The Frick Collection on Fifth Avenue is one of the great museums of the world, with two assets that together make it unique: the small but superb art collection put together by Henry Clay Frick in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and Frick’s equally magnificent house, which Frick and the architects Carrère & Hastings designed to become a museum after the robber baron’s death. But now, the beauty and integrity of the house are threatened by a proposed expansion.
The New York City Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) has approved a new design for the expansion that will substantially change the building’s landmarked exterior. A zoning appeal to stop that is ongoing, but the LPC is also considering landmarking two important rooms that the current expansion plan would demolish. If the Commission landmarks those rooms, saving the rooms will also prevent the worst effects of the additions on the outside of the historic landmark.
The two rooms are the Music Room, designed by John Russell Pope when the house was converted into a museum in the 1930s, and a Reception Hall designed by John Barrington Bayley in 1977.
THE MUSIC ROOM
Many of the great buildings in New York from 100 years ago were built by American architects trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, such as the Metropolitan Museum (Richard Morris Hunt, expanded by McKim, Mead & White) and the New York Public Library at 42nd Street (Carrère & Hastings).
In 1912, Frick hired the Public Library architects to house his collection. After Frick’s daughter died in 1931, the architect John Russell Pope built the Frick Art Reference Library behind the house, and then filled in an interior drive and service court next to the library with a seamless addition that beautifully housed a top-lit garden court and an oval music room.
Pope, who designed the National Gallery and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, ran the last of the great Classical offices staffed by graduates of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Besides the Frick library and addition, he only built one other public structure in New York.
The Music Room has both architectural and cultural significance. Pope designed a system to display art on the curving walls of the beautiful room, which also became an essential site for chamber music in New York City. The music critic for the New York Times at the time called it “uniquely suited to chamber music” and said, “It truly is the closest thing to a 19th-century music salon this city has to offer.”
THE RECEPTION HALL
The Reception Hall has a special place in the history of New York architecture. The practice of Classical architecture died in New York after World War II. The designer of the Hall, John Barrington Bayley, was one of the most important figures in the revival of Classical architecture. A Deputy Director of the LPC under Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Bayley co-founded a group called Classical America. He was President of Classical America from 1968 to 1979.
Classical America and its successor, the Institute of Classical Art & Architecture, played important roles in the contemporary revival of Classical design. Today, New York has the greatest number of Classical architecture offices in America. The founding partners of most of the offices owe a debt to the classes started by Bayley and Reed. I took the classes myself, and later became a Board member of the Institute.
Bayley’s Reception Hall, which increased the amount of room available for visitors arriving at the museum, seems to be his only built work. It is a beautiful Classical room that runs along one side of a garden also built in the 1970s.
Today, the Frick wants to replace the 1977 Hall with a larger, low-ceilinged room that can accurately be described as looking like the lobby for a new condo building in Chelsea. In Architect magazine, Aaron Betsky compares the new work to “the work of the many cosmetic surgeons toiling away in the Frick’s neighborhood to improve the looks of its graying neighbors.”
Above the ill-proportioned hall, the design squeezes in a new museum shop with a glass and steel cap sitting on top of Bayley’s limestone exterior. In the eyes of Classicists, it’s a desecration.
When the Frick built the Reception Hall in 1977, it was a radical design statement by the museum. Between World War II and the 1970s, most designers and historians thought modern architecture was the only acceptable choice for new construction, but the Frick board and staff made the decision that the personal and intimate house museum should be expanded in the spirit of the original, as it had been expanded by Pope.
The Hall was built when Post Modernism was coming into vogue, and the design was influential in more ways than one. In the following decade, the New York architectural establishment prevented three Post Modern additions to Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist Whitney Museum. Designed by Michael Graves when he was at the peak of his fame, any of them would have been a powerful expression of the Zeitgeist. But they would have also diminished the power of the original design.
Soon after, two more museums on Fifth Avenue decided that their additions should be architecturally similar to the original buildings, rather than expressions of contemporary architectural practice. The first was the Guggenheim Museum, designed by the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and the other the Jewish Museum, housed in a “Chateau Gothic” mansion designed by the architect C.P.H. Gilbert in 1904.
The proposed Frick expansion is designed by Selldorf Architects, much praised for their design of the Neue Galerie, housed in another former mansion on the Upper East Side. But they have stirred up controversy with their plan for reorganizing and adding to the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, built in pieces between 1915 and 1996. The original building was a house designed by Irving Gill. Criticism of the plan usually focuses on the destruction of pieces of an earlier expansion designed by Venturi Scott Brown and Associates.
SAVE THE FRICK
The Music Room and the Reception Hall are extraordinary architectural and cultural landmarks. It’s ironic that it is a museum that proposes to harm them. We all understand the 20th century mantra about change and growth, but in the 21st century we can see that some of the museums most similar to the Frick Collection—like the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Morgan Library and Museum here in New York—lost some of what made them special in their desire to grow like everyone else, adding cafes and expanded gift shops.
What is special about the Frick is that it is an intimate, quiet oasis of superb connoisseurship: a great Old Masters collection housed in one of Carrére & Hastings best designs. There are plenty of coffee shops a block away on Madison Avenue, but there is only one Frick. Changes to it should not demolish or diminish what is best about the museum. Please urge the Landmarks Preservation Commission to preserve the Music Room, the Reception Hall, and the Frick. If you agree, please sign the petition at http://www.savethefrick.org.
In the last few days, the Frick Collection and the Metropolitan Museum have announced that the Frick is negotiating to lease the old Whitney Museum building, now known as the Met Breuer, as a temporary home for the collection during Frick renovations. Could the Frick take all their ambitions for change and new sources of income and permanently house them in the Brutalist building four blocks away on Madison—while leaving the old house and collection untouched? The Met Breuer already has a cafe and a restaurant. Stay tuned.
Featured image of the Frick via Wikipedia Commons.