By Carol W. LaGrasse
On a cloudy day in May, we could barely spot the telecommunications tower on the hillside of the Eger Family Farm in Columbia County. We peered in every direction southeast and east of the grounds and porch of Olana, the Frederic Edwin Church estate and residence, or "castle," cherished by preservationists for the artist's significance to the Hudson River School of landscape painters.
Finally we figured we were eying the tower at the Eger farm, but there was only a hint of a line, perhaps the tower, in the distance. By contrast, the lights and outlines of three very tall thin towers in the distance to the south on the east side of the Hudson River were clearly visible.
The view that we tried to see of the location of a potentially "offensive" rigid communications tower to replace the slender, guyed truss-work of the existing one above Mark Eger's orchards was just south of the foliage of abundant trees blocking most visibility eastward from our perch at Olana, which is a State Historic Site.
It is because of this subtly visible view that the National Park Service; the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; Scenic Hudson; and the Olana Partnership have exploited their legal skills to thwart approval of the proposed tower by the Town of Livingston Planning Board and the Federal Communications Commission. In their ardor to preserve the view, these government agencies and non-profit groups have delayed several different public safety upgrades for the county sheriff and public works departments, refinements to 911 call center answering, a new EMS tactical program for five emergency squads, radio upgrades for 31 fire companies, and improved cellular telephone service.
Ironies abound in the preservationists' campaign of obstruction.
The first irony is that Olana itself is a peculiar piece of architecture of questionable merit. The National Park Service's official comments in 2008, when it rejected Frederic Church's Olana as a World Heritage Site nominee, describe the Olana residence dismissively: "The house was designed and furnished in an eclectic blend of styles influenced by his travels."
The style of the Olana mansion as "Church's Victorian-Persian home" is mentioned in the official book for the 1964 World's Fair exhibit, Art in New York State, sponsored by the New York State Council on the Arts (Buffalo Fine Arts Gallery, Gordon M. Smith, Director).
A reference work, The National Register of Historic Places in New York State compiled for the Preservation League of New York State by Peter D. Shaver (Rizzoli, New York, 1993) describes the main residence as "designed by Church and Calvert Vaux in eclectic combination of Oriental and Moorish decorative elements on basic Italianate villa form."
Considering that Olana was designed in two stages, begun in a Persian stage and completed with an overlay of Moorish elements after Church's travels, it is not surprising that the effect is an unimpressive mixture, or "eclectic," in the eyes of architectural critics.
The significance of Frederic Church as an artist is also questionable. Beginning in 1844, he studied under Thomas Cole, who was recognized in the early decades of the nineteenth century as America's outstanding landscape artist. Church is considered the last important member of the Hudson River School. Like Cole, whose work evolved to elaborate allegories, Church's landscape paintings became increasingly grandiose, with "vast highly detailed landscapes," as observed in the World's Fair book.
This same critique of Church's work refers to the artist's "modest sketches" as "far less orthodox and more indigenously American" than his great canvases. "Modern eyes admire them for their spontaneity, luminosity and stringent elimination of detail." The author continues, "They were usually painted from nature with swift dashing brisk strokes and sometimes by Church as notes for larger pretentious, and alas, more sterile canvases."
Rather than focusing on the Hudson River School paintings, the World's Fair book includes a number of less known Church paintings, including "Housetops, Hudson, New York," painted during the 1860s. But Professor David Huntington of Smith College, cited as an authority on Church, felt that the painting is a view of New York City from Church's studio and not the town of Hudson. "The bare informal composition is a worthy forerunner of Edward Hopper's stark American scenes," according to that publication.
Church's somewhat grandly styled "Niagara Falls" brought the then-phenomenal price of $12,500 at a sale in 1876, but authors Myron and Sundell in their Art in America (Crowell-Collier, London, 1969) pointed out that the price of contemporary Winslow Homer's work would far exceed the value of that somewhat grand Church painting a century later.
The standard art history reference, History of Art by H.W. Jansen, discusses the internationally important American artists of the same period as Frederic Church, the impressionists James Whistler and Winslow Homer and realist Thomas Eakins, but makes no mention of Church, although he was enormously successful during his lifetime.
