and visitors of specific sweeping vistas of the river, the Catskills, and east toward the Berkshires, as well as other more intimate views. 

View of the Hudson River Skywalk and Cole property from Olana. Photo courtesy Olana

“At both Olana and the Thomas Cole House, we see these artist places as different from other historic sites,” Sawyer said. “They are connections between the natural world and the life we live.”

Meander the trails on your own or take the extremely popular 60-minute, one-mile guided landscape tour. Those with mobility issues (or lazy children) may want to sign up for the 30- or 60-minute electric vehicle tours, which also allow you to see as much as possible in a shorter amount of time. 

After a long day on your feet, you’ve earned an evening on the town. The diverse selection of voguish restaurants in Hudson truly offers something for everyone. BackBar, Swoon Kitchenbar, Kitty’s, W.M. Farmer and Sons, and Hudson Food Studio are just a few highlights of the city’s embarrassment of gastronomic riches. For those looking to keep their creative juices flowing, Lil’ Deb’s Oasis is a colorful, queer celebration of visual and culinary artistry. The restaurant’s glamorous tropical comfort food has been nominated for a James Beard award and is now preserved in Lil’ Deb’s first cookbook, Please Wait to Be Tasted.

No one will blame you, however, if you feel like avoiding the hustle and parking of Hudson. If that’s the case, on the way back east, try Iron & Grass, a few minutes from Olana up Route 9. This steak house has an innovative menu that elevates protein and produce from local farms and a cult following for its holistic, thoughtful, and delicious mission. Or, hit Zinnia’s Dinette, an upscale Craryville fish shack that’s surprising everyone with its execution and whimsy. 

The above itinerary is but one way to appreciate a daytrip to Olana and the Thomas Cole House. For example, if you are physically inclined, you can easily make an entire day of hiking: Begin by hoofing the trails at Olana, then take the Skywalk to the Cole House and back again. (It’s also easy to enjoy most of the map piecemeal.) 

Because no matter what side of the river you start on—and however you decide to break up the adventure—you will behold thought-provoking art and fabled scenery and join in the vital conversations that live eternally in these monuments. And you’ll get to eat really well, too.  

The Logistics

Olana State Historic Site
5720 NY-9G
Hudson, NY 12534  |  518-751-0344

The 250-acre park is open for free every day from 8 a.m. to sunset. Dogs are welcome but must be leashed at all times.

The house is open for tours Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Self-guided tours of the home are only available Friday through Sunday. 

Thomas Cole National Historic Site
218 Spring Street
Catskill, NY 12414  |  518-943-7465

The grounds are open every day for free from dawn to dusk. 

The Thomas Cole House is open Thursday through Tuesday from 9:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last entry at 4 p.m.). Advance tickets are recommended but not required.