The Frick Collection sits in a rarefied tier among the nation’s art museums. Its administration counts the Morgan Library & Museum, Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation as peers; all these institutions trace their collections and original buildings to Gilded Age fortunes and the hands of their founders. And with recently announced plans the Frick will seek to join these peer institutions in expanding and adapting to reflect the needs of a growing audience and ambitious programming. But first they will have to convince their neighbors and the Landmarks Preservation Commission of plans to alter its Beaux Arts masterpiece.
Though it hosts changing exhibitions, the Frick is an institution that expresses a remarkable sense of continuity. Many visitors might be surprised to learn that the institution has actually evolved and expanded three times since it was built as a private house in 1914. The original house was designed by Carrère and Hastings, and was conceived as a “country house in the city,” according to the Frick’s director Ian Wardropper: low lying with a large sunny garden, designed by Frederick Olmsted Jr., that faces central park. In 1920, Henry Clay Frick’s daughter, Helen, founded a research library and in 1924 built another low lying building on east 71st Street to house it, also designed by Carrère and Hastings. In 1934, John Russell Pope began the conversion of the house into a museum, enclosing the rear garden to create the Frick’s famous glazed courtyard, which became the heart of the museum itself. Pope seamlessly extended the architectural language of Carrère and Hastings to adapt the house to public use, creating a new entrance lobby and other public spaces, while maintaining an intimate, domestic scale.
Pope also demolished the original library building to create a much larger and taller library on 71st, which rose to the equivalent of six stories, though it actually contains 13 levels if you count the library’s stacks. By the 1940s, the Frick was already thinking about further expansion, and began acquiring adjacent townhouses on 70th Street, the first of which was purchased in 1940 to create an underground art vault, which is still used for collection storage. The museum was not able to acquire the final town house until the 1970s, which allowed it to initiate its most recent expansion, a small hall off the entrance lobby for visitor services designed by Bayley, Van Dyke and Poehler overlooking a viewing garden by Russell Page, both completed in 1977. This is the primary site of the proposed expansion by Davis Brody Bond.
Courtesy The Frick Collection / Davis Brody Bond
The plan calls for the removal of the 1977 addition and garden. The museum plans to extend the volume of the library building from 71st street to 70th, creating a six-story bar extending through the site and allowing direct connections between the library and museum. Extending over the rest of the site would be a one-story building that would extend the Carrère and Hastings and Pope buildings into one continuous street wall. A setback, three-story addition would rise next to the six-story bar building, which would contain mostly museum offices, topped by a publicly accessible roof terrace.
The architectural language of the new addition would depart from the more contemporary approach taken by the Gardner and Barnes museums. “I understand what they did,” said Wardropper. “Steel and glass was not the right move here.” Davis Brody Bond, while stressing that the designs are preliminary, will follow the vocabulary of Carrère and Hastings and Pope in a somewhat simplified form. “I think it needs to retain the same language,” said Carl Krebs, a principal at David Brody Bond. “It’s a language we don’t want to harm.” The architects plan to clad the addition in the same Indiana limestone as the older buildings.
Courtesy The Frick Collection
Inside, the museum will gain a new below ground auditorium, a vastly expanded visitors services area, improved ADA accessibility, a service entrance, new offices, and an expanded museum store, and a direct connection to the library. In the 1914 building, the round music room will be removed to make way for a new temporary exhibition gallery, and several of the ornate second floor rooms and the grand staircase will be opened to the public as galleries.
Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, thinks loss of the Page garden is a violation of the museum’s cultural patrimony. “Somehow the idea of the collection doesn’t extend to the design of the landscape,” he said. “It has become beloved and it’s part of the larger cultural narrative.” Even with the historicist architecture, the expansion significantly alters 70th Street and the Frick Complex itself, which is currently predominantly low-rise and arranged around a series of three gardens. The new complex will be significantly more monolithic in comparison.
The Frick is beginning outreach to neighborhood and preservation groups, including the Municipal Art Society and the Friends of the Upper East Side. They expect to bring the plan before the Landmarks Preservation Commission in January. Though they expect feedback from the Commission, Walldrapper insists all the new spaces, roughly 42,000 square feet, are necessary. “There’s very little fat in this plan,” he said.