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Art, Wine & the Hudson Valley’s Viticultural Past

Black and white photo of Gardener Charles Frier with basket, in the kitchen garden at Olana, 1906.

The Hudson River Valley has long been known as a world-class destination for art, wine and cultural experiences. From the early days of the 19th century, there was a distinctly entrepreneurial feel to the growth of these three industries in this region. It has been well documented that the Hudson Valley was also a major grape breeding center in the United States, and nurseries and horticultural hobbyists alike delighted in experimenting in creating new grape varieties both for winemaking and table consumption.

The Art of Growing Grapes

The pairing of art and wine is not a new concept along the shores of the Hudson Valley. During the 19th century, the American Country House came into prominence. This, in itself, was a new type of art in American architecture—sumptuous and at times ostentatious and built at great expense, with furnishings and fine art that reflected the wealth and prestige of its owner. These families were America’s elite, who had independent fortunes that afforded them the luxury of retiring to their estates in the Valley to enjoy their leisure time. An integral component of the estate was the gardens, and indeed many of these estates became working farms.

For the so-called “gentleman farmer,” the love of his estate was not just for the house and its interior collections of art and artifacts, but also for the land. For these tycoons of industry, their huge estates with working farms were built for the sheer enjoyment and challenge of farming the land and experimenting with new varieties of plants and produce. With time and money at their disposal, the gentleman farmer enjoyed overseeing the cultivation of new and exotic varieties of plants, shrubs and fruit trees, including the often problematic grape vine.

Grapes and Wine in America

The cultivation of the grape itself is tied into the early history of both New York state and our nation. America, in the beginning of the 19th century, was a land of great promise, and the hopes of many were fueled by the limitless possibilities available. Americans were eager to develop their own identities and reduce their dependence on products from England and Europe. To that end, there was a distinct push to create beverages that were uniquely American.

Just after the Revolutionary War in America, rum, brandy and whiskey were the most popular distilled liquors of the time. Hard cider and beer were also widely available and often brewed locally. Wine, on the other hand, was mostly a beverage of the wealthy. Native grape varieties had not yet resulted in a commercially successful wine product, so wine had to be imported from Europe. To the average American, however, wine was viewed not as a social beverage, but rather only for medicinal or sacramental purposes.

Enter Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States who for over 30 years was consumed with the dream of producing a good, drinkable table wine made from native American grapes. Jefferson’s views and passion for grape growing were not just his own. Many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, were amateur horticulturists who began our nation’s love affair with the grape, often sharing their experiences with each other. By the first decades of the 19th century vineyardists began to experiment with crossing the native labrusca with the European stock and saw their first signs of encouragement.

When Art Met Wine

Many of the large estates, owned by industrialists, artists and businessmen, during America’s “Golden Age,” sported well-kept orchards and greenhouses. Experienced gardeners and horticulturists were essential staff of any well-maintained estate and undoubtedly there was a rather informal competition underway between these country estates in developing and growing plant species, both exotic and natural, including the grape.

Holiday Table Setting in the Dining Room at Olana. Courtesy Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, NY. New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Among the many beautiful and historic country estates along the Hudson River, four stand out for their dedication to growing and developing graperies and vineyards: Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site—home to both Thomas Thomson and Thomas Cole; Olana State Historic Site—the Persian-style home of Frederic E. Church; Locust Grove—the Samuel F. B. Morse Historic Site; and Lyndhurst, a National Trust Historic Site— home of George Merritt and Jay Gould. All were stately country homes that included large gardens which were a horticulturist’s delight—exotic trees and flowers, and also a large variety of fruits and vegetables. Not only were the homes the center of art and beauty, but the grounds themselves and the myriad plants, shrubs and trees, artfully placed throughout the estate and in greenhouses, were part of the overall artistic impression of the property at large.

Of particular interest to the gentleman farmer of the day was the often frustrating cultivation of the grape. Grapes for the most part were grown for the table, and it was not unusual to grow a wide variety of grapes to suit the different palates of the various guests to the estate. With difficult growing conditions and the emergence of hundreds of new and experimental varieties, grape growing in the east became an art unto itself. A closer examination of these four country homes will reveal how art and wine are intimately intertwined with the art of growing grapes in the Valley.

Cedar Grove, Home of Thomas Cole

portrait of famed artist Thomas Cole, circa 1844
Thomas Cole, daguerreotype from the
studio of Mathew B. Brady, c.1844-48. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (Daguerreotype Collection).

