Henry Clay Frick was born, from relatively modest Mennonite stock, on December 19, 1849, in West Overton, a rural community in southwestern Pennsylvania. The second child of an immigrant farmer who married the daughter of a flour merchant and whisky distiller, Frick worked as a salesman in one of Pittsburgh's most prominent stores and became the well-paid chief bookkeeper of the family distillery; he retained an expertise in accounting for the rest of his life. West Overton was eight miles north of Connellsville, a center in the fledgling iron industry, whose rich coal beds yielded seams of high-grade bituminous coal, ideal for coking. In March 1871, Frick, in partnership with a cousin, invested family money to acquire low-priced coking fields and build fifty coke ovens. Within a decade, H. C. Frick Coke Company would operate some thousand working ovens and produce almost eighty percent of the coke used by Pittsburgh's burgeoning iron and steel industries.
Once launched in the coke industry, Frick moved permanently to Pittsburgh, establishing residence in the prosperous Homewood section of the city after his marriage in December 1881 to the twenty-two-year-old Adelaide Howard Childs, daughter of a boot and shoe manufacturer. The Fricks' first home was an eleven-room, two-and-a-half-story house purchased for $25,000 in August 1882. This Italianate residence, called Clayton, was remodeled in 1891 into a twenty-three-room four-story Loire château, a style popularized during the 1870s in New York. It is now home to the Frick Art & Historical Center.
Frick and Adelaide had four children, only two of whom survived into adulthood: a son, Childs, born in 1883, and a daughter, Helen, born in 1888. Helen, who never married, founded the Frick Art Reference Library in memory of her father in 1920. She remained its director until 1983, the year before her death at age ninety-six. Childs Frick's children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have served as presidents of The Frick Collection and members of the Board of Trustees since the museum formally opened to the public in December 1935.
In May 1882, Frick entered into partnership with the Scottish-born steel manufacturer Andrew Carnegie. For the next two decades, as the expansion of the railways created an ever-increasing demand for iron and steel, Frick dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the joint fortunes of the H. C. Frick Coke Company and the Carnegie Brothers Steel Company. He was a lifelong opponent of organized labor, and his refusal to allow union workers at his mines led to the infamous Homestead strike of July 1892, in which ten men were killed and sixty wounded. The same month, Frick himself was attacked in a failed assassination attempt by a twenty-five-year-old Russian anarchist. He cabled both his mother and Carnegie: "Was twice shot, but not dangerously."
Frick grew disenchanted with Carnegie and became honorary chairman of the board in December 1894. Five years later, Carnegie abolished Frick's position as chairman of the H. C. Frick Coke Company and the two went to court over the value of Frick's interest. In March 1900 a settlement was reached in which Frick received $30 million in securities. In 1901, having moved from Pittsburgh to New York, Frick became one of the directors of J. P. Morgan's newly incorporated United States Steel Corporation; his official biographer noted that he was the largest individual railway stockholder in the world.
Frick had started to collect paintings seriously in his late forties and began to focus on his collections even more after his move to New York in 1905. In 1913, construction began on Henry Frick's New York mansion on Fifth Avenue between 70th and 71st Streets. The home he erected cost nearly $5,000,000, including the price of the land. The firm of Carrère and Hastings designed the house to accommodate Frick's paintings and other art objects. Even the earliest plans for the residence take into account Frick's intention to leave his house and his art collection to the public, as he knew the Marquess of Hertford had done with his London mansion and comparable collection some years earlier. Frick changed the arrangements of the rooms as he acquired new works to fill the house.
Frick died in 1919. In his will, he left the house and all of the works of art in it together with the furnishings ("subject to occupancy by Mrs. Frick during her lifetime") to become a gallery called The Frick Collection. He provided an endowment of $15 million to be used for the maintenance of the Collection and for improvements and additions.
Excerpted in part from: The Frick Collection, New York. Bailey, Colin B. et al. Fondation BNP Paribas, Paris and The Frick Collection, New York, 2011 (available in the Museum Shop).