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The Controversial Origins of New York City's Frick Collection

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James Nevius is the author of three books about New York, the most recent of which is Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers.

The Frick Collection is heralded as one of the world's best small museums, but it has recently stirred up controversy with a proposed six-story addition that would expand the museum by over 40,000 square feet. Not only would this expansion destroy parts of an earlier, 1970s renovation (including a private garden), it would also reconfigure the experience of visiting what is often referred to as a "jewel box" of a space. But any museum named after Henry Clay Frick is probably destined to invite controversy. Not only was Frick himself a polarizing figure—he was known as the "most hated man in America," and once targeted for assassination—but the construction of his mansion a century ago raised the hackles of New York's Fifth Avenue elite in much the same way that the Frick's current expansion plans have sent some New Yorkers into a tizzy.

Frick, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1849, began amassing the fortune that would get him to New York at age 21, when he founded the Frick Coke Company, which supplied the fuel used in Pennsylvania's steel mills. Ten years later, already a millionaire, he entered into a partnership with steel baron Andrew Carnegie, vaulting him into the ranks of America's richest men.

[The Vanderbilt Mansion at 640 Fifth Avenue. Photo via the Library of Congress.]

Around the same time, a visit to William H. Vanderbilt's art-filled mansion at 640 Fifth Avenue spurred Frick to begin collecting paintings himself (his first purchase was a Pennsylvania landscape), much of it under the guidance of art dealers Roland Knoedler and Joseph Duveen. The Vanderbilt mansion, with its elegant furnishings and art-lined galleries, made quite an impression on Frick; according to biographer (and great-granddaughter) Martha Frick Symington Sanger, Frick later remarked, "It is all I shall ever want."

Before he could pursue his mansion dreams, misfortune began to hound Frick. On May 31, 1889, the dam gave out at Lake Conemaugh, a private lake at a fishing and hunting club Frick had helped found. The dam collapse sent millions of gallons of water downriver toward Johnstown, PA, killing 2,209 people—at the time, the worst disaster in American history. Though Frick quickly set up a relief fund for the victims' families, he couldn't fully dodge the club's—or his own—role in the tragedy. Soon thereafter, his young daughter Martha died, and a year later, his son Henry, Jr.

A national scandal followed when Carnegie Steel workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania, went on strike, in part due to Frick's ongoing attempts to break the union. On July 6, 1892, a battle broke out between steelworkers and the Pinkerton agents Frick had contracted to reopen the mill. In the skirmish, nine union members and three Pinkerton agents were killed. In retaliation, anarchist Alexander Berkman burst into Frick's office two weeks later and shot him twice at close range. Remarkably, Frick not only survived the attack but was back at his desk within the week. But Frick's reputation was sullied, and it was the beginning of a decade of strained relations between Frick and Carnegie that would ultimately send Frick from Pittsburgh to New York. (Not, however, before Frick built his company's Pittsburgh headquarters right next to Carnegie's—and taller—so that his building would overshadow his rival's.)

After a brief stay at Sherry's Hotel in New York, Frick rented the Vanderbilt mansion, the same house that had started him on his path as an art collector, in 1905. He packed up fifty paintings from Clayton, his Pittsburgh mansion, and moved them to New York, allegedly because the pollution from his own coke ovens and Carnegie's mills was damaging the art. This was the beginning of what would become the Frick Collection.

In New York, Frick began to collect paintings that (in Sanger's words) "reflected the high society into which he was moving," including portraits by Reynolds and Gainsborough, a Turner landscape, and El Greco's Saint Jerome. Then, in 1906, Frick took a step to ensure his ever-growing art collection would be preserved for future generations: he purchased the lot at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 70th Street so that he could move out of the Vanderbilt house into a grand mansion of his own.

There was only one problem—a beloved Beaux-Arts masterpiece stood in Frick's way. This was the Lenox Library, a rare book and manuscript collection founded by philanthropist James Lenox and housed on the block of Fifth Avenue between 70th and 71st streets in a building designed by the "dean" of American architecture, Richard Morris Hunt. The Times had deemed the library "a structure of chaste and simple design…gratifying to the eye," and its reputation as a Hunt masterpiece only grew with time. Ostensibly a public library, it was nearly impossible to visit: it was only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays and admission required written permission of the librarian.

By the time Frick set his sights on the property, the Lenox Library was on the verge of moving out. In 1895, the brand-new New York Public Library, which had been struggling to get off the ground, approached both the Lenox and Astor libraries with the idea of a merger. When the Lenox trustees agreed, the NYPL considered moving into the Lenox space, perhaps building an expansion onto what was then vacant land stretching toward Madison Avenue.

[Lenox Library, ca. 1905. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.]

