AT RISK: THE RUSSELL PAGE GARDEN & THE RECEPTION HALL PAVILION
Designed by Russell Page as a permanent installation and completed in 1977, the Frick’s 70th Street Viewing Garden is more than a passive green space – it is a work of art. In the same way the paintings adorning the mansion’s walls have been acquired – both during the lifetime of the Collection’s namesake, industrialist Henry Clay Frick, and after his death, via the Board of Trustees – so the Page garden is part of the institution’s collection, to be appreciated and protected by the Frick.
—SOURCE: “Chapter 1: The Frick Collection,” from American Art Museum Architecture: Documents and Design by Eric Wolf, 2010.
A Landscape Architect book review of The Gardens of Russell Page (2008) states,“British landscape architect Russell Page is arguably the greatest garden designer of the 20th century.” Having begun his career at Longleat House in England (where he successfully improved upon original designs by renowned 18th Century landscape gardener Capability Brown), Page went on to complete works throughout Europe (Leeds Castle in Kent, England; Le Vert Bois in France), the Middle East, South America, and North America. In the United States, only three gardens were commissioned. Of these, only two remain: the PepsiCo Sculpture Garden (Purchase, NY) and the viewing garden of the Frick Collection in New York City.
Page’s garden exists as a tableau deliberately designed for viewing, not for entry. Just as Old Masters constructed painted scenes whose success relied on perspective, so did designer Russell Page masterfully construct an illusion that can only be experienced if viewed from a distance. That is, from the public street or from inside the museum’s Reception Hall Pavilion.
In fact, Galen Lee, Horticulturist and Special Events Designer for the Frick, is quoted on the Frick’s archived virtual garden tour as saying:
“While the Fifth Avenue garden is grand and imposing, the Seventieth Street Garden, designed by Russell Page in 1977, is soft and intimate. In the words of its designer, this garden is to be viewed — from the street or through the arched windows of the Reception Hall — like an Impressionist painting … Page’s garden is designed to slow, or stop, a busy New Yorker, to make one pause for a moment — as a respite from the city.”
—SOURCE: Garden Guide: New York City, by Nancy Berner and Susan Lowry, 2010
In 2013, an estimated 400,000 individuals had exactly this opportunity: to walk along East 70th Street, pause a moment and reflect on the splendor of the Viewing Garden, enhanced by the handsome architecture of the Pavilion.1
In his book Building The Frick Collection: An Introduction to the House and its Collections (2006, page 119), former Deputy Director & Chief Curator of The Frick Collection Colin B. Bailey wrote:
“With its changing flowers, textures, and colors, Russell Page’s 70th Street Garden was always intended to be experienced as a tableau, rather than to be entered. Best viewed from the Reception Hall by those inside the building, and from the street itself by those outside, it remains a patch of greenery and tranquility in this most elegant part of the city and a fitting testimony to Frick’s requirement that his New York house have ‘plenty of light and air.’”2
THE RECEPTION HALL PAVILION
Russell Page masterfully designed the garden concurrent with an addition to the mansion by architects John Barrington Bayley, Harry van Dyke and G. Frederick Poehler. Heralded a success, the Reception Hall Pavilion addition expertly achieved the institutional goals of the Frick without sacrificing the feel and aesthetic of Henry Clay Frick’s original residence.
In 1974, Kent Barwick, then Executive Director of the Municipal Art Society, noted at a meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the superb eclecticism and harmony of the architecture of East 70th Street:
“… we must consider the whole of East Seventieth Street from Madison to Fifth Avenue. Stylistically, it goes from French to Italian classical to hopelessly eclectic. And yet it’s one of the most successful block fronts in the city. The Municipal Art Society strongly suggests that the entire block should be preserved as a landmark.”3
This landmark protection was bestowed upon East 70th Street in 1981, when the block was included in the Upper East Side Historic District. The architects of the Reception Hall Pavilion, in 1977, were at the vanguard, understanding and respecting how new additions must respect the richly layered architecture of both the Frick ensemble and the larger streetscape.
Paul Goldberger, in his 1978 review of the previous year’s achievements in design, references the Frick Reception Hall Pavilion addition favorably in The New York Times:
“The opening of the addition to the Frick Collection at 1 East 70th Street last March was, in a quiet way, a radical and important event in New York architecture. Harry van Dyke and John Barrington Bayle, the architects, designed a serious classical structure, of limestone to match the existing wings of the Frick, and it was built as seriously as anything was built by the eclectic architects of the American 1920s.”4
In the same year, 1978, Harry Van Dyke received the Albert S. Bard Citation of Merit in Architecture for the Frick addition. More recently, the Frick has been lauded by art librarian and scholar Eric Wolf as exemplar in its approach to institutional evolution:
“The spirit and vision of Frick as a collector and the way he intended his art to be experienced are very, very well preserved for the general public today. This clear and complete adherence to mission and the intent of the collection’s founder is rare indeed in the world of art museums.”5
Given the broad support of the Viewing Garden and Reception Hall Pavilion, it is nothing short of irresponsible for the Frick to consider demolishing these important works so recklessly. Their architectural and cultural significance, as part of the Frick ensemble, are long-established, both locally in New York City and nationally.
CITY AND NATIONAL LANDMARKS
In March 1973, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) designated the Frick Collection an Individual Landmark. This included the Beaux Arts-style Henry Clay Frick mansion (1914), designed by Carrère and Hastings, and the Frick Art Reference Library, designed first by Thomas Hastings in 1924 and expanded upon, by John Russell Pope, in 1935. The 1973 designation was expanded via amendment on November 12, 1974 to incorporate three additional lots to the East of the original Frick mansion (the former site of the 1909 Widener House at 5 East 70th Street, purchased and demolished by the Frick in 1974) specifically stipulating “a garden will be developed on these lots.” Construction began in May of 1975. In 1977, the Frick announced the “small one-story pavilion and a permanent garden and pavilion” in a celebratory press release.6
On October 6, 2008, the historic and cultural significance of the Frick ensemble was further recognized as the site was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior. We believe that, as stewards of a New York City and National Historic Landmark, the Frick has a responsibility to the public-at-large to preserve and protect these essential components.
1) According to the Frick’s 2013 Form 990, annual attendance reached 325,000. Additionally, all passers-by during the course of the year (an estimated additional 75,000) were viewers of the garden.
2) Colin B. Bailey, former Deputy Director & Chief Curator of The Frick Collection, in the publication “Building The Frick Collection: An Introduction to the House and its Collections,” 2006, page 119.
3) “Façades Protected,” The New Yorker. January 14, 1974.
4) “How the Cityscape Fared in 1977,” by Paul Goldberger, The New York Times. January 5, 1978.