Frick’s Plan for Expansion Faces Fight Over Loss of GardenBy Robin Pogrebin
November 9, 2014
Officials at the Frick Collection knew their plan to build a six-story addition to a beloved, landmark, jewel-box museum would draw detractors. But leaders of that Fifth Avenue museum say they didn’t expect it to get so intense so fast.
Since the museum announced its expansion in June, more than 2,000 critics of the plan have signed a petition put together by a consortium of preservation groups that have created a website and given themselves a name: Unite to Save the Frick.
Now, the group says it has found evidence that the museum, whose plan needs city approval, is going back on a promise made in its original landmark review roughly 40 years ago to make permanent a garden by the noted landscape architect Russell Page that is to be destroyed in the expansion.
“The Frick Collection has decided to abandon its long-range plans for a wing covering the three vacant lots,” the museum said in the documents from 1973, “thus enabling the proposed garden to become a permanent feature instead of the interim garden.”
No single factor is ever conclusive in a review by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, but experts say the current panel will have to consider the museum’s pledge carefully during its review next year.
“It would have to be taken very, very seriously, because there is no qualitative need for this expansion,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz, a former landmarks panel member. “This is not really necessary for exhibition purposes. Given that, the permanence issue will be more important.”
The garden has emerged as the focal point for opponents of the museum’s plan to build a 106-foot addition that would extend into the area currently occupied by the garden on East 70th Street and connect the museum to its art reference library on East 71st Street.
Ian Wardropper, the museum’s director, said that while the museum spoke of Page’s garden as permanent in a 1973 statement to the landmarks commission, the word was used in terms of the “foreseeable minimal needs of the collection.” He said: “Permanent meant a garden that would last for at least a few years until the museum could build the building that was needed. We’re now 40 years later and at that point.”
The 1914 building — designed for the industrialist Henry Clay Frick — has been altered before. In the changes from the 1970s, the Frick added its entrance lobby, and two years ago, it converted an outdoor portico into indoor space. There have been three unsuccessful attempts to expand the museum since 2001. The institution says it needs additional space because attendance has increased by 37 percent over the last five years, and the collection has grown by 75 percent since 1935, when the museum opened.
The project — which includes opening private upstairs rooms to the public — would give the Frick about 50 percent more space for temporary exhibitions (from two small basement rooms and one that will be added on the main floor) and 24 percent more for its permanent collection of some 1,200 works, by artists like Degas, El Greco, Manet and Renoir.
The Frick has struggled to accommodate crowds for popular exhibitions, like a recent one featuring Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”
The design for the addition by Davis Brody Bond seeks to retain the Beaux-Arts vernacular of the Frick’s original home, employing the same Indiana limestone. Mr. Wardropper said that even as the Frick grows, the intimacy of the mansion — designed by Carrère and Hastings — will remain intact.
“People love the place, and they’re afraid that it’s going to change,” he said. “I have to reassure them this is a modest plan that’s meant to support everything we do.”
Among those who back the Frick’s plan is Fredric M. Bell, the executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
“Some of the sacred cows of preservation could be looked at fresh,” Mr. Bell said. “This is an example of that because this is being respectful to the existing fabric. It’s not copying what was there before; it’s paying respect to it by not challenging it.”
But Andrew S. Dolkart, the director of Columbia University’s historic preservation program, said that from Fifth Avenue, the proposed addition would overpower the surrounding townhouses — which would be “insensitive” to the Frick itself and to the historic district — and that the design is a pastiche.
“It destroys the garden, it destroys the scale, it’s a clumsy attempt at imitating the classicism of Carrère and Hastings,” he said. “And Carrère and Hastings were a lot better at it.”
Other prominent design voices weighing in against the museum’s plan include Robert A. M. Stern, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture.
“Gardens are works of art,” he said in an interview. “This one is in perfect condition by Russell Page, one of the pre-eminent garden designers of the 20th century, and it should be respected as such. It’s as important as a tapestry or even a painting, and I think the museum is obliged to recognize its importance.”
Among the groups that have voiced their disapproval are the Historic Districts Council, which reviews presentations on landmark properties headed for the landmarks commission, and Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts. In September, the friends group wrote a letter to the Frick likening its garden to the White House lawn. “It can be fully appreciated, in all its majesty,” the group said, “without stepping foot inside the gate.”
The permanence issue was first raised in the debate by Charles A. Birnbaum, the founder and president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation — who called attention to a 1977 news release in which the Frick talked about creating a permanent garden. Preservationists then located the actual documents submitted by the museum during the review in 1973.
Mr. Birnbaum said Page had wanted the Frick garden to outlive him. “He was seeing the ephemerality of his own legacy to create something of permanence,” he said.
Although occasionally used for events, the garden has largely been a passive space, but Charlotte Schwartz, 85, who has lived across the street for 24 years, said its visual grace is only enhanced by the fact that the view of its pea gravel paths and boxwood are rarely interrupted.
“It was never intended to be a garden that you tromp around in,” she said. “It was intended to be a viewing garden almost like an Impressionist painting.”
But some say the Frick is sorely in need of an upgrade, that its basement galleries are too small and its lobby too cramped, and that the museum should have the right to determine its own future.
“They want to serve the public in newer, fresher ways,” said Joan K. Davidson, a former chairwoman of the New York State Council on the Arts. “How can they maintain the place if they can’t modernize?”
The Frick has a larger garden on its Fifth Avenue side — designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. — Ms. Davidson pointed out, adding that there is the whole of Central Park across the street. “I think we can manage to do without that garden,” she said. “In the balance of things, it’s a sacrifice worth making.”