Saturday, October 3, 2009

Olana - The House I Should Have Had

All houses should be as cool as Olana. If you're not familiar with it, it's a Persian-inspired mansion above the Hudson River facing the Catskill Mountains.

Frederick Church built it after he and his wife did a world tour and came home to the property he'd bought years earlier. Their original plan had been to build a French-style chateau on the hilltop. Happily, they abandoned that idea after visiting the Middle East.

I took the downstairs tour with my daughter and we both agreed we could happily live there. It's been beautifully preserved by a devoted group of people who have restored the intricate stencils, maintained the furnishings and basically done the impossible: maintain a gorgeous white elephant.

Stand on the grounds, look out the windows. There is no possible way you could live in such a place and not be an artist. It would seem like heresy to sit inside and stare at a computer screen or bury your nose in a book. The views don't even look real; the windows frame vistas of the river and, we're assured, the mountains. You have to take that on faith on a day with low clouds; the Catskills manage to completely disappear behind a curtain of fluffy gray.

Despite its grandeur, there's something comfortable about the interior. The huge amber window above the staircase looks like an amazing etched stained glass. Instead, the truth is that there are intricate paper cutouts preserved between two sheets of amber glass, creating a beautiful but inexpensively creative Moroccan ambiance.

So could you, we wonder, manage to escape the tour and live there? Could you wander through the halls, escaping detection, and set up camp in a different room each night? Probably not. But fun to imagine.

Our conclusion is that if the world should be ending, people who are congenial and cooperative, people who appreciate real beauty should gather in such amazing places to ride out the end together in a place that shows the best of what this world is.

I'd go to Olana.

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