Even though we look across Lake Champlain to New York State every day, we have never spent as much time exploring it as we have explored, say, New Hampshire. Or Maine. Simply saying “New York State” is a pretty vague reference, considering that it literally covers a lot of ground. I suppose I still see it as an ex-New Yorker, NYC having been known to me as “the City” when I grew up there, as in “the City,” with its sphere of influence that coats everything within a hundred miles in every direction with NYC pixie dust. But then there’s all the humongous rest of it. This includes the known world (the Adirondacks, the Catskills, possibly the Finger Lakes) and the unknown world (the almost-Midwest part and what’s called “upstate,” meaning whatever else.)
|Sunset over Seneca Lake from the eastern side|
On the northern head of Seneca Lake, one of the Fingers (lakes that from the air really look like skeletal digits) is Geneva, our destination for the graduation of grandson Nick from Hobart/William Smith. En route we had been entertained by the names of places we were passing through. What better than Ninety Six Corners, Holland Patent, Hoffmeister, Speculator, or Street Road? Later on a Graco-Roman patch arrived with Syracuse, Seneca, Rome, Ovid, Pompey, and signs to Ithaca and Troy.
|Hobart College docks in Geneva, Lake Seneca fogging up|
Then it was bagpipes and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. Both would be repeated a week later for the graduation of grandson Hans from the Waring School in Massachusetts. Nick was one of two student speakers at Hobart, talking of his dad’s influence and support for his experience at Hobart. Hans was one of 28 speakers (yes! three minutes each) at Waring where each student in this small class spoke humorously, seriously, poignantly about themselves, and their past four years at Waring.
|Nick, with proud parents Mike and Christine|
|Hans. All 28 graduates wore wreaths made by parents the previous evening. Next year: Here at Middlebury!|
Between graduations we crossed through the rolling hills and apple country of eastern upstate to the Catskills and, ultimately, Hudson, New York. Hudson is a town that bridges two parts of New York State: the “upstate” part and the NYC sphere, the latter more strongly than the former these days.
|Dining in Hudson: Ken shadowed, at Ca'Mea|
|Dining in Hudson: Limoncello dessert, at Ca'Mea|
A mere two-hour Amtrak trip from Penn Station brings New Yorkers up the Hudson River to the oldest continuously operating train station in the country. (Given our second-rate national railroad system that might not be saying much.) The NYC pixie dust sprinkled somewhat unevenly in Hudson is responsible for the many good restaurants, art galleries, boutiques, and exorbitant prices in local B&B’s. The town has good bones–a treasury of 19th century and early 20th century buildings– making for a beautiful downtown. All is not entirely rehabbed or gentrified, as is evident by decay amidst the restorations, as well as the less-than-chic housing around the edges of town.
|Some houses have restoration potential...|
|Others are looking terrific...|
|And some are just amazing looking, like our B&B. (That's not our car.)|
|But there are streets that look a bit depressing|
|A still functioning old Hudson firehouse, right on Warren Street, hard by galleries and restaurants|
When you drive across the Rip Van Winkle bridge and cross the Hudson River immediately east of the Catskills you can't miss seeing Olana. The creation of 19th century painter Frederick Church, Olana, just a few miles south of Hudson, adorns the mountaintop like a Christmas ornament on a tree. I've wanted to see it up close ever since I saw it years ago on a return trip from Pennsylvania. We took a tour the next afternoon.
|Olana, in an orangey light (NYTIMES)|
Church was a member of the Hudson River School of 19th century American landscape painting. His mentor was Thomas Cole, one of the best known of that group of artists. Many people have undoubtedly heard of the Hudson River School since the artists’ most famous works are as often found in American history texts as museums. They illustrate an age, a time when the Industrial Revolution was being felt in areas once pristine, trees were being churned into lumber, and railroads were being blasted through. Up to that time landscape painters of quality were expected to be European and European-trained. “Hudson River School” was a derisive term at the time for a group of artists who were self-taught and very much “unschooled.” No Beaux Arts for them. How un-European! How American. They took their inspiration from the natural world of this newer country, and put it on the map for Art. The Catskills were inspiration for Cole who painted the mountains as God’s creation rather than translating them photographically. Enhanced, in other words, by admiration, worship even. You can take several hikes out of Hudson to see some of the places that inspired paintings like Kaaterskill Falls. One can still see the mountains to the west from Cole’s porch looking pretty much as he saw them.
|The Thomas Cole house.|
|The Catskill view, from Cole's porch|
Frederick Church, like his contemporary Albert Bierstadt, painted big: great wide-angle landscapes, imagined like enhanced visual memories.* They say to us: Nature is spectacular! Look! Appreciate! This in the mid 1800's when the development of roads, destruction of forests, and the rise of industry was chugging away big-time. The 20-odd painters of this era helped put the American landscape on the map, and became the most popular artists of their time.
|The entrance facade. "Welcome" is written in Arabic atop the front door.|
With wealth from his huge commercial success as a painter (he was a savvy promoter of his work) Church designed his dream house in the late 1860's. It incorporated his ideas of beauty and his admiration of oriental architecture discovered in his wide travels. The house was technologically advanced as well: central heating and plumbing! Mark Twain visited and was inspired architecturally. (His house in Hartford, Connecticut, built a few years later, is about as elaborate as Olana.) Thanks to long-lived heirs with no penchant whatsoever for change, the home remained intact to this day, inside and out. (Although rescued at the last minute from sale by a nephew in 1966 following the death of Church's daughter in 1964.) The vast grounds, albeit somewhat less vast than they once were, had been shaped by another contemporary, the Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame. The sweeping drive to the house, the rounded meadow with trees in just the right places, the view of the Hudson River mirrored in the artificial lake––it all reminded me of World's End in Massachusetts, also an Olmsted design.
|Landscape by design: the shape of the lake at left mirrors the shape of the Hudson. Not seen so clearly on a misty day.|
|A view toward the Catskills from an Olana porch. You can see the Rip Van Winkle bridge.|
Sadly no photography was allowed inside Olana. This was disappointing because the interior was completely furnished down to the last teacup, and as eclectic as the exterior. Olana also hosted, as did the Cole house, a contemporary art exhibit sponsored by the guardians of both homes, a group called River Crossings. My second-favorite piece was an outline on the wall in brilliant silver of the entire Hudson River by Maya Lin. My favorite piece, though, was an easel set in the dining room that held a copy of one of Church’s landscapes well on its way to being turned into Swiss cheese by carved woodpeckers. A comment on his relation with the natural world, perhaps? He was an early conservationist as well as painter. An admirer, one may assume, of woodpeckers.
*My favorites of the Hudson River School? Albert Bierstadt's "Estes Park," and Church's "Niagara Falls." Both highly romantic pieces.