By Linda Gentalen
The season opening of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site last month was stunning, unveiling two landmark exhibitions: “The Parlors” and “Sanford R. Gifford in the Catskills.” As a Board Member since 2005 of this historic site in Catskill, I couldn’t help but marvel at how its dynamic campus has evolved from a once-dilapidated house into a regional economic engine.
That evolution was a function of vision and perseverance by many local residents who volunteered their time, their energy, and their passion. The vision was not a completely fixed one, but more a sequence of overlapping ideas advanced by different people at different times. The perseverance part was sometimes dramatic, and sometimes just a matter of showing up.
The first time I saw Cole’s home was more than 30 years ago. My husband, Tom, whose father was an accomplished painter, knew the significance of the abandoned property and walked me around it. The house had been the center of America’s first major art movement, the Hudson River School of landscape painting, founded by Cole almost 200 years ago. But at my first view, the poor place looked about 20 minutes from falling down. Fortunately, it was made of brick, with a lead-coated copper roof, or it would never have survived.
Now, 17 years since it was saved, the Cole House is the starting point for a renewed appreciation of the Hudson River School and its continuing influence. That influence is enhanced by Cole’s pioneering role in both American art and environmental activism. His art celebrated the Catskills’ natural beauty, and his role in exploring the relationship of humankind to the environment is contemporary still.
Saving the house from ruin was a project spearheaded by Raymond Beecher, then President of the Greene County Historical Society. He made the case in the late 1990s for the Society to buy the property, and he put up the $100,000 needed to do it. Fellow Society members Jack Van Loan, Robert Stackman, and Sybil Tannenbaum worked diligently with Raymond, especially in those early days.
I became involved in 2001 when Sybil asked me to be a docent and give tours of the house to visitors. Fellow docent Ethel Williams and I staffed Friday mornings and sat on the front porch to greet our few visitors. While we waited, we talked about Thomas Cole and his life here, sharing information from our reading. A cigar box on a bench nearby was ready to hold the $5 admission fee. Sybil knew that the tour was worth the fee, and that the presence of her small cadre of knowledgeable volunteers, including herself, was enough to keep the house open.
As visitors and supporters grew, the main house was increasingly restored, Cole’s 1839 “Old Studio” was brought back to life, and the Thomas Cole National Historic Site was spun off by the Historical Society into a separate freestanding entity. Last year, the dream of many came true – Cole’s reconstructed 1846 “New Studio” was opened, complete with a state-of-the-art interior suitable for borrowing major paintings from other museums.
Proof of this is “Sanford R. Gifford in the Catskills,” the exhibition on view this season in the New Studio. An iconic Hudson River School artist, Gifford credited Cole with inspiring him to become a landscape painter. His work is highlighted here in Cole’s own space.
In addition to the delights of the New Studio, the campus that visitors see today is more dynamic than ever. “The Parlors,” new this year in the main house, combines technology and meticulous restoration, allowing visitors to see the rooms as Cole saw them and to share in the historic conversations that occurred there. This restoration also revealed a wonderful surprise – elaborate borders painted by Cole. They form the earliest-known interior decorative painting by an American artist.
And still more good news — a recent study shows that the Thomas Cole National Historic Site has an annual economic impact on the local economy of $1,898,000, as of 2015. That reflects the Site’s tremendous growth to nearly 16,000 annual visitors at that point and their spending in the area.
When Edith and I sat on the front porch years ago, we couldn’t imagine 16,000 visitors. But we understood the importance of keeping the house open for those who were interested, and we had some understanding of its potential.
We pictured a day when it would be more appreciated. That day is here, and the possibilities for the Site’s future continue to grow. The future remains still more than I can imagine.
The author, a resident of Catskill, is a Board Member of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site.