Preserve the Frick’s Unique Architectural Composition
“In a city made up largely of solid streetscapes, the building that stands alone is exceptional.”
In a letter to Meenakshi Srinivasan, chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, architect Peter Pennoyer and historian Anne Walker brilliantly describe the significant architectural composition of the Frick Collection. Further, they urge the chair to deny the plan and encourage reconsideration of expansion, to ensure that the unique visitor experience fostered by the institution’s signature architectural and landscape elements is preserved.
When adding to the Frick’s ensemble in 1977, Pennoyer and Walker write, architects John Barrington Bayley and Harry van Dyke, working with G. Frederick Poehler, held the mansion off from its neighbors, maintaining its distinction as a grand residence. “The harmony and poise of today’s Frick is clearly due to the fact that the architects who followed Carrère and Hastings [architects of the original mansion, completed in 1914] both respected and enhanced the essence of the original vision of a freestanding monument.” The expansion plan as currently proposed does not succeed in this regard, as Pennoyer and Walker explain:
The proposed expansion poses two threats to this vision. First, the tall addition would disturb the composition by introducing a looming presence over what is a rare moment of low-scale architecture along fifth Avenue. Second, the loss of the garden would result in joining the building to the neighboring townhouses, embedding the Frick in a continuous street wall and destroying one of the principal qualities that makes the Frick so exceptional.
Read the letter in its entirety below, and share it to your friends and colleagues! Encourage others to put pen to paper and to express their concerns to the chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Photo via The New York Times, 2009.
PETER PENNOYER ARCHITECTS
432 Park Avenue South, 11th Floor, New York, New York 10016
October 30, 2014
Chair Meenaksi Srinivasan
New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
1 Centre Street, 9th Floor, North
New York, NY 10007
Re: The Frick Collection
Dear Chair Srinivasan:
The proposed expansion and internal alteration of the Frick Collection threaten to diminish one of New York’s great architectural treasures by overwhelming the scale of the building, erasing its historic garden and changing its relationship to the street.
In a city made up largely of solid streeetscapes, the building that stands alone is exceptional. The Frick Collection is one of the few New York landmarks that is not embedded in fabric of the urban street wall. Like the original Morgan Library, the Cooper Hewitt and the New York Public Library, it was conceived as a freestanding building. Carrère and Hastings sited Frick’s mansion behind the terrace and garden facing Fifth Avenue and placed the entrance on an interior drive west of the neighboring townhouses. John Russell Pope’s 1935 conversion of Frick’s house into a museum preserved the independence of the building by setting the entrance portico back from the 70th Street street wall. Likewise, the 1977 addition by John Barrington Bayley, with Harry Van Dyke and G. Frederick Poehler, held the building off from its neighbors to the east. The harmony and poise of today’s Frick is clearly due to the fact that the architects who followed Carrère and Hastings both respected and enhanced the essence of the original vision of a freestanding monument.
The proposed expansion poses two threats to this vision. First, the tall addition would disturb the composition by introducing a looming presence over what is a rare moment of low-scale architecture along Fifth Avenue. Second, the loss of the garden would result in joining the building to the neighboring townhouses, embedding the Frick in a continuous street wall and destroying one of the principal qualities that makes the Frick so exceptional.
The importance of the garden as a visual break between the row houses of 70th Street and the museum finds a corollary in the courtyard behind the Metropolitan Club farther down Fifth Avenue, a space that McKim, Mead and White devised to make the clubhouse in effect a freestanding palazzo. In 1987, the Landmarks Preservation Commission recognized the importance of this private space in the public realm when it unanimously rejected a tower proposed atop the club, partly on the grounds that it would have compromised the courtyard and, by extension, the integrity of the clubhouse itself.
Like McKim, Mead and White’s courtyard, the garden at the Frick is fundamental to the building’s architectural composition. Without it, the Frick would be joined to the block by a new wing masked in extrusions of the original walls and moldings—an incoherent design that affects the reading of the proportions of the whole. The most recent rendering suggests that the architectural foundations of Hastings and Pope, inculcated over years at the École des Beaux Arts, have reappeared in a cursory form. Each decision made in the design of the Frick until now has been based on complex and nuanced princples applied in relation to questions of proportion, material, and sculptural presence. To add in the same language requires a reverent and resourceful designer. While we believe that a contextual solution is preferable to the typical modernist approach, it does not mitigate the major problems here.
The Russell Page garden itself, in addition to its role in gracefully separating the museum from the row houses, is a masterwork of design that deserves protection. That it is not publicly accessible—like the courtyard at the Metropolitan Club—does nothing to diminish its importance. As described by Colin B. Bailey in Building the Frick Collection, the garden with its changing flowers and colors, formal purity and architectural frame “was always intended to be experienced as a tableau, rather than to be entered.” This oasis embodies a sense of calm and tranquility, an idea central to Page’s design esthetic. But it is not just a local amenity. Because the garden faces one of the most elegant and traveled landmark blocks in the Upper East Side, it has been seen and enjoyed by millions, from those streaming to Fifth Avenue to enjoy parades to those entering Central Park and Museum Mile.
While we believe that there are alternative solutions that would allow the expansion of the Frick’s program spaces without compromising the beauty of the building and destroying the garden, we urge reconsideration of expansion in any form that would change the visitor experience in the original galleries. Higher attendance, increased gift shop sales, more school groups and more memberships are certainly all worthy goals. But recalling that this was first a mansion, not a museum, we believe that the design and furnishings of the rooms make increased foot traffic a threat to the very atmosphere that allows for the contemplation of art and the appreciation of the interior architecture. We urge the Commission to reject this plan to expand the Frick and to preserve the integrity of this important New York City landmark.