Picturesque Cedar Grove in the village of Catskill, NY, now a National Historic Site, was built in 1816, originally by Thomas Thomson, from the fortune he amassed as a merchant in Demerera, South America. Thomson used the English blockade of America during the War of 1812 to his advantage, making Demerera his base of operations in his trade with England and the American states. Upon his death in 1821, Thomson left his estate and home, Cedar Grove, to his brother John Alexander Thompson—known as “Uncle Sandy”— and sister Catherine. Uncle Sandy invited the four daughters of his widowed sister Maria Bartow to live with him in Catskill after the death of Catherine, taking a very fatherly interest in the young girls’ education and future. Young Maria Bartow caught the eye of famed artist Thomas Cole, while he was staying at Cedar Grove, and the two married in 1836. It was here at Cedar Grove that Thomas Cole created many of the masterpieces that assured his fame as founder of the Hudson River School of Art movement.

Uncle Sandy had become passionately involved in horticultural pursuits, virtually from the date the house was completed. He developed large orchards and loved to experiment with new types of fruit varieties. Preserved at the New York State Library at Albany, in the Thomson Family Collection, are many of the receipts and invoices for the purchase of fruit trees and plants at Cedar Grove. One receipt, dated 1824, documents 16 grape vines purchased from William Prince’s Linneaean Botanic Gardens, in Long Island, among them Black Madeira, White Muscadine, Red Frontignac and Red Muscat of Jerusalem. Nearly all the vines ordered produced table grapes, except for two—York Black Madeira and “French Chocolate Coloured”—which were popular wine grape varieties of the time. One wonders whether Cedar Grove was experimenting with the cultivation of grapevines for the making of wine or simply for the dinner table.

There is no evidence discovered to date that the Thomson or Cole families were ever successful in developing a commercial or homemade wine from their vineyard. Indeed, in family correspondence from 1831, mention is made of ordering a cask of wine and a basket of champagne from New York City, and sending it to Catskill on the next available sloop. In another, from 1842, Thomas Cole places an order for port wine, one gallon of which had to be returned due to “inferior quality.” From the extant wine cellar which can be found at historic Cedar Grove, and from surviving letters, it’s at least clear that the family was ordering European wines during the lifetimes of Uncle Sandy and Thomas Cole.

Frederic Church and Olana State Historic Site

American landscape painter Frederic E. Church began his association with the Hudson River Valley as a student of Thomas Cole. Together they tramped through the Catskill Mountains, capturing the beauty of nature on canvas. A favorite spot was the top of a hill overlooking the shimmering waters of the Hudson River, with imposing views of the Catskills, which had became a favorite sketching spot for the duo in the 1840s.

portrait of artist Frederic Churca, circa 1860s
Frederic E. Church, c.1860s. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (Brady-Handy Photograph Collection).

On March 31, 1860, just months before his marriage to Isabel Carnes, Church purchased the 126-acre farm on the south facing slope of that hill in Columbia County, near the thriving town of Hudson and across the river from Catskill and Cedar Grove. It was here that he first built “Cosy Cottage” and where he and Isabel began to develop their working ornamental farm. Church laid out a profitable fifteenand- a-half acre orchard and over four acres of vegetable and fruit gardens, dredged a marsh to create a ten-acre lake and created a landscaped park, planting thousands of native trees. It was important to Church that the grounds of his property mirror the principles of art found in the monumental, larger-than-life landscapes that he painted. By 1867 Church acquired the parcel of woods at the top of his hill and began to plan for the building of his Persian-inspired country mansion, Olana.

Theodore Cole, the son of Thomas Cole, was a young artist who took drawing lessons from Church. Theodore was also an experienced gardener, and Church hired him in the 1860s to oversee his farm and orchards at Olana. Letters survive which detail the efforts the younger Cole made to introduce new fruit trees and grape vines. In one, from September 12th, 1868, Theodore writes to Church that “The grapes are very good…We just had a fair at Catskill…our (yours and mine) grapes took the prize.”

black & white view of vineryard at Lyndhurst, circa 1870s
The grape vineyard, which was installed for George Merritt, the second owner of Lyndhurst. View is to the northwest section of the Lyndhurst property with vineyard to the far left, and Tappan Zee section of the Hudson River in the background. Circa early 1870s. Courtesy of Archives Department, Lyndhurst, A National Trust Historic Site, Tarrytown, NY.

