(Reprinted from the New York Property Rights Clearinghouse, Fall 2007)

Why Was Olana Jilted?

By Carol W. LaGrasse

If approved by UNESCO, the Olana World Heritage Site in Columbia County would have given the hyperactive preservationists along the Hudson River another powerful form of ammunition to stop the use of land within the view of the hilltop site. Olana is the home of Frederic E. Church, the acknowledged master of the nineteenth century Hudson River School of landscape painting.

However, the Office of International Affairs of the National Park Service, which is UNESCO’s World Heritage Site link to the U.S., announced during October that the site did not meet its standards for international recognition. In fact, to the expressed shock of the Olana Partnership, the non-profit that submitted an application to the Park Service for World Heritage Site status of Olana, the U.S. Commission for UNESCO declared that Church is a second-tier painter.

Olana, Church’s eclectic Moorish style Italianate villa, sits atop a hill on a 250–acre estate overlooking the Hudson River. Unlike Church’s breathtaking paintings, the exterior architectural style of his home is graceless and the interior lacking in the inspiring brilliance of his landscapes. However, contrary to the esteem in which Church’s art is held by American lovers of eighteenth century landscapes that heralded the beauty of the expanding nation, the artist’s work was never significant on the world scene. During the years when Church painted, landscape painting was moving to the luminous play of color and light of impressionism and pointillism. His work had no influence in the progression of art toward the twentieth century and is not recognized in the art history texts.

Considering that the architecture of his home is an offense to the landscape that Church memorialized, and that his paintings were outstripped by the world currents in art, it is surprising that the Olana group dared to submit an application for World Heritage status for Olana.

But, according to The Independent, Sara Johns Griffen, president of the Olana Partnership, articulated her amazement at the rejection, “We can’t believe that, especially since a very well-respected curator, who used to be with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, just recently told us Church is considered the master of the Hudson River School.”

The logical explanations for the Olana application and then its being dropped are quite simple.

When looked at from the perspective of recognizing Church’s artwork as a crucial part of the world cultural heritage, it was amazing that Olana made it to the Park Service’s tentative list of 36 World Heritage Site applications, then to the list of nineteen, and was only dropped when the agency reduced the tentative list to eleven. It is possible that the Park Service and the Olana Partnership had a common motive in mind for dragging the unqualified site’s application that far through the process, namely because World Heritage Site designation would give the non-profit organization an excellent tool to use to battle for the preservation of the Hudson River valley. The Olana Partnership had already exploited New York State’s cumbersome environmental review process to fight against the proposed St. Lawrence cement plant within Greenport, where Olana is located (which was defeated), and a major power plant in Athens on the opposite side of the Hudson (which went forward), and is currently raising concerns about a proposed communications tower in Livingston on Blue Hill, where there is already an existing emergency services communications tower.

Preservation of the Hudson River valley is important to the Park Service. One of the agency’s first National Heritage Areas was the Hudson Valley National Heritage Area, established by Congress in 1996 to protect the natural beauty of the valley. Right now, the Park Service has a bill before Congress to establish the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail, which is viewed by Col. James M. Johnson, Ph.D., (ret.), the trail’s foremost expert proponent in the Hudson valley, as a valuable tool for preserving threatened historic views and preventing suburban sprawl in the region. It would be in the Park Service’s fondest interest to set up the Olana Partnership with the new weapon of Olana’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status to wield to fight development in the area of the Hudson valley that the estate overlooks.

But why was the application dropped? This is even easier. After PRFA circulated information to warn property owners about the 36 sites on the tentative list, Albert L. Wassenhove, who lives fifteen miles away in Ghent, succeeded in raising public concern about the proposed UNESCO designation. County officials who had endorsed the application were giving it second thoughts. An official inquiry was sent to UNESCO about the ability of the designation to interact negatively with the local economy. The public was becoming aware of the threat of UNESCO right in their backyard. In an powerful opinion piece entitled “Foreign intrusion onto county soil” in another local newspaper, the Register-Star, during July, Mr. Wassenhove raised the issues loud and clear. He complained, “Olana has kept silent that they have requested protection under this controversial agreement,” referring to UNESCO’s Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, to which the U.S. is a party.

“World Heritage Site designation has been used as a sledgehammer to restrict property rights. That’s a fact plain and simple,” he pointed out. Closing his 800-plus word opinion piece, he urged, “Wake up fellow citizens, wake up.”
The best explanation for the Park Service’s dropping of the Olana application at that late stage is very simple. The last thing that the agency would want is controversy over UNESCO World Heritage Sites comparable to that which reached Congress over a decade ago. Considering the Park Service’s wider preservation goals, continuing with Olana would be self-defeating. It was a lot easier to drop Olana than to potentially face nationwide hostility.

November 26, 2007

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