Cole’s 19th-century art studio getting a facelift


By Fred Johnsen, Freeman staff


THOMAS Edison had Menlo Park, Theodore Roosevelt had Sagamore Hill, and within these places were “inner sanctums.” For Edison his laboratory, for Roosevelt his trophy room.

In Catskill, the inner sanctum of Hudson River School of Art founder Thomas Cole is gaining new life.

Restoration began Wednesday on Cole’s “Old Studio” at the Cedar Grove Historic Site, where he lived. The project, expected to take about seven months, will entail a full restoration of the building, of which the studio is a part.

SITE DIRECTOR Betsy Jacks said the U.S. National Park Service considers the project to be the most significant restoration going on in the United States today.

“This site has been, for a long time, neglected,” Jacks said. “Like the Hudson River School of Art, it is experiencing a revival. Piece by piece, we’re putting it back together the way it looked in Cole’s time” in the 19th century.

Jacks said that, unlike Cole’s house, the studio is less visible but vastly important. It was in the studio that Cole (1801-48) painted his four-piece series “Voyage of Life” that used landscape as metaphor to depict man’s journey from birth to death.

“This (studio) is perhaps the most important piece,” Jacks said. “The house is the most visible from the street, but the studio is where it all happened.”

DIMENSIONS North of Catskill is the contractor for the restoration project. Company owner Richard Rappleyea said his crew had removed tons of material by Friday, some going to a dump and better pieces being saved.

“We’re going to be taking the studio back to the way it was when Thomas Cole used it when he was doing his paintings,” Rappleyea said.

The project is being overseen by the National Park Service bureau in Boston and will be completed in two phases. Phase 1e carries a price tag of $329,000 and will consist of exterior and studio restoration and structural repairs. Phase 2, which does not yet have an estimated cost, will center on the former barn area that will be used for a visitors’ center and gift shop.

Rappleyea said restoration of the studio alone entails removing several windows not part of the original “purpose built” studio. According to Rappleyea and Jacks, Cole preferred to paint by light coming from the north because northern light provided even illumination without shadows or glare.

Jacks said the studio itself will be restored with the idea in mind that “Cole just stepped out.” This includes the placement of many articles used by Cole, including his paint box, easel and chair.

Buildings on the Cole property originally used for horses and storage will restored authentically, with possible with the planned uses in mind.

CEDAR Grove Building and Grounds Committee Chairman Jack Van Loan said beginning work on the studio is exciting both locally and nationally.

“It’s exciting and a very, very important step for us, the community and the people of the county because we’re saving one of American’s treasures,” Van Loan said.

The project is being funded through a Save America’s Treasures grant and the Catskill-Olana Viewshed Mitigation Fund.


©Daily Freeman 2005 Originally found at

rootCole’s 19th-century art studio getting a facelift

Inside the artist’s studio: Cole’s work space being restored


By Jonathan Ment, Freeman staff


AN OLD barn behind the Thomas Cole house on Spring Street in Catskill has been an antiques shop, an apartment house and, yes, a residence for animals.

But before all that, half the structure served as a storehouse and an art studio for Cole, the founder of the 19th-century art movement known as the Hudson River School.

The studio, built in 1839 and believed to be the first purposely constructed artist’s studio in America, will reopen Oct. 3. In the modest wood-and-brick structure, Cole painted his most widely distributed series, “The Voyage of Life” – a series of four paintings, each measuring more than 4 by 6 feet.

Grants totaling nearly $500,000 from the preservation group Save America’s Treasures; the Catskill-Olana Scenic Mitigation Fund, funded by Athens Generating; and Benjamin Moore & Co. will, by that time, have restored the studio to the way it looked in the 1840s.

BETSY Jacks, director of Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, said work on the property is overseen by the National Park Service, which has done extensive research to determine what the site was like originally. The property is owned by the Greene County Historical Society.

“As we opened a wall, we found an original shutter,” Jacks said.

Finds like that, numerous paintings created in the studio and early photographs of the property helped direct the restoration, which includes all period materials. “If it’s not from the 1830s or 1840s, it has to go,” Jacks said. “(But) we had a painting, from the 1860s, that is so detailed we can identify the flowers. We are in the process of restoring or replanting the original flowers.”

AND THROUGH scientific analysis of soils and rocks, the precise locations of the original gardens’ on the grounds were identified.

“In contrast to Olana (almost across the Hudson River in Columbia County), this was a working farm,” Jacks said. “Olana was a park. Here, they had chickens running around.”

Olana is the Persian-style mansion and studio built by Frederic Church, a Hudson River School painter from later in the 19th century who was a student of Cole’s.

“In the early days, American art wasn’t popular,” Jacks said. “Cole was a pioneer.”

WHEN THE barn at the Cole house was being built, Cole sought to include a 19-by-20-foot space in which to work. He used what now is known as the Storehouse Studio for seven years before building a more elaborate Italianate-styled studio that no longer stands. (It was demolished in the 1920s.)

“The loss of historic buildings really cuts deep,” Jacks said. The barn almost fell, too, she said, because “it was in such bad shape.”

“We’re really just lucky that it came down to us,” she said. AS AN architect, Cole designed that second studio, a church in Catskill that since has been replaced, a privy that still stands at Cedar Grove and a home for his family that never was built because his main patron died.

“He never became a wealthy man,” Jacks said.

THE COLE house, on property that belonged to John Alexander Thomson, the uncle of Cole’s wife, Maria Bartow, is now a museum. Some of the family’s possessions, auctioned on the front lawn in the 1960s, have been returned, including Cole’s hat and box and the family china. Other displays include period items like those that Cole and his wife may have owned.

A collection of paintings previously spread throughout the house has been brought together in the North Gallery. On one canvas, a massive honey locust tree standing several feet from the main entrance can be seen in its younger days in an 1868 painting by Charles Herbert Moore.

Against the opposite wall is a display case filled with Cole’s rock collection, a sketch book, and a slab of stone found in the storehouse bearing a drawing authenticated to be the work of the artist.

“It was a doorstop, found here in the late 1990s,” Jacks said. It was holding open a door in the storehouse, where a tenant had lived until then.

RENOVATIONS at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site will continue to follow a general management plan required by the National Park Service.

Jacks said the site is following the third of three alternative courses of action. “The first is to do nothing,” she said.

The next stage in the site development won’t reflect life as it was during Cole’s time but will include a modern visitors’ center in the balance of the barn that houses the Storehouse Studio.

“If someone gives us another half-million dollars, I’m ready to do it now,” said Jacks, who previously worked as marketing director at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

THE GRAND opening celebration for the Storehouse Studio will be from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 3 and is open to the public. Special exhibitions and presentations are planned.

The museum plans to regularly host temporary exhibits, such as a collection of work by Ralph Albert Blakelock, which is on display through Oct. 31.

For more information about Cedar Grove, visit the Web site

©Daily Freeman 2005 Originally found at

rootInside the artist’s studio: Cole’s work space being restored