It’s always a wonderful success story when a cultural landmark gets rescued from oblivion by a group of interested and dedicated people. When the landmark is the former home and studio of one of America’s foremost nineteenth-century landscape painters and has not only been snatched from the demolition crew’s clutches but also been declared a National Historic Site, that’s more than wonderful–it’s a major cause for rejoicing. And on Sunday September 25 Hudson Valley art lovers were indeed rejoicing as they gathered at Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, NY, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its opening.
Landscape artist Thomas Cole (1801-1848), founder of what came to be known as the Hudson River School of art, rented space at Cedar Grove beginning in the early 1830s, and in 1836, with his marriage to Maria Bartow, niece of the owner, it became and remained his permanent home until his all-too-early death in 1848. Visit Cedar Grove and you will readily understand what an inexhaustible fount of inspiration it was for him. Not for nothing is this site spoken of as “Where American Art Was Born.”
I remember well the progress of the site from virtual ruin to cultural and historic success story. One day a number of years ago, aware that Cedar Grove lay somewhere on the road between the Thruway and the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, my son and I drove up and down and finally asked at a gas station on the corner of Routes 385 and 23–in other words, right across the road (locally named Spring Street) from the site. The attendant had no idea what we were talking about. Parking our car in a nearby side street, we looked around and eventually realized that we were standing right in front of it–only it was covered in scaffolding, and construction machinery lay strewn on the grounds.
What a difference today, when the Thomas Cole National Historic Site is well signposted, it can boast of having had more than 60,000 visitors since Opening Day, and a steady stream of cars brought people to celebrate its tenth anniversary! Entrance to the Main House was free, people enjoyed strolling the grounds, many came to the Visitors Center to take in the film that was being shown, to enjoy the homemade cookes and apple cider, and to purchase books and cards or simply to pick up literature from which to learn more.
Thankfully the weather cooperated, and so outside the Main House as well some dedicated volunteers were talking with visitors and explaining more about Thomas Cole and the site, one lady was teaching a young girl how to paint, and the Milayne Jackson Trio provided musical entertainment from the deck of the Main House. It was a great day for celebration, not only that the Thomas Cole National Historic Site has become one of the Hudson Valley’s major cultural successes, but also that so many people who were unfamiliar with Cole and his art, attracted by the signs and balloons and other publicity, were visiting and getting acquainted with the founder of the Hudson River School and his legacy. Kudos to Elizabeth Jacks, Director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, to Marie Spano who has edited a lovely booklet of excerpts from Cole’s writings, and to the corps of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers (including the interns) who bring this place to life.