He writes further, on November 29, 1868, that: “I want to put out a few more Grape Vines for you. You have a great place for grapes…we have some new kinds now…Israella.” The Israella grape was a new grape variety developed by Dr. C.W. Grant, an amateur horticulturist who operated several “graperies,” or greenhouses, in the early 1860s, in Iona, NY. Grant began experimenting with different vines, notably Israella and Iona, to create a grape suitable for wine. He met with varied success, but Theodore Cole was certainly ready to give Grant’s new vines a try. It’s unclear, though, whether Cole bought them direct from Grant, or transferred any of these cuttings from Cedar Grove to Olana.

The archives of Olana also show that, in addition to the vineyard, the Church family purchased various kinds of imported wines from Europe — predominantly French Bordeaux — for their dining enjoyment. The Churches entertained often and lavishly, and it would be important to them to have reputable wines available for their guest’s enjoyment. Receipts in the Olana archives show bottles of “Chateau Léoville,” “St. Julien OL Bussilot” and “Chateau La Rose” (Americanized spellings of these famous French vineyards) being ordered from the preeminent wine importers of the day, such as Clement Heerdt & Co. and Clement F. Kross, among others. Nonetheless, some viticultural experimentation was taking place at the Olana estate, evident in the remnants of the trellis system and the wild native grapes growing in the former orchard, that are still visible today.

The Locust Grove Estate

Locust Grove is the 180-acre estate of artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse. Together with a Georgian house overlooking the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, NY, the property was purchased by Morse, in 1847 from the Livingston family. Samuel F. B. Morse was born in Massachusetts, and as a Yale student, he attended lectures on electricity and supported himself as a painter. Upon graduating from Yale, Morse continued his career as a painter for several decades, until a voyage back from Europe in 1833, when he first conceived the idea of the electromagnetic telegraph. It would be several years before his invention caught on, and though he had virtually abandoned his art career, Morse’s ultimate success with the telegraph allowed him bring his family together and acquire the farm that he would rechristen Locust Grove.

The property had long been a working farm and Morse continued to expand the landscaping, orchards and graperies throughout his long life. Morse was strongly affected by the Romantic Movement and used his artist’s eye to create an appealing and comfortable setting for plants, trees and gardens. Together with renowned Romantic architect Alexander Jackson Davis, Morse redesigned the villa in the Italianate style, housing within it an extensive collection of American and European decorative and fine arts.

view of the west facade of Locust Grove, with the Morse family, circa 1870
West facade of Locust Grove, with the Morse family, c.1870. The structure on the left is one of several conservatories, which housed some of Morse’s grape vines. Courtesy of Locust Grove, The Samuel Morse Historic Site.

Morse’s long-time gardener, Thomas Devoy, oversaw the lawns, orchards, and the grape vines. Morse valued his gardener’s skill and bragged in a letter to a friend in 1862, that his gardener was “very successful in the culture of grapes.” Morse took full advantage of his grapery—and of growing grapes “under glass,” which was a fairly popular practice at the time and allowed a gardener to provide a controlled environment for growing plants of all kinds. This was particularly effective in growing grapes, which required the right temperature, the right soil, good ventilation and an effective control over pests and disease.

As with many of the gentleman farmers of the era, Morse’s interest in his graperies was primarily for table grape production. He instructed Devoy in 1859 to “take care of the garden and grapery, and lawns, as usual…” with specific instructions to: “Dispose of the produce of the garden to the best advantage to Messrs. Carpenters and Brothers, Main Street, or to Mr. Pine, or to others, if better terms can be had.” Although independently wealthy, Morse ran his gardens and graperies like a business, constantly seeking out new varieties of plants to add to his collection, and selling the produce commercially. Using his “hot house”—his heated grapery—Morse was able to “force” his grapes off-season to ensure a year-round supply of table grapes for personal and commercial use.

Lyndhurst – The Jay Gould Estate

The story of Lyndhurst, its Gothic Revival mansion, and its famous steel-framed conservatory is as fascinating as the man with whom the house is most intimately associated. Situated in Tarrytown, just north of New York City, and overlooking the Hudson River, Lyndhurst was the rural retreat for the noted Gould family. Jay Gould was born in Roxbury, Delaware Co., to a farming family, but from a young age showed great drive and ambition. After moving to New York City he became the quintessential American financier and a leading American railroad developer and speculator. His ruthlessness and business savvy made him unpopular, but a very rich man indeed—upon his death in 1892, he left an estate valued at 72 million dollars.

grapes growing in the grapery section of the Lyndhurst conservatory, circa 1880s
Grapes growing in the ‘grapery’ portion of the Lyndhurst conservatory. The vines were trained to follow the curved roof contour to receive the maximum amount of sunshine. c.1880s. Courtesy of Archives Department, Lyndhurst, A National Trust Historic Site, Tarrytown, NY.