And finally, in the National Park Service's rejection of Church's Olana estate for the 2008 "U.S. Tentative List" of nominees for World Heritage Sites, the appraisal on behalf of Dirk Kempthorne, Secretary of Interior, summarizes the lack of merit to warrant nomination: "There was uncertainty about Church's international significance as an artist, either individually or as a representative of the Hudson River School, as well as the estate's ability to illustrate it."
For all this professional uncertainty about the artistic and architectural significance of Olana, the National Park Service fought hard to save the view toward the proposed replacement tower, coming up with some ingenious tactics. For instance, in October 2010, Maryanne Gerbauckas, Associate Regional Director, Heritage preservation, Planning & Compliance, National Park Service, sent a demanding letter to Mr. Eger:
"The National Park Service (NPS) is writing to request to participate in the Section 106 consultation process for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) permit for a communication tower at Blue Hill, Columbia County, NY. NPS will represent the Secretary of Interior in the Section 106 consultation process. This proposed tower would be in the viewshed of the Frederic E. Church House (Olana), a National Historic Landmark (NHL) in Columbia County, NY. The NHL is owned by the State of New York as Olana State Historic Site. Olana was designated an NHL by the Secretary of the Interior on June 22, 1956.
"We have listed Olana on our Watch List of Threatened and Endangered National Historic Landmarks since 2004. We hope the resolution of this project will reduce threats to Olana."
The non-for-profit organization that works with the state to operate Olana, The Olana Partnership, sent a similar request for "'Consulting Party' status under the National Historic Preservation Act Section, pursuant to the Nationwide Programmatic Agreement for Review of Effects on Historic Properties For Certain Undertakings Approved by the Federal Communications Commission."
The letter articulated The Olana Partnership's concern about the "application to the Town of Livingston Planning Board for the new 190-foot telecommunications tower which would replace the existing 190' twin guyed towers at Blue Hill. We understand that the proposed lattice tower's design would be about six (6) times as wide as the tower it would replace. Therefore, we believe it appropriate that the FCC and the Historic preservation office consider the additional visual impacts that the proposed replacement tower would impose upon visitors to Olana."
They also expressed their concern about the application by Eger Communications to replace its other 190-foot lattice tower approximately 900 feet to the southeast.
Then, without explanation, they stated their fear "that the two proposed telecommunications facilities would set a dangerous precedent that could potentially lead to a tower farm on Blue Hill which would be directly in the viewshed of the Olana State Historic, a National Historic Landmark listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places."
The letter goes on to state, "The eminent Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) designed Olana, his family home, studio, and estate as an integrated environment embracing architecture, art, and landscape. Considered one of the most important artistic residences in the United States, Olana embraces unrivaled panoramic views of the vast Hudson Valley Blue Hill is one of the principal natural features in Olana's viewshed.
The arrogance of these letters illustrates another irony: the degree of maintenance of the Olana estate. The Partnership may worry about the view into the barely visible distance, but the immediate view, entirely under the control of Olana and the Partnership, is messy. The lawn sweeping downhill from the Olana mansion was two feet high when we visited in May. To photograph the building a person had to find a way through the tall, wet grass. The other dominant aspect of the landscape was the overgrowth of trees, blocking much of the view, whether from the winding roads to the hilltop or from the hilltop itself. This reality contrasted with the "significant designed landscape" cited in Shaver's National Register compilation.
And, from the other direction, rather than complementing the broader landscape of the flowing hills and majestic Hudson River Valley, as do the three slender communications towers to the south, the graceless bulk of Olana atop the hill imposes arrogantly on the uphill view from the valley.
Failing to gain "consulting party status," and with the public hearings complete, The Olana Partnership and Scenic Hudson, which had also requested the "consulting party status," have sent an informal complaint to the FCC. The FCC is carrying their complaint through still another process, lasting four months merely to get the papers submitted, with a response by Eger Communications, followed by a reply due December 15.
This saga illustrates that in the present radical preservation environment, with plenty of funds and backing from the state and federal governments to stop any important facility in sight, or even barely so, a historic site with a view is a very bad neighbor.