by Shannon Butler

Have you ever been inside some of our local historic post offices and admired the murals? Those paintings are there thanks to the vision of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and some of his New Deal programs including the Public Works of Art program (PWAP) which was established in 1933 and  The Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture (later known as the Section of Fine Arts), commonly known as the Section. The plan was to put America’s great artists to work and for one local artist, these programs made his work famous (at least to us locals).

Olin Dows was born right here in the Hudson Valley at Irvington-on-Hudson in 1904. His family moved to Rhinebeck when he was four years old. His father, Tracy Dows had married Alice Olin whose Livingston wealth allowed them to build a lovely estate which became known as Foxhollow Farm. When Olin was 12, he attended St. Mark’s School in Southboro MA where he figured out at an early age that he wanted to be a painter. He stated that his inspirations included great artists of the past as well as more modern minds, which included everything from Michelangelo to Maxfield Parrish. As a small boy, he had the chance to learn drawing from C.K. Chatterton who taught art at Vassar College. After studying art at Harvard, he ventured on to Yale Art School, it was very clear that his passion for art would be his focus for the rest of his life.

In the 1930’s he began working with the various art programs that were coming out of the New Deal and he later wrote, “It was an important experience, it gave me a sense of the greatness of this country, and the power of the American artists.” By 1940, Olin was put to work painting the murals that can be seen at both the Rhinebeck and Hyde Park Post Offices. His inspiration was the history of both of those towns and he was sure to reach out to local historians and librarians for the assistance including FDR (who you’ll remember was the historian of Hyde Park), Helen Wilkinson Reynolds, and Albertina Traver and Amy Ver Nooy from Adriance Library (hey, that’s our place!). He painted everything from early forms of work like farming and fishing, to the creation of churches, the grand estates, he even included some of the local enslaved individuals and Native Americans.

When World War II broke out, Olin did his part and served with the 35th Infantry Division where he got the chance to document the war, up close and personal. He was asked to serve as a War Artist and brought with him “a notebook, a fountain pen, a camera, and a carbine.” After the war, he worked on a book of art that focused on the life and estate of his neighbor and friend, FDR. “Franklin Roosevelt at Hyde Park” was published in 1949 and has 174 illustrations that look at every angle of FDR’s life. When you head into the visitor’s center at the Presidential Library and Museum you find a mosaic tile map on the floor which is based on the map that Olin map for his book.

Olin continued to live and work in Rhinebeck the rest of his life. The Daily Freeman reported in 1973 that he was still working and painting in his studio 7 hours a day at the age of 68. He continued to work until his death in 1981 and is buried in the Rhinebeck Cemetery along with most of the Dows family. When life gets back to normal, make sure to check out the map at the Henry Wallace Visitors center as well as the murals at the Rhinebeck and Hyde Park Post Offices.

For further reading check out Our time at Foxhollow Farm: a Hudson Valley Family Remembered by David Byars