Gould, like many plutocrats of the late 19th century, was looking for a country estate where he could escape the pressures of city life when he acquired Lyndhurst in 1880. On the northwest section of the property was a large vineyard of grapes, along with a massive, 390-foot-long wooden greenhouse, which had been commissioned by merchant George Merritt, the previous owner. The greenhouse had sat empty from Merritt’s death in 1873 until Gould purchased the property. Gould immediately set out to fill it up with forty thousand exotic plants from every corner of the earth. Tragedy struck on December 11, 1880, when the Merritt conservatory burned to the ground along with the loss of all the plants.

Gould’s passion for horticulture had been ignited, though, and he immediately commissioned the building of a new metal greenhouse structure on the same site. The greenhouse, manufactured and erected by the Lord & Burnham Company of Irvington, NY, was the first steel-framed conservatory manufactured in the United States. It was built in the Gothic Revival style to complement the architecture of the house, which had been built from 1840–42, by architect Alexander Jackson Davis for Lyndhurst’s first owner, former New York City mayor William Paulding.

Davis, as noted earlier, was one of the premier architects of the Romantic movement. Romanticism emphasized untamed nature, freedom of expression and the use of the imagination in all levels of life. Davis’ vision for the Lyndhurst estate freely used elements from a variety of architectural styles, with a view to ensuring that the final structure harmonized with its country surroundings. In theory, this “picturesque” architecture ensured that the villa was more like nature itself—irregular in shape, rough in texture, using bold contrasts.

Alexander Jackson Davis also partnered with Andrew Jackson Downing in the mid-19th century. While Davis worked in the Romantic architecture of the day, Andrew Jackson Downing was his contemporary in developing Romantic landscapes that complemented the architecture on the grounds. Downing was not only a landscape designer; he was also a horticulturist and promoted the use of grape vines in his landscape designs. It is not surprising, then, that like Samuel Morse, Merritt and Gould both embraced the growing of grapes, first in a large vineyard, and later in the greenhouse under more controlled conditions.

When Gould purchased Lyndhurst he retained Merritt’s head gardener, Ferdinand Mangold, who had been largely responsible for converting the grounds into the lush, park-like setting that had first impressed Gould. To manage the greenhouse, he hired another German immigrant, Adam Fehr. The greenhouse was divided into fourteen zones or “departments,” including areas for roses and carnations, azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias and flowering bulbs, and an orchid house.

Plan of the 1881 conservatory at Lyndhurst, showing the grapery sections
Lyndhurst grapery. Plan of the 1881 conservatory, showing the four sections dedicated to grape growing. Courtesy of Archives Department, Lyndhurst, A National Trust Historic Site, Tarrytown, NY.

One wing of the greenhouse—four grapery sections in all—was dedicated to the growing of grapes, with the vines trained to follow the roof contour to receive the maximum amount of sunshine. The climate in the rooms of the greenhouse was strictly controlled, and temperature, humidity, light and ventilation were manipulated to meet the needs of diverse variety of plants, and to ensure that fresh grapes, and other fruits and vegetables, were available year round.

After Gould’s death, in 1892, his daughter Helen continued to enlarge the greenhouse collections, adding new plantings. The vineyard was removed by Helen after 1905, sometime after the death of gardener Mangold. Following her own death in 1938, and in an effort towards conservation during the World War II years, Helen’s sister, Anna, the Duchess of Talleyrand-Perigord, closed the greenhouse, and the remaining plants gradually disappeared. Evidence exists that there was a substantial wine cellar present at Lyndhurst when the Duchess died in 1961, though the stock had disappeared by the time of the transfer to the Lyndhurst Trust several years later.

Art and Wine in the Hudson Valley

The owners of each of these estates viewed the art of horticulture as an elemental ingredient to the beauty and success of their properties. These same homeowners undoubtedly enjoyed fine wines imported from Europe, but they also saw great opportunities in experimenting with new grape varieties and using new techniques to enhance their viticultural experiences.

It seems natural to think of wine and art in the same breath. The appreciation of any piece of art, or the beauty of any landscape – natural or designed – is a personal experience; a process that is almost emotional. Appreciating good wine evokes that same emotional response. And further, the process of creating wine is in itself, an art, developed over time. It is logical then, that wine and art should go together.

Top: Gardener Charles Frier in the kitchen garden at Olana, 1906. Courtesy of Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, NY. New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
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