Published: October 9, 2001
CATSKILL, N.Y. – Built in 1815, the cottage known as Cedar Grove was the homestead for the Thomson-Cole family for five generations and is one of 4,000 historic sites in the United States. It became the home and studio for artist Thomas Cole who created the Hudson River School of art, considered to be one of the foremost native American art movements.
The house opened to the public this summer, after a restoration project sponsored by the Greene County Historical Society. The society worked in collaboration with The Catskill Center for Conservation and Development to raise money for the project. During the development process, grants were received from the New York State Council on the Arts, the Hudson River Improvement Fund, and Benjamin Moore Paints.
A number of significant objects have been added to the Cole artifacts and artworks already in the society’s collections. Earlier gifts to the society have been returned to Cedar Grove from exhibits at the Bronck Museum. Monuments and tombstones, including those of Thomas Cole and his family, have been restored and it is the intention of the Cole heirs to transfer titles to three of these plots to the historical society.
Cedar Grove’s 3 1/2 acres with Federal brick house, old studio and privy are what remain of the 88-acre Thomson-Cole fruit farm which stretched from the Vosenkill on the west to the Hudson River on the east.
In 1815, Thomas T. Thomson commissioned the house to be built in what was then a rural district of Catskill. Thomas (a bachelor), his brother John Alexander and their spinster sister Catherine moved into the new home just before the Christmas holidays of 1815. Soon, four nieces of John Alexander Thomson (including one Maria Bartow who would eventually marry Thomas Cole) moved to Cedar Grove as well. The girls affectionately referred to Thomson as “Uncle Sandy.”
In 1825, artist Thomas Cole (1801-1848) traveled up the Hudson from New York City to hike and sketch in the northern Catskills. He became so enamored of the location that he returned nearly every year and in time rented an “outbuilding” from “Uncle Sandy” for a summer studio.
He fell in love with Maria Bartow, and they were married in the west parlor on November 22, 1836. Cedar Grove would be the couple’s permanent home for the rest of their lives.
Cedar Grove was a very crowded household in the years before the north wing was built. While the west parlor and the ground floor rooms were used by all, Uncle Sandy had his bed-sitting room in the east parlor, which today is the renovated Florence Haswell Cole Vincent Gallery.
Directly above was sleeping space for Maria Cole’s unmarried sisters, while the Cole family used the two bedrooms on the west side across the upstairs hallway. One served as the nursery, and the other was the master bedroom, the room in which Cole ultimately died.
Visitors to Cedar Grove entered the house via the main entrance off the piazza, a long open porch which afforded unimpeded views of the Catskills and surrounding areas. In the 1800s one could linger on the piazza and enjoy an unobstructed view of the Catskills and the house’s pastoral surroundings. In 2001, one can still gaze out from the piazza and see the Catskills, but development has brought more houses and other structures into the view.
Entering through the main hallway, one sees the tiger maple banister, which runs uninterrupted for four flights from Cedar Grove’s basement to the “Sky parlor.” Two Empire style pier tables in this hallway are original to the house and belonged to the Cole family. The coat hooks by the door are like the ones the family would have used for coats and wraps.
One continues to the west parlor, the room in which Maria Bartow and Thomas Cole were married in 1836. A small oil painting on the wall of Cedar Grove (circa 1868) is the work of artist Charles Herbert Moore, a local artist who lived just north of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. He founded the Harvard School of Art and later, in England, became an expert on Gothic architecture and was knighted by Queen Victoria. The painting was a gift to the house from Edith Cole Silberstein, Thomas and Maria Cole’s great granddaughter.
This parlor also contains several of Thomas Cole’s personal belongings including his only surviving sketch box with an interior scene he painted in Sicily; his folding sketch field chair; and mortar and pestle used to grind his paints before prepared tube paints came into use. On the nearby sofa table are Cole’s flutes and by the window is the harp zither-like instrument he designed.
On the wall over the antique mantel is a reproduction of Cole’s “The Angels Administering to Christ in the Wilderness.” The original hung there for decades.
Other antique furnishings in the room include the sofa, the Sheraton fancy armchair, tea table, reading chair and drop lid card table.
Past the west parlor is the north gallery, which will be used in the future for exhibits.
The east parlor is now the principal exhibit space in the house but was originally
Uncle Sandy’s bed-sitting room. Today it houses the Florence Haswell Cole Vincent Gallery, which offers exhibits and information illustrating Cole’s life at Cedar Grove.
Three original Thomas Cole paintings hang in the gallery to the right of the fireplace. Three paintings by Cole’s sister Sarah are hanging on the wall to the left of the fireplace. They depict English scenes, including the Anglican Church in which their parents were married.
A display case in the room’s center holds Cole family memorabilia including a letter written from Cedar Grove and pieces of daughter Emily’s tea set.
On the second floor we see the west bedroom and nursery which were the living quarters for the Cole family described earlier.
Down the hall, the north gallery was Thomas Cole’s winter studio. It also may have been the room used by artist Frederic Church during the two years that he studied with Cole. Items on display in this room include Cole’s large easel, which was used for his large canvases such as “Voyage of Life” and “The Course of the Empire;” folio reference volumes on the slant-top desk; a cabinet of curiosities collected by Thomas Cole at various times during his travels; and plaster casts created by Cole.
The upstairs east wing, originally sleeping quarters for the Thomson-Cole nieces, has been transformed into another spacious gallery and renamed the Kaaterskill Clove Gallery as a memorial to Catherine Shaffer Beecher.
The Kaaterskill Clove Gallery is home to artwork by Benjamin Bellows Grant Stone, a student of Benjamin Champney and Jasper Cropsy. He was a member of the second generation of Hudson River School artists.
On the grounds of Cedar Grove, a Victorian privy still stands and has been restored to its original charm. Behind it stands the building originally rented as a summer studio by Thomas Cole before he married Maria Bartow and moved into the main house. This studio will be renovated as part of the long-range plans for the continued restoration of the entire site.
Cedar Grove is at 218 Spring Street. For information, 518-943-7465 or 518-943-9350.
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