The Case Against a Mammoth Frick

Collection Addition

By Michael Kimmelman

July 30, 2014

New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission would do well to turn down the Frick Collection’s proposed expansion, which imagines replacing a prized garden on East 70th Street in Manhattan with a clumsy addition. The city should avoid another self‐inflicted wound, and there are other options.

The plan, announced last month, ran into early headwinds. New Yorkers have seen the consequences of trustee restlessness and real estate magical thinking, which destroy or threaten to undo favorite buildings. Not so long ago, the Morgan Library & Museum, another Gilded Age landmark, built an addition that flopped. The New York Public Library wanted to disembowel its historic building at 42nd Street before thinking better of it.

The Museum of Modern Art’s demolition of the American Folk Art Museum building, a once‐ cherished institution but today the object of widespread derision, is probably what finally tipped some invisible scale of public tolerance against the culture of market capitalism and arrogant growth. The city’s truest anti‐MoMA, the Frick becomes the latest front in a larger battle to prevent nonprofit outposts of civilization from falling prey to the bigger‐is‐better paradigm.

It’s not too late. The plan calls for opening to the public part of the museum’s second floor, long used as offices, and turning the circular music room, a distinctive and eccentric space dedicated to lectures and concerts, into a rectangular gallery for temporary shows. Of the 40,000 square feet the Frick wants to add, only 3,600 of it would be for showing art — the size of an oligarch’s wine cellar, in that neighborhood. That’s actually plenty. The Frick doesn’t need more room for art.

Otherwise the proposal calls for a new auditorium and for rationalizing back‐of‐the‐house practical stuff like office space, classrooms, the conservation lab and wheelchair access, although while at it, the expansion includes a new boardroom, cafe and gift shop.

To accomplish all this, the current plan entails constructing a new tower on 70th Street in lieu of a gated garden that’s a civic gem to the east of the Frick mansion. The idea is essentially to extend the six‐story Frick library building, with its Palladian entrance on 71st Street, all the way to 70th Street, linking it to the mansion via a stepped addition. 1/5

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The garden, from 1977, is the only work in the city completed by the great British landscape architect Russell Page. It was conceived not to be entered but as a tableau to be viewed from the

street and the museum’s reception hall. It occupies a narrow plot where the Frick acquired and tore down a townhouse with the intention of someday expanding on the site. Page took time to get the layout right: a rectangular pool, with floating lotus and white lilies in summer, surrounded by pea gravel paths and boxwood.

A rendering of the expanded Frick Collection, as currently planned. Neoscape Inc.

Very Zen, the garden has become one of those little New York treasures, flowering nearly year‐ round. Trees include late‐blooming crab apple and Kentucky yellowwood. Page chose clematis and hydrangea to ornament the trellis, wisteria to climb the wall. It’s all a model of precision and proportion, a revelation and breather on the street: “a master class in restrained minimalism,” as Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, put it recently. It sets apart the mansion, reveals its layered additions, dapples the Frick in shade. At human scale, the garden exemplifies the sort of minor miracles New York manages to shoehorn into small spaces.

Naturally, it frustrates Frick officials no end that what was devised as a temporary amenity should now be an obstacle to its growth. But plenty of temporary works (the Eiffel Tower comes to mind) become permanent because they’re admired. Page did his job too well. Landscape preservationists, architects and others are rallying around the garden for good reason. They’ve been pleading for years that buildings shouldn’t trump spaces around them: Great public places and works of landscape architecture deserve to be treated like great buildings. They’re right. 2/5

4/10/2019 The Case Against a Mammoth Frick Collection Addition – The New York Times

Ian Wardropper, the Frick’s director, argued the other day that the Frick already has another garden, and that Central Park is nearby. The expansion, he said, would replace Page’s garden with a smaller, new one.

The museum has three Vermeers, too. That’s not an argument for trading one in. And in this case, the trade just isn’t persuasive. The proposal looks banal and inelegant, extruding the library and the 70th street facade. The Frick has chosen to continue in Beaux‐Arts style as if that might make the imbalanced bulk of its plan seem less obtrusive. In the right architects’ hands, maybe it could. In this case, it doesn’t.

The Frick has hired Davis Brody Bond, a fine New York firm but a curious choice to riff on the historic mansion designed for Henry Clay Frick a century ago by Carrère and Hastings. To that mansion, John Russell Pope devised ingenious and exquisite additions that turned the house into a museum during the 1930s. (He designed the great covered garden court, among other things.)

The reception hall, by the firm John Barrington Bayley, Harry van Dyke and G. Frederick Poehler, was added in the ’70s, a fussy, awkward Beaux‐Arts pastiche that should serve as a cautionary tale to Frick officials hoping to follow in the footsteps of Hastings and Pope. Like Page’s garden, the annex would be demolished in the current plan.

The fact is that the Frick is perfectly well loved as is. People revere it precisely because it isn’t (yet) like all the museums that have been busily remaking themselves for big crowds and blockbuster shows. For a few months last year, an exhibition of Dutch pictures on loan from the Mauritshuis in the Netherlands turned the museum into something akin to an outlet mall on Black Friday. That’s not what the Frick does best.

It puts on small, smart shows; collects some art, albeit nothing like what it used to; and wants more people to use its storied art reference library. The expansion is also meant to give the library more room, notwithstanding that the neighborhood has other libraries specializing in art, and more and more of what used to make the Frick library a first‐stop for art scholars and dealers is online or slowly heading there. At this point, the library averages 23 visitors a day. 3/5

4/10/2019 The Case Against a Mammoth Frick Collection Addition – The New York Times

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