Modernization of the Frick Collection is Possible — Without Destroying its Landmarked Garden and Pavilion, or its Unique Residential Character.
The mansion of Gilded Age industrialist Henry Clay Frick is famed for the jewel-box intimacy of its galleries and the urban oases that are its gardens. The Frick is designated a landmark five times over, at the City, State and National levels. While we all recognize that our City’s museums must continue to modernize, the Frick has the added responsibility to do so without compromising the very characteristics which make it a landmark, its defining residential character.
Contrary to what one may assume, the proposed expansion is not about the display of art. Henry Clay Frick’s will does not permit his art collection to be shown outside the mansion. So while the destructive proposal seeks to add a gargantuan 59,000 square feet of space, only a fraction – 3,600 square feet in the existing mansion – will be gallery space. Furthermore, half of that space will be gained simply by moving offices out of the mansion—which can be done right now, without destroying landmarks!
The Frick’s plan to raze the garden and pavilion is broadly opposed by architects, landscape architects, preservationists, artists, historians, garden advocates, civic leaders and thousands of Frick patrons the world over. These individuals and organizations are calling on New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to reject the Frick’s plan and call upon the Frick to consider the many creative, elegant, effective and feasible modernization alternatives.
As the Frick attempts to respond to the groundswell of criticism for its plan, its leadership has made assertions that require clarification and in some cases correction. Please read them, below, and then TAKE ACTION!
Write to the Landmarks Commission and urge them to protect the landmarked Frick from short-sighted and ill-conceived expansion plans. Everything you need is here!
FACTS and “Frick-tions”:
1.) “Frick”-tion: When describing its proposed new tower, the Frick incorrectly characterizes it as “gradually rising to a maximum of six stories, the height of the historic Frick Art Reference Library.”
IN FACT: The proposed Frick addition will be 106-feet tall, the equivalent of over ten stories!
The National Historic Landmark designation report, commissioned by the Frick in 2008, confirms that the Frick Art Reference Library is “thirteen floors.” Building of the Frick Collection, by former curator Colin Bailey, states that the Art Reference Library is “thirteen stories high (eleven of them above ground).”
2.) “Frick”-tion: The Frick claims that expansion will allow it to open the mansion’s second floor—atop the beckoning, roped-off grand staircase—to the public.
IN FACT: The Frick mansion’s second floor could be opened right now!—by relocating the few administrative offices currently occupying that space elsewhere on the premises, or to nearby off-site space.
The worthy goal of displaying additional art in the rooms beyond the staircase’s velvet rope can be achieved immediately—without destroying landmark-protected components of the Frick site.
3.) “Frick”-tion: The Frick posits that destroying the East 70th Street Russell Page-designed garden and building a 106-foot-tall towering addition is the only way to achieve its desired goals.
IN FACT: Reasonable, feasible and elegant alternatives for the Frick’s modernization exist that would not destroy the Russell Page Garden nor the Reception Hall Pavilion.
To increase space while celebrating and enhancing its residential character, the Frick could:
- Acquire ancillary space nearby: The Frick could follow the lead of its fellow mansion-turned-art house museum, the Cooper Hewitt, and relocate auxiliary functions off-site. Finance, technology support, human resources and development functions need not be bound to the physical site.
- Reconfigure existing space: Optimizing the Frick’s extensive underutilized space below-grade as well as in the Frick Art Reference Library would allow for modernized services for guests with disabilities and provide opportunities for gallery, seminar and/or auditorium functions.
- Creatively excavate: Many examples of this exist both in New York City and abroad, including underground space at the Morgan Library in NYC, the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands and the British Museum in London. Suitable auditorium and education space could be designed and built to address what the Frick says are the unsatisfactory “small scale and low ceilings” of current basement seminar rooms.
The Frick’s director, Ian Wardropper, conceded in a recent interview with New York Magazine: “We have three other plans that we can look at, and that is certainly possible.” If such plans exist, why does Ian Wardropper not make them public?
4.) “Frick”-tion: The Frick continues to disparagingly assert that the Russell Page Garden “has never been open to the public.”
IN FACT: The Frick’s Russell Page Garden was designed to be viewed, as an impressionist painting. That said, the Page Garden is already regularly used by the Frick for its donor events in addition to revenue-generating private events.
Its accessibility is at the discretion of the Frick; it could be opened to museumgoers at any time.
5.) “Frick”-tion: The Frick justifies expansion by claiming skyrocketing attendance.
IN FACT: Attendance at the Frick is not up significantly and has been relatively constant over the last 15 years.
The Frick’s website indicates that only the recent “blockbuster” Vermeer exhibit (the scale of which the Frick has told donors it does not intent to repeat) drew much higher attendance In actuality, the annual attendance reported by the Frick in its 2012/2013 annual report was 325,000 – more than 100,000 people less than what the Reception Hall Pavilion was designed to accommodate in 1977. (The Frick’s own 1977 press release announcing the opening of the new Reception Hall Pavilion indicates that the addition could accommodate up to 1,500 people daily. Were this the daily average, the Frick’s annual attendance would be 460,000).
