I have been spending some time at Olana, a 250 acre ‘designed landscape’ with intact family home created by Frederic Edwin Church, a major landscape painter in the mid 1800s.
A New York State historic site and house museum, the property is managed through a unique arrangement between the state office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Places and a non-profit group now called The Olana Partnership.
Church, who built his Xanadu overlooking the Hudson River on the Columbia County side, studied under Thomas Cole. An Englishman, Cole is considered the founder of the Hudson River School of American Painting.
Cole’s home, a.k.a. Cedar Grove or the Thomas Cole National Historic Site is a national historic Landmark.
Half a minute or less is the best chance you have to persuade someone asking for directions to consider parking and taking a look.
As a sort of ambassador at Olana, part of my role is to help interpret the life and art of the artist, Fredric Church. Part of my role is simply to answer questions like ‘where can I park?’ or ‘where can I turn around?’
After a hopefully slow drive up the gradual switchbacks of a mile-plus long entrance road, motorists find themselves with no apparent outlet. Some roll down a window and ask just that; “Where can I turn around?”
Now, I know it can sometimes be frustrating to have a question answered with a question, but I have not been tasked with getting folks off the property as quickly as possible… So, when the window comes down I typically offer ‘Good morning. What brings you to Olana today.’
If I see that puzzled look on the face(s) inside the car, I may ask ‘Do you know where we are?’
Often, the answer is something along the lines of ‘I don’t know’ or ‘Is this that castle on the hill?’ (Of course, it’s not a castle but that’s a common choice of reference)
As Director of Collections and Exhibitions William Coleman, Ph.D., recently explained, a not insignificant number of visitors to the site arrive because they saw a most unusual building perched atop of a hill overlooking the Hudson River and Rip Van Winkle Bridge – which they may have recently crossed.
They do not know what this place is and if they followed signs for ‘Olana,’ they likely do not realize it is the entire property and not just the house on the hill.
Bring on the elevator pitch… that quick persuasive case you make in the time you have between floors when your target exits the elevator.
“This is the former home of a painter, the most successful of his day. He designed everything, from the home to the carriage roads and the placement of every tree. Olana is the whole place, not just the house. It’s a state historic site now and guided tours are available but it’s also free to park and take a self-guided stroll around.”
Of course that’s only a variation.
If you were buttonholing a movie producer or venture capitalist in hopes of selling a script or business idea, you would rehearse and fine-tune your pitch.
But I am an ambassador of sorts. The stakes aren’t quite so high and my role is to stimulate not sell.
When someone rolls down the window to ask for directions, they’re not necessarily interested in the ‘who, what, when, where and why.’
A lesson in architecture and art movements may not be well received while the air conditioning is escaping their SUV.
Then again, I do have that moment. I use it with an exceptionally high success rate. I’ve watched multiple cars pull away to leave, pause, reconsider and park.
If I see those visitors again, it is when the windows come down a second time to say “thank you.”
Will every one of these unintended guests become a member or sign on for a tour? Of course not. Will they stop to read an interpretive sign? Perhaps.
Did our brief moment together make some small difference in their day? Yes.
Olana is a truly fascinating property and a little bit of understanding goes a long way.
I shared a photography blog about Olana in 2020, here’s a link.