The Fifth Avenue Garden Magnolias — Historical Note
As a result of a decision of the Board of Trustees in 1939, three magnolias were selected for the Fifth Avenue garden. The two trees on the lower tier are Saucer Magnolias (Magnolia soulangeana) and the species on the upper tier by the flagpole is a Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata). Considered to be some of the largest in the New York area, and certainly the most grand in the setting in which they are displayed, they maintain their balance by yearly pruning, to sustain their sprawling shape in proportion to the long limestone facade of The Frick Collection.
Every year, as spring approaches, calls flood The Frick Collection's switchboard asking when the magnolias will bloom and whether their early blossoms will be safe from frost — something no one can ever know. Having reached a grand age, these three trees on Fifth Avenue are without doubt the finest in the city. The magnolias have become as much a symbol of the Frick as its paintings, and, like the subject of Ingres's Comtesse d'Haussonville, they are as tender. It is the transience of all things — of blossoms, trees, and human lives and their effects — that the magnolia blossoms suggest.
It is the warmth supplied by the color and life of the exterior gardens that gives The Frick Collection its residential ambience. In this respect it is unlike other museums of its size and scope in New York. Even fresh roses for the galleries and private luncheons are taken from the rose-cutting beds in summer, and herbs are grown to supply the kitchen for guests and staff. Set back from the sidewalk, behind the tall fence guarded by mythic iron griffins, the raised garden is presented like the stage of a theater, separating it from the busy world. Likewise, viewing the garden from the windows of the Fragonard Room or the Living Hall visually integrates the art and gardens in a way no other museum in the city can.
Whereas the Fifth Avenue garden, with its neoclassical urns and grand façade, is grand and imposing, the Seventieth Street Garden, designed by Russell Page in 1977, is soft and intimate. In the words of its designer this garden is to be viewed — from the street or through the arched windows of the Reception Hall — like an Impressionist painting. Despite its formal structure of pea gravel paths and boxwood, what Mr. Page called the "bones" of a garden, it is a flowering garden nearly year round. The salient feature of Page's garden is the rectangular pool in the center lawn crowned in summer with blue and white tropical lilies and lotus. Vines of clematis and climbing hydrangea cover the trellis, and wisteria vines soften the hard limestone walls. Page's garden is designed to slow, or stop, a busy New Yorker, to pause for a moment — a respite from the city.
—Galen Lee, Horticulturist and Special Events Designer