6.) “Frick”-tion: The Frick posits the need to connect the Frick Art Reference Library (FARL) to the galleries as a rationale for expansion.
IN FACT: The galleries are already connected to the library, and this connection can be enhanced without destroying the Russell Page garden and pavilion.
The existing connection, through a staff-only vestibule, could be modified and upgraded to achieve this goal. Furthermore, the alleged public benefit of greater direct access to the FARL may be overstated. The Frick Art Reference Library is primarily a scholarly resource – the Frick’s proposal to encourage the public to wander around the reading room while scholars are pursuing their research seems at odds with common sense library practice. Further, the library is accessed far more online than in person. In 2014, the Frick annual report states that 6,097 individuals visited the FARL, an average of 20 people daily – quite a manageable number. By contrast, 250,000 people utilized the library’s online catalogue services. The lack of demand does not warrant the proposed destruction of landmarks.
7.) “Frick”-tion: The Frick downplays founder Henry Clay Frick’s desire to highlight his own art in the context of grand residential galleries.
IN FACT: Henry Clay Frick desired that his art-filled home retain its residential character, and that his art be viewed in a domestic setting.
He is quoted as saying, “I can only hope that the public will get one-half the pleasure that has been afforded me in enjoyment of these masterpieces in proper surroundings.” After his death, The New York Times wrote that when Frick “began planning his house, he incorporated into it the idea that it would become a public museum someday, but a public museum of a new order—a museum that should have a ‘home atmosphere.'”
When interviewed about John Russell Pope’s renovations in 1933, then-Frick Director Mortimer Clapp stated: “We have decided to preserve the Frick home as an example of a dwelling place of a man of means at the beginning of the twentieth century. In time you will see the house itself will become of incalculable historic value. We will keep the atmosphere. It isn’t a vast museum. It is a home containing magnificent French, Dutch and Spanish paintings, Italian bronzes and Chinese porcelains.”
8.) “Frick”-tion: The Frick states that expansion has long been part of its plans—asserting that the addition is the Russell Page Garden site’s “historically intended use.”
IN FACT: Expansion has not been a consistent part of the Frick’s thinking. In 1973/1974, the Frick decided that the Russell Page Garden and the Pavilion were to be permanent.
Whatever the Frick’s intentions now, the garden was designed to be permanent—and is truly the design masterstroke that allows it to be experienced as a free-standing residence, not an institutionalized mega-museum.
The Frick decided in 1973 – and reaffirmed in 1974 – that it wished to add a permanent reception pavilion and garden. Frick leadership reiterated this intent on numerous occasions:
- November 27, 1973: Statement to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission by Frick director Everett Fahy affirming the permanence of the Russell Page garden and complementary pavilion.
- April 16, 1974: Mr. Fahy, writing to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, stated: “The Trustees of The Frick Collection are pleased to present plans for a permanent architectural garden and a one-story extension on the site of the vacant lots at 5, 7 and 9 East 70th Street.”
- February 4, 1977: Indeed, the Frick’s own news release at the time of the garden and pavilion’s completion touts the garden as permanent (In 1999, the Frick’s director Samuel Sachs II did not speak of planned expansion stating , “We must be mindful that there is a limit not only to the number of visitors the building can physically hold but to how many it can comfortably serve while preserving the tranquil ambiance that is so much a part of the experience of visiting the Frick.” In 2000, he added, “We are mindful not to be overwhelmed by the lure of box office success at the expense of the totality of the experience. The objective and character of our stately house and its collection remain constant.”
In 2010, regarding enclosure of the Frick’s north portico, director Anne Poulet told the New York Times, “Years ago the Frick considered more grand schemes, including underground galleries beneath its Fifth Avenue garden, but for now it is happy to work within its existing footprint.” This recent expression of satisfaction came at a time when the Frick’s special exhibition schedule and annual attendance was similar to today.
9.) “Frick”-tion: The Frick posits that a “landscaped terrace” on the roof of its proposed tower will be an apt “replacement” for the renowned existing, street-level Russell Page Garden.
IN FACT: A penthouse-level, visitors-only roof garden cannot “replace” a sidewalk-level viewing garden by the 20th century’s preeminent garden designer, joyfully experienced by approximately 425,000 museumgoers and passersby each year.
While the Frick has attempted to denigrate the importance of the garden by deleting favorable comments and photos from its website, Frick horticulturalist Galen Lee has noted that “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.” Former curator Colin Bailey also noted that 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.’” A “rooftop terrace” would be enjoyed only by those able to pay for museum admission, whereas Page’s garden can be enjoyed by everyone.