Wall Street Journal continues important discussion about future of landmarked Frick

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Foes of Scrapped Frick Expansion Float Alternate Plan

They say their proposal would let the museum modernize without destroying its intimate feel

By Jennifer Smith / July 23, 2015

The garden at the Frick Collection was designed by Russell Page. PHOTO: KATHY WILLENS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The garden at the Frick Collection was designed by Russell Page. PHOTO: KATHY WILLENS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A group that pressed the Frick Collection to drop a controversial expansion plan is now floating an alternative it says would let the museum modernize without destroying its intimate feel.

Members of Unite to Save the Frick, which includes preservationists, architects and Upper East Siders, met with museum officials last week to discuss their proposal. The plan would preserve a cherished space on East 70th Street designed by British landscape architect Russell Page.

The Frick intended to replace the garden—a space with pea-gravel paths and boxwood around a rectangular reflecting pool, all closed to the public—with a new wing rising as high as six stories. It abandoned that plan in June after months of criticism.

wsj1Instead of building up and out, the alternative plan, developed by New York architect David Helpern, would largely reconfigure the museum’s existing space. Much of the expansion would take place below grade, an approach employed at London’s British Museum, the Morgan Library & Museum and others.

New above-grade construction would be limited to 9,000 square feet, and a smaller, stepped-back addition to be built in what is now a mechanical yard behind the Page garden.

The goal, Mr. Helpern said in an interview this week, was to offer a solution that accommodates the Frick’s educational and spatial needs while “saving the garden and saving the character and scale of the residence.”

The museum, which opened to the public in 1935, is housed in a beaux-arts mansion on Fifth Avenue built for the Gilded Age industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick. Its collections are particularly rich in old-master and 19th-century paintings.

Frick officials said this week that they look forward to reviewing the coalition’s plan and would “consider any proposals that will help us satisfy our critical needs while preserving the unique residential character and intimate scale of the museum.”

Offering alternatives has become more common as preservationists and neighborhood organizations that once simply said “no” to projects now seek to influence what may be built.

The new proposal would expand the Frick without building on top of the prized garden on East 70th Street. A new auditorium would be built by adapting space underneath the garden that has already been excavated. A stepped-back addition rising behind the garden would include space for a relocated museum shop, a second-floor cafe and new offices, as well as an expanded study area, conservation space and photo department for the Frick Art Reference Library. PHOTO: HELPERN ARCHITECTS

The new proposal would expand the Frick without building on top of the prized garden on East 70th Street. A new auditorium would be built by adapting space underneath the garden that has already been excavated. A stepped-back addition rising behind the garden would include space for a relocated museum shop, a second-floor cafe and new offices, as well as an expanded study area, conservation space and photo department for the Frick Art Reference Library. PHOTO: HELPERN ARCHITECTS

For example, a now-scrapped plan to replace book stacks at the New York Public Library’s landmark Fifth Avenue location with a circulating library drew a counterproposal that suggested building one under Bryant Park instead. Back in 2008, the Municipal Art Society of New York developed a number of alternatives during a tussle over redevelopment of Admiral’s Row, a stretch of historic but derelict buildings at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Whether such plans are heeded is another matter.

While more detailed than many, the Frick alternative remains conceptual and is based in part on schematics that date from the 1930s, Mr. Helpern said.

The meeting last week followed a bruising year for the Frick, a jewel-box of a museum that exerts a strong pull on the affections of many New Yorkers.

In June 2014, museum officials announced plans for a major expansion intended to accommodate the Frick’s growing collection and rising visitor numbers. The proposal would have opened up some of the second floor of the museum to the public, upgraded conservation labs and boosted educational space, for a net gain of 42,000 square feet.

Local opposition snowballed after Charles A. Birnbaum, founder and president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, wrote several articles on the importance of the Page garden. Among the loudest opponents: Unite to Save the Frick.

Organized by a small preservation group called Defenders of the Historic Upper East Side, the campaign has a sleek website and retains a public-relations firm to advance its cause.

A ground-level view of the Page garden. PHOTO: KATHY WILLENS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A ground-level view of the Page garden. PHOTO: KATHY WILLENS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Funding for the United to Save the Frick campaign comes from Defenders of the Historic Upper East Side and from direct contributions, said a spokeswoman. Last year, the Defenders group received less than $7,800 in contributions, according to a filing with New York state’s Charities Bureau, where the group is registered as the Historic Neighborhood Enhancement Alliance Inc.

The coalition includes garden- and landscape-design organizations and advocacy groups, such as the Historic Districts Council. Also on board: boldfaced names ranging from architect Robert A.M. Stern to artists Jeff Koons and Maya Lin, and deep-pocketed philanthropists likeAnnette de la Renta and Lewis Cullman.

The campaign appears to be better funded than many New York preservation efforts, said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

“That was no small feat to hire Helpern,” said Ms. Breen, whose group isn’t affiliated with Unite to Save the Frick, though it told Frick officials last summer it wouldn’t support the initial plan because it was too big.

wsj4Mr. Helpern, who disapproved of the Frick proposal, said he and the structural and mechanical engineers who produced the plan over six months were paid for their work, though he declined to say how much.

To preserve the mansion’s residential feel, Mr. Helpern’s plan envisions an educational concourse below the Frick’s basement, with a grand staircase leading down from the main entrance. Above ground, the interior of the reception hall on East 70th Street would be opened up and connected to the library, where first-floor stacks would be replaced by a coat-check area.

The addition behind the Page garden would include space for a larger museum shop, a second-floor cafe and new offices, as well as an expanded study area, conservation space and photo department for the library.

One casualty: Mr. Frick’s personal bowling alley, which would be converted to storage.

“Our plan isn’t the only possible plan,” said Simeon Bankoff,executive director of the Historic Districts Council, adding that the Frick’s leadership had been “very gracious and very open in engaging the community.”

Ms. Breen, who said she encouraged Frick officials to take a serious look at Mr. Helpern’s plan, also credits the museum for its outreach.

“On the one hand, I think they should be thrilled that so many people love the place so much,” she said. “They invited reaction, and they received reaction.”

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