a place in the country

Mission and memories at the Olmsted Camp

by Paula Voell

The Buffalo News May 17, 1996

Emily Oprea remembers well driving through the countryside during the 1960s with her grandfather, Harold LeRoy Olmsted, a painter, architect, landscape artist.

As they wandered through the Western New York countryside, if something about a house caught his attention, he’d tell her to stop. She’d object, saying that they were complete strangers.

“Nonsense,” he’d say. “They’d be happy to see us.”

And they were.

Occupants were often so delighted to greet the man carrying a gnarly wooden stick and clomping onto their steps with his wooden shoes that they’d invite him to stay to dinner, where he’d tell them stories about the architecture of their house.

Olmsted, a distant relative of Frederick Law Olmsted, had fine credentials to do so, with many buildings and gardens of the wealthy to his credit, including the Italian Gardens of the Twentieth Century Club, as well as Buffalo houses on St. Catherine’s Court and Nottingham Terrace.

Sympathy letters after his death are filled with affection for the man and praise for his talent. “He was the sage of Springville and would that we were half as wise!” wrote art collector Charles R. Penney. “He will be greatly missed by us all, but we are so much richer to have known his friendship.”

Such are the memories that swirl around the 188-acres of the Olmsted Camp in Sardinia, where Ms. Oprea now lives.

Next week there’s a chance for the public to see this place of astonishing beauty, both natural and man-made. The Western New York Land Conservancy, of which Mrs. Oprea is a founding member, is sponsoring a fund-raising event called “A Day in the Country.” (See accompanying story.)

Here, people can see country gardens, planted in memory of family members, lushly overflowing with peonies, violets, pasture rose, irises and columbine. Horses in nearby fields. And a view of Little Blue and Big Blue hills in neighboring Cattaraugus County.

Most impressive of the buildings is the Olmsted Camp, which has been designated as an Erie County historic site.

Built in 1909, the homestead was designed by Olmsted, who had graduated the year before from Harvard University with a degree in architecture, for his older brother John Morgan, his wife, Marguerite, and their three children. It cost $3,000, using lumber shipped from Buffalo’s Pitts Lumber.

The young architect seems to have been influenced by many styles: a Frank Lloyd Wright look can be seen in the windows and roof; an Arts and Crafts feeling, especially in the solid, square furniture built by the original carpenters; and a floor plan that resembles the Adirondack style. The exterior
is of board and batten design (perhaps in rough pine) and includes a veranda and gallery with small chairs and tables and two Gloucester hammocks, where a person could be content for a whole summer.

Family legend has it that Harold’s father, John Bartow Olmsted, was on a fishing trip from Buffalo when he saw the property as he walked Hosmer Creek to Cattaraugus Creek. He was so taken by the view, and the sweetness of the drink of water that was offered by the owner’s daughter, that he asked the owners if he could bring his family for a visit.

For several summers Olmsted, his wife and six sons rented the north wing of the farmhouse, and they became friends of the Hopkins family. Eventually they used pasture land for a campsite, starting with tents which were later replaced with cabins.

The property overflows with tales, some from Ms. Oprea’s girlhood, some from more recent times when she ran concerts on the wide veranda.

For years she has organized Olmsted Camp concerts, which have included performances by her late sister Judy Roderick, whose “Woman Blue” has just been rereleased by Vanguard; singer Spencer Bohren, who plays Delta blues on a 1928 National steel guitar; Buffalo’s Outer Circle Orchestra, and singer Michelle Shocked.

“It’s a place that identifies us,” she said.

“We had all the wizened ones helping with the children. Everyone between 2 and 82 was here, playing croquet and tennis and raising the flag. There would always be an adult within 20 feet of a child,” said Ms. Oprea, who is divorced and the mother of Emilia, an assistant expedition leader for a group that runs eco-tourism trips around the world; Ileana, who is teaching in the L.I.F.E. school in Panajachel, Guatemala, and Mircea, who works as a corporate headhunter in San Diego.

Each August is family month. That’s when 30 or 40 Olmsted descendants arrive, bringing friends from New York City, from California, from wherever they are living.

Family members pay $20 per night for their stay, which includes three meals and a chance to swim at the clay banks of Cattaraugus Creek and gather for meals out of the camp house kitchen, where dozens are served at a time.

“It’s a real sense of continuity,” said Ms. Oprea. “I know that by the time they leave, they are sick of hearing about tradition.”

For 20 years, Ms. Oprea, now 57, had lived in Connecticut (down the road from Martha Stewart) while her ex-husband taught at Columbia University.

During that time, she says: “I was a hustler. I had a French degree, so I subbed and tutored and did research for writers.” She also worked for a realty investment firm as its investment relations manager. Once her children were out of college, she longed to return to this area.

“I wanted to get to the camp,” said Ms. Oprea, who moved back in 1984 and is now the farm manager, meaning that she gets to worry about replacing roofs on the barns and outbuildings and is laying new striping on the tennis courts, which are made of clay mined from Cattaraugus Creek.

“I’ve always wanted to be here. I like being in a place so that people know where I am. And I have to have a view in the morning. Now I can walk wherever I want. I can just keep going and going.”

In 1992, Ms. Oprea and her siblings, who own the property jointly, had to make major decisions about repairs.

The result: “OK, it’s time to save it,” she said. The house was lifted seven feet to enable contractors to sink concrete support posts for a firm foundation. Red cedar shingles, which were hand-trimmed, and copper flashing were installed on the roof, and Douglas fir boards were laid for a new veranda.

Ms. Oprea, who helped organize the Western New York Land Conservancy, headquartered at her home, works to preserve the kind of open space that she lives with every day.

“Our philosophy is that those who take the time to document the countryside, and those who purchase (or merely view) their work, just might take a moment to appreciate the treasures we in Western New York enjoy,” she said.

This was republished from The Buffalo News ArchiveĀ Buffalo News A Place in the Country