Architecture Critic Michael Kimmelman Celebrates Saving of “Crucial” Russell Page Garden

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Critic’s Notebook: Frick Collection Spares a Prized Garden

By Michael Kimmelman / June 4, 2015

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A rendering of the Frick Collection’s proposed renovation. Credit Neoscape Inc.

City Hall did the right thing this week, nudging the Frick Collection back to the drawing board, where it should have returned a year ago. Until recently, that museum had clung to its plan to demolish a prized garden on East 70th Street in Manhattan and replace it with an ungainly six-story addition. A coalition of architects, preservationists and landscape designers, joined recently by the Municipal Art Society, had been trying for months to stop the plan.

The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio let the Frick know that the proposal couldn’t survive the gantlet of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The museum had no choice. It issued a gracious statement on Thursday morning, thanking everyone, including opponents “who share a great deal of affection and respect for the institution.” The museum promised to come up with a new plan, one that would spare the Russell Page-designed garden.

Alternate plans are already out there. Various architects, alarmed by the Frick proposal, have toiled for months on hypothetical expansion schemes just to prove to the museum that it could get all, or most, of what it wants in better ways, at a similar cost. I’ve seen a couple of these plans. Frick officials might also want to take a look, if they haven’t yet.

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A gated garden was to be eliminated. Credit Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

For a long time, they were obviously stupefied by the defense of what they call “the viewing garden” — a nuisance and an afterthought to them. It was their Cinderella.

This is not the larger, more conspicuous garden that occupies the corner of 70th Street and Fifth Avenue. It is the small one east along the block, on the narrow site of a former townhouse where the museum had hoped to expand. During the 1970s, the Frick admirably hired Mr. Page, the distinguished British landscape architect, to design it. The garden is his only completed work in New York City: a gated tableau, flowering and Zenlike, with a rectangular pool surrounded by pea gravel paths and boxwood. Glimpsed from inside the Frick’s reception hall or by passersby outside the museum, it has long been a respite from the street wall, one of those pocket-sized wonders of daily life in the city.

Perhaps only temporary in the minds of Frick officials, the garden has been around for almost 40 years, approaching as long as the bygone Penn Station that McKim, Mead & White designed. Generations of New Yorkers have grown up with the serendipity of the garden’s open space and the subtle but crucial role it plays in sustaining the domestic scale of the Frick mansion.

Unlikely or not, Page’s garden is where landscape advocates decided to make a stand. Not just buildings but the spaces between those buildings should command our respect and shape policy toward development and preservation. Saving the garden has helped open up a fresh public conversation about urbanism and street life.

What next?

Countless people love the Frick as is. The public never clamored for change. But the museum has needs, its officials say. The proposal by Davis Brody Bond, a respected New York firm, was the real problem, not expansion. Its bloated plan sought to blend in with the Frick’s existing Beaux-Arts architecture, inelegantly. Carrère and Hastings designed the original mansion for Henry Clay Frick a century ago. John Russell Pope expanded on it during the 1930s, making the house a museum. The bar couldn’t have been set higher, architecturally speaking. The proposal by Davis Brody Bond wasn’t up to it.

For years, officials at the Whitney Museum of American Art, then a few blocks north, tried to expand their Madison Avenue building, enlisting headline architects like Michael Graves, Rem Koolhaas and Renzo Piano. In retrospect, both the city and the museum are lucky those attempts failed.

The Frick is lucky, too. One of the alternate plans I’ve seen, by Helpern Architects, calls for renovating existing spaces, mostly below ground, where the museum could move offices, educational services and upgrade its auditorium. The Frick proposed opening some historic rooms on the second floor as galleries, which this plan includes. The plan tinkers with the Frick library next door, mostly keeping it, while improving wheelchair access to the museum; enlarging the reception hall; and adding gallery and office spaces, a cafe overlooking Mr. Page’s garden and a trustees’ lounge. A modest addition would tuck behind the garden. The scheme unobtrusively provides the Frick with even more program space than the Davis Brody Bond plan.

It’s just one idea. The Frick might also do well to think out of the box, about acquiring nearby real estate or remaking the library building into a true 21st-century research center, instead of preserving its antiquated book stacks. It might think smaller and smarter. It might think about modern architecture.

The withdrawal of its expansion plan is a blow to the trustees, but yes, it is sign of how deeply loved the Frick is.

It’s a victory for good government, too, and a golden opportunity to do better.

To read the full article on the New York Times’ website, click here.

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