New York Invests in New Look for Birthplace of America’s First Art Movement

The birthplace of America’s first art movement is getting a makeover. The Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Upstate New York broke ground on a new visitor’s center and infrastructure improvements designed to increase tourism and promote the region’s economic growth.

Thomas Cole National Historic Site

The Thomas Cole National Historic Site, nestled in the hills of Catskill, NY, preserves the home and studios of one of America’s most renowned painters, Thomas Cole. Approximately 20000 art lovers visit the site each year to explore Cole’s parlors and immerse themselves in his art, according to Jennifer Greim, Director of Advancement and External Affairs.

In addition to memorializing Cole, the site partners with the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to maintain the Hudson River School Art Trail. The trail comprises a vast network of hiking trails showcasing the picturesque scenery featured in early landscape paintings. 

New York Breaks New Ground

The Catskill Mountain Region celebrates its history as ground zero for the influential art movement. Greene County purchased the Thomas Cole home in 1998, opening it to the public in 2001. Since then, it’s undergone numerous renovations, including the reconstruction of Cole’s “New Studio” and the addition of the Hudson River Skywalk.

The latest project, which broke ground in November, seeks to improve the guest experience with a new visitor’s center featuring a gift shop, café, and open patio. The Cole Center will also host an orientation for visitors, special events, and creative activities.

Renowned celebrity architect Stephen Shadley, who also serves on the center’s board of trustees, designed the new building pro-bono, using Cole’s 19th-century designs as an inspiration.

Project Impact and Development

Empire State Development (ESD), New York’s primary economic development agency, invested in the project, offering a $360,000 grant which contributed to the $1.8 million total given by New York State to support the historic site.

The Thomas Cole National Historic Site is an economic driver in the region. Elizabeth B. Jacks, Executive Director of the Center, highlights the economic significance of the museum. “A recent economic impact study found that the Thomas Cole Site has a $2.5 million value-added impact on the county every year,” she said at the groundbreaking ceremony.

Improvements at the site will support the growth of tourism in the area, improve climate conditions to aid in preserving historical pieces, and enhance the visitor experience. 

Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School

Cole founded the Hudson River School, America’s first art movement, in the mid-19th century. Upon moving to New York, he sailed to the Catskill Mountains, sketching the Hudson River landscape along the way. Once settled, he produced a series of dramatic works showcasing the region’s majestic wilderness and sparked a movement.

The first generation of Hudson River School artists flocked to the Catskill region to capture America’s natural splendor. While some focused on the serenity of peaceful scenes, others emphasized the magnitude of nature’s untapped power with dramatic storm clouds.

The next generation pushed west with American expansion. These artists celebrated the untouched beauty of the Great American Plains and explored the remote valleys of Yosemite in California. As they traveled the nation and displayed the hidden treasures of the land in New York, they reinforced the idea of Manifest Destiny, which was gaining popularity at the time. 

The Hudson River School celebrated the untouched American landscape and contributed to the romanticism of western expansion.

Visiting the Thomas Cole Center

The new visitors center will open near the end of 2023, but if you’re planning a visit before that, don’t fret. Greim assures us that the current visitor center and gift shop will remain open throughout construction, as will all the historic buildings and exhibitions.

The Thomas Cole National Historic Site is an ideal weekend getaway spot for residents across the North East, as it’s less than 200 miles from the region’s largest three cities (New York, Philadelphia, and Boston). Those wishing to travel by air should fly into Albany airport, located 40 miles to the North.

As a popular tourist location, the region abounds with small hotels and bed & breakfasts, providing plenty of lodging options for travelers on any budget. 

The Thomas Cole Center is already must-see for art lovers and American history buffs, and the new visitor’s center will make it a bucket list destination for everyone.