Artists in Residence

Architecture: A half-dozen houses in New York and Massachusetts paint revealing pictures of their famous inhabitants' talents and times.

May 30, 1999|By Roberta Smith | Roberta Smith,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Artists' houses. You have to love them. Otherwise, these valuable three-dimensional documents can sink into oblivion and be lost forever. Indeed, love may be the primary ingredient in any preservation effort, the emotional trigger by which the present reconstitutes the past as a gift for the future.

This thought comes repeatedly, and sometimes sadly, to mind when one visits some of the artists' houses that lie within a half-day's drive of New York City, along either side of the Hudson and in Massachusetts. The artists who inhabited, and occasionally built or altered, these structures range from Hudson River School stars such as Frederick Edwin Church and Jasper Cropsey, both of whom died in 1900, to the 20th-century American modernists Suzy Frelinghuysen and George L. K. Morris, whose International Style country house and studio in Lenox, Mass., opened for tours last summer. Also included is the home of the founding spirit of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole (1801-1848). His home has been decaying for several years, shuttered and neglected where it sits in Catskill, N.Y., but its fortunes are on the upswing.

These homes provide valuable insights into their inhabitants' quirks, sensibilities and achievements, and illuminates as well the architecture, taste and living conditions of their time (and to some extent their class). Plus, each house comes with its preservation saga, one usually initiated by one determined individual -- often a descendant of the artist -- and carried forth against heavy odds, sometimes with tragic losses of material.

Hence the big picture can be equally valuable and sobering or thrilling, for anyone interested in architectural or artistic preservation. Each house represents different levels of financing, attention and understanding, a degree and kind of love measured in physical condition and intellectual coherence, and some remind us that love can be blind when genuine vision is needed most.

The parts of this picture are arranged in neither chronological nor geographical order, but according to the substantialness of the houses and in an effort to bring both their lessons and their pleasures into sharper relief.

Church's magical Olana

The greatest triumph of artist's-house salvation, because it is the most complete, is fittingly also the greatest artistic achievement in the group: Frederick Edwin Church's magical, magnificent Olana, a Victorian-Moorish fantasy perched high above the Hudson a few miles south of Hudson, N.Y. The views from Olana's grounds, towers, porches and windows are among the most spectacular along the Hudson, or any river. Still, inside and out, the house withstands the challenge spectacularly. And it seems to have been blessed with a fierce guardian, Sally Good Church, the artist's daughter-in-law, who lived out her widowhood at Olana, dying in 1963. Apparently, she never moved a thing in the lavishly appointed ground-floor rooms, the artist's studio included.

Made wealthy by the success of his dramatic panoramic paintings of the Andes and Niagara Falls, which thousands of people paid to see, Church was drawn back to the Hudson Valley just before his marriage to Isabel Carnes, in 1860. He purchased a 126-acre farm, whose topography he already knew and loved. From its various high points, he had sketched and painted the surrounding landscape with Thomas Cole, whose home lay directly across the river. (The precocious Church was Cole's only student, studying with him in 1844 and 1845.)

Living first in a smaller cottage, Church began planning a hilltop in the mid-1860s. But in 1865, he and his wife went abroad for 18 months to recover from the sudden deaths of their two young children from diphtheria. They visited England, savoring the sober decorativeness of the Esthetic Movement, and then the Middle East, where they became entranced by Persian culture. They returned home with a completely different concept for their new house.

Richard Morris Hunt, who had drawn up the initial plans, was replaced by Calvert Vaux. And Vaux was soon relegated to overseeing structural and engineering matters while Church designed the house and, with Isabel, decorated its elaborate interiors.

Squarish, with a robust Italianate tower rising from one corner, the house has great bones. To this austere structure, Church added keyhole archways and windows, a smaller tower and turret, and eventually a new studio, all pulled together by borders of decorative brickwork, tile and polychrome wood, sometimes in relief. At once massive and delicate, the result conjures up a mosque, a citadel and a summer palace that is also clearly the work of a painter. Inside, the decorated borders, usually stenciled, continue to mesmerizing effect around moldings and across doors, unifying rooms that change from green to yellow to salmon -- perfect-pitch tones that Church mixed on his palette.

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