Realizing a Long-Deferred Architectural Plan: New Addition Will Enhance Museum and Library
In June, The Frick Collection announced an architectural master plan that will enable us to better serve our visitors and to display more of the permanent collection. This exciting plan, which has been under discussion for more than a decade, will create a more spacious reception hall, a new below-ground auditorium and education center, and a larger conservation lab to better care for and preserve the Frick’s treasured works of art. The plan also calls for the construction of a passageway that will link the museum to the Frick Art Reference Library, thereby enabling visitors and staff to take full advantage of the outstanding art and resources that collectively make up The Frick Collection. In addition, the plan will facilitate the opening of the former living quarters on the mansion’s second floor, transforming several rooms into galleries for drawings and small-scale objects. Carefully approached, this proposed plan will provide us with the necessary resources to accommodate our growing constituency, without diminishing the special, intimate experience that has always been the hallmark of a visit to the Frick.
To understand why the Trustees and I believe this is the right path to take at this time, it is important to begin with a bit of the history of this extraordinary institution. When Henry Clay Frick engaged Carrère and Hastings, the architects of the New York Public Library, to build his house in 1913–14, he did so with an eye to the future. When he died, five years later, his will made clear the scope of his vision. He directed that an institution be created “for the purpose of establishing and maintaining a gallery of art … and encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects.”
Following the death of Frick’s wife, Adelaide, in 1931, the Trustees — who included Frick’s son, Childs, and his daughter, Helen — took on the challenge of converting Mr. Frick’s private home into a museum. They were keenly aware that considerably more space would be needed in order to accommodate visitors, and for this task the Board turned to the gifted architect John Russell Pope, who would distinguish himself a few years later with the design of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
What Pope achieved was nothing short of brilliant. Taking as his point of departure the neoclassical vocabulary of the original mansion, he created new spaces that relate most directly to the monumental scale of the house’s West Gallery, where Mr. Frick displayed the bulk of his collection. Continuing the grand scale of this room, Pope created the Oval Room, East Gallery, Music Room, and interior Garden Court. Though these spaces are institutional in scale, they harmonize beautifully with the smaller rooms of the original house. Today, most visitors consider the Garden Court the signature space of the Frick, yet it was not part of the Frick family home. Similarly, most believe that the Oval Room, the East Gallery, and the Music Room were part of the original residence, so seamless was Pope’s 1935 conversion.
At the same time Pope was transforming the house into a museum, he also erected a separate six-story building on 71st Street to accommodate the growth of the Frick Art Reference Library, which had been founded by Frick’s daughter in 1920.
Just five years after the museum opened to the public, space constraints became apparent. The Trustees had continued to acquire works of art for the permanent collection after Mr. Frick’s death, adding such iconic paintings as Ingres’s Comtesse d’Haussonville and works by Chardin, Gainsborough, Goya, Monet, Piero della Francesca, and Rembrandt, among others. In 1940, with plans for future expansion in mind, the Frick purchased the property at 9 East 70th Street. Seven years later, 7 East 70th Street was acquired and, in 1972, 5 East 70th Street was purchased, finally completing a parcel of land adjacent to the existing museum that was large enough to accommodate an expansion. The proposed addition was to include a larger auditorium, classrooms, and more spacious, up-to-date conservation facilities.
The 1970s were not an easy time for The Frick Collection, which had been operating entirely on the income generated by its endowment. Like so many non-profit institutions, the museum was adversely affected by the nation’s recession and stagnating stock market, making the prospect of a major expansion daunting. The Frick had no fundraising infrastructure in place and had only recently launched a membership program, which attracted a small coterie of devoted friends — a far cry from the 19,000 members supporting the institution today. Instead of the ambitious expansion originally envisioned by the Trustees, the Frick made do with a single-story pavilion, which opened to the public in 1977. To fill the unused lots adjacent to the pavilion, a small garden was created, which has never been accessible to the public.
The 1977 expansion included two basement seminar rooms, a bookshop, and the current Reception Hall. A small space to begin with, the Reception Hall is easily overwhelmed with visitors when the weather is poor or the crowds are large. Our recent experience during the hugely successful exhibition Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis vividly demonstrates its limitations. Hundreds braved the snow and cold in a line snaking around the block, waiting patiently to get in the front door, only to wait in line again to check a coat or use the restroom.
In recent years, annual attendance has grown to more than 320,000 visitors. Similarly, the number and scope of our activities has continued to expand. As more exhibitions and new educational programs are added to the institutional calendar, the need for additional space has become paramount.
In 2011 we added exhibition space within the existing footprint of the building by enclosing the loggia adjacent to the Fifth Avenue Garden, creating the award-winning Portico Gallery. With the great success of this project, it was natural to turn to the architectural firm responsible, Davis Brody Bond, to proceed with the new master plan.
