Charles Birnbaum

Charles Birnbaum

This decade has seen numerous museum expansions and expansion plans, most of them program-driven justifications for more space, some have been sensitively executed, others not. Nearly five years ago The Architect’s Newspaper asked me to write an opinion piece that ultimately ran with the provocative title: “

Those questions are circulating again, prompted in June 2014 when officials at the venerable Frick Collection in New York City announced

In the past 50 years we have seen an expansion and professionalization of the landscape preservation movement, and with this maturation we have seen a valuation for holistic stewardship—one that no longer excludes the historic designed landscape. Will these advances factor into the Commission’s decisions about the Frick?

Discussing preservation is tricky and can get into mind-numbing minutiae, so let’s deal with some of the highlights. Overarching standards and guidelines, which help inform state and local statutes, are issued by the National Park Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and are  part of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. A significant change occurred in 1995 when the title—the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Buildings—was updated and renamed Historic Properties, putting “buildings, structures, sites, objects, districts, and landscapes” on equal footing. This subtlest of changes has great consequences and implications for all sites on the National Register of Historic Places, which includes the Frick.

Regarding the Standards, another thing to consider is the period of significance, which identifies the “span of time during which significant events and activities occurred. Events and associations with historic properties are finite; most properties have a clearly definable period of significance.” This is treated as a cut-off point for deciding what is and is not subject to protection and preservation, and it’s a significant talking point for Frick officials. The mansion was built between 1912 and 1914 as a private home designed by Carrère and Hastings, expanded upon by John Russell Pope, and opened to the public as a museum in 1935. Frick officials assert that, because the Page garden was constructed in 1977, it lies outside the period of significance. However, part of the 1995 update to the Standards noted above includes the following: “Changes to a property that have acquired historic significance in their own right will be retained and preserved.”

Significantly, in 1996 a document was published that provided technical guidance on how to apply the Standards to landscapes. The Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes, which I authored during my tenure at the helm of the National Park Service’s Historic Landscape Initiative, note that “assessing a landscape as a continuum through history is critical in assessing cultural and historic value.”

The museum was designated an Individual Landmark by the Commission in 1973—a local designation. That was updated in 1974 to include an additional three lots owned by the museum on East 70th Street specifically stipulating, “a garden will be developed on these lots.” Those lots had originally been acquired for a possible expansion, but those plans were abandoned, hence the language of the 1974 update.

In 2008, the Frick was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior—a national appointment that places the institution among an elite group of sites.  While the period of significance is listed as 1912–1935, the language of the designation describes the 1970s architectural additions made by John Barrington Bayley and mentions the Page garden. The narrative also states:

“Mark Alan Hewitt [an architect, preservationist and architectural historian] commented on the stringent stewardship of the building by the institution, in particular Bayley’s addition:

“The trustees…have guarded Hastings’ design contribution zealously through the decades, preventing the defacement by modernist additions that have beset other institutions in the city. John Barrington Bayley’s 1977 entry vestibule and [the Russell Page] garden were well matched to the Hastings and Pope building …”

Best practices suggest that the Landmarks Preservation Commission re-examine the 1973–74 designations. Back then, the Page garden had not yet been realized and Page was still alive and in active practice. With Page’s death in 1985 his career can now be assessed and the import of his extant work, such as his garden at the Frick—which the New York Times called one of his “most important projects”—can be determined. The Commission should examine whether the garden has “acquired historic significance” in its own right, as the updated Secretary’s Standards have outlined and the National Historic Landmark designation suggests.

If the Commission re-examines the designation and if they find that the garden is significant, then it would follow that the physical and historical context would be given equal weight in design decision-making, and holistic expansion plans would acknowledge the invaluable and irreplaceable landscape that is at stake.