The Frick’s response to its pressing space needs is tempered by our desire to preserve the rare quality that is the essence of this wonderful institution. The proposed addition, which will replace the 1977 pavilion and the garden on East 70th Street, will harmonize with the existing architecture of the original Carrère and Hastings mansion and the Pope additions. It will continue the building’s two-story elevation along East 70th Street, then stair-step up to join the existing six-story Library. The limestone façade of the addition will draw its inspiration from that of both the original mansion and the Pope additions, and its scale will be in keeping with the structures of the surrounding neighborhood. Atop the addition, a rooftop garden will provide visitors with views of Central Park and the West Side of Manhattan.
Inside, a spacious new Reception Hall will make a visit to the Frick more welcoming. A carefully integrated entrance ramp leading to the main entrance and elevators will facilitate easier access for all visitors. The Reception Hall will have a larger coat check, ample space for groups to assemble, and designated areas for admissions, membership services, and visitor information. An expanded shop will include more display space and room for browsing.
World-class concerts and lectures have been a hallmark of this institution since its founding; unfortunately, we are often forced to turn away patrons because the Music Room lacks enough seats to meet demand. In order to accommodate larger audiences, an elegant 220-seat auditorium with state-of-the-art acoustics will be constructed on the basement level of the new building.
Because of their small scale and low ceilings, the current basement seminar rooms, which have served as exhibition galleries for the last thirty-five years, have never allowed us to satisfactorily display larger works. Exhibitions of large-scale paintings have often necessitated the removal of permanent collection objects in order to create adequate display space. To alleviate this problem, we will create a dedicated special exhibition gallery on the museum’s first floor, in the space now occupied by the Music Room. This new display area will replicate the proportions of the Oval Room and East Gallery, and, unlike the rooms in the basement, it will have the added benefit of being located on the same floor as the permanent collection, which so often mirrors or complements the themes of our special exhibitions.
Over the years, the Frick’s educational outreach has touched the lives of tens of thousands of students and adults alike, providing lectures, seminars, guided tours, and a wealth of other inspiring and thought-provoking programs. Amazingly, all of this has been achieved despite the fact that there is no dedicated education space within the institution. This issue was seemingly addressed in 1977, when two basement-level seminar rooms were constructed, but with exhibitions quickly taking over that space, our resources have been severely limited. An education center will be created in the new wing, providing ample room for classes to meet and prepare for in-depth exploration of the galleries.
The proposed master plan will also facilitate easier access to the Frick Art Reference Library, which, for more than ninety years, has served scholars from around the world free of charge. Today, the landmarked Library building designed by Pope remains the site of significant discovery and is considered to be one of the world’s top five centers for art historical research. Currently, its facilities are accessible to museum visitors only by exiting the Collection and walking around the block to the Library’s entrance on East 71st Street. The plan calls for the creation of a passageway that would enable visitors and researchers to access the Library directly from the museum, thus physically uniting for the public the two branches of this great institution.
The proposed master plan also will enable us to open more of the historic house to visitors by providing public access to several of the mansion’s second-floor rooms. Since the museum opened in 1935, nearly every visitor has stood at the bottom of the magnificent marble staircase, gazing past the velvet rope and imagining what lies beyond. Now, for the first time, the public will be able to experience the more intimate scale of the house’s second floor. These small-scale spaces — which once served as the Frick family’s private quarters — are especially well suited for the display of sculpture, decorative arts, drawings, and cabinet pictures from the permanent collection, which, until now, have not been regularly on view owing to space limitations and which might feel lost if displayed in the larger galleries on the first floor.
Despite all of these changes, The Frick Collection will retain its gem-like quality: the extraordinary experience of the permanent galleries on the first floor will feel unchanged but will be enhanced by the display of smaller works of art in the mansion’s upstairs rooms. A visit to the Frick will still resonate with the comfortable grandeur of the Gilded Age but will now provide the expected amenities of a twenty-first-century museum. Over the course of the next several years, as plans evolve and we go through the necessary process of gaining approval from city agencies, we look forward to sharing more of our vision with you. I hope you will share our enthusiasm for this project and will support us as we transform this nascent idea into a compelling reality.
Comments may be offered by e-mail at Frick2014@frick.org
Rendering of The Frick Collection plan from Fifth Avenue, artist’s rendering courtesy of Neoscape Inc., 2014
The Frick Collection’s Grand Staircase leads up to a suite of second-floor rooms that will opened to the public through this plan; photo: Michael Bodycomb
One of the great works purchased by the Trustees after the death of Henry Clay Frick is the Comtesse d’Haussonville (1845) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres; photo: Michael Bodycomb
The Portico Gallery, designed by Davis Brody Bond, opened to the public in 2011; photo: Michael Bodycomb
Rendering of The Frick Collection plan from 70th Street looking West, artist’s rendering courtesy of Neoscape Inc., 2014
Members of the public enjoying a Sunday Sketch session in the interior Garden Court; photo: Lucas Chilczuk
The Reading Room of the Frick Art Reference Library, located on the third floor of the landmarked structure built by John Russell Pope in 1935. The Library has served scholars from around the world since its founding in 1920; photo: Michael Bodycomb
Top of the second-floor landing in the former Frick residence, an area that will be opened to the public with this plan; photo: Michael Bodycomb