Instead, the New York Public Library chose to build from scratch at its current 42nd Street location. But that didn't immediately clear the way for Frick. The terms of James Lenox's will dictated that if the Fifth Avenue land wasn't going to be used for a library, it would revert to his heirs. Luckily for Frick, the New York Public Library was so eager for the $2.25 or $3 million (sources differ) he was offering for the property that they convinced the Lenox heirs to back the deal, adding the provision that Frick could not begin construction until the library was emptied in 1912.

However, before construction could begin, Frick had to clear the hurdle of public opinion. Even though few people had used the Lenox Library, it had become a part of the fabric of Fifth Avenue. Even Richard Morris Hunt, who'd died in 1895, still gazed at it every day: his grand memorial, designed by Bruce Price and sculpted by Daniel Chester French, had been erected on the other side of Fifth Avenue in 1898, specifically placed to forever enjoy the view of the Lenox Library facade. Frick was going to ruin everything.

In May 1912, to appease lovers of Hunt's edifice, Frick offered to have the Lenox Library torn down and rebuilt, stone by stone, inside Central Park. While the park's commissioner and Art Commission agreed (they hoped to demolish the 1848 arsenal that served as the park's headquarters and use the Lenox Library in its place), there was an immediate public outcry: people feared that Frick's gift would set a dangerous precedent of haphazard construction. What other buildings would get dumped in the park for posterity's sake?

At a hastily called meeting of the Parks and Playgrounds Association, numerous citizens, political leaders, and architects condemned the plan; as one letter-writer put it to the Times: "Something must be very wrong with things as they are if it is possible for the public to lose any portions of such a Park. Surely something can be done to prevent this ever-recurring danger of stealing, under one pretense or another, any portion of so valuable a fresh-air space in a great city like this."

[The Frick mansion nearing completion in 1913. Photo via the Library of Congress.]

Angry at the rebuff, Frick withdrew the offer within a week. Despite pleas for him to rebuild the Lenox Library elsewhere, Frick instructed his architects, Carrere & Hastings, to demolish the Lenox building as soon as possible and begin the construction of his mansion.

In Frick's mind, he and Andrew Carnegie were still in competition, and it irked Frick that Carnegie's home at Fifth Avenue and 91st Street was one of the grandest in the city. (Today, it houses the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.) Purportedly, Frick's instructions to architect Thomas Hastings were to make Carnegie's 64-room home "look like a miner's shack." Whether that's true or not remains unclear, but what is certain is that Frick selected Hastings on the advice of art dealer Joseph Duveen with the intention of building a home that would be turned into a public art museum after his death (and the death of his wife, Adelaide). As Frick succinctly put it: "I want this collection to be my monument." What remained unspoken, of course, was Frick's worry that he would be remembered as the man who broke the Homestead Strike and caused the Johnstown Flood. As surely as Carnegie's libraries and endowments were securing his legacy, so too would Frick's collection.

In the decade Frick lived in the Vanderbilt mansion, he turned his attention to improving his holdings with old masters, including Rembrandt's Polish Rider and a trio of Vermeers. Upon the death of J.P. Morgan in 1913, Frick purchased the series of Fragonard panels called The Progress of Love from the banker's estate and had a special room constructed in the mansion to house the panels. Frick spent upwards of $5 million on the new house (not including the price of the land or demolition of the Lenox Library), but that was nothing compared to the fortune he was spending on art: the Fragonard panels were worth $1.25 million alone. Henry and Adelaide moved into the home in the autumn of 1914 ("a trifle north of what has been called the centre of the fashionable city life," the Times sniffed), but Frick got to enjoy his new digs for just five years: he died on December 2, 1919. Only at the time of his death did the public learn that the house and art collection would one day become a museum "for the purpose of encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects."

Adelaide lived another twelve years, passing away in October 1931, and immediately the trustees of the newly formed Frick Collection began planning the home's conversion into a museum. At first, they were optimistic that the original Hastings building would require little modification—just a month after Adelaide's death, the trustees indicated the collection would open in the spring of 1932, with little more required than the removal of family heirlooms and the pulling up of the carpets. However, the spring deadline passed, and in January 1933, the trustees again announced that the museum was just a few months away from opening, having hired architect John Russell Pope to "retain...the present atmosphere of the house" and avoid "the manner of exhibition common in museums." Among Pope's plans was to tear out the home's porte-cochère, replacing it with a covered Garden Court—today, one of the most beloved features of the museum. Over the next year and a half, the collection announced its imminent opening many times, only to postpone each time. Finally, on December 16, 1935, the museum welcomed the public and the public was stunned. As the New York World Telegram put it: "One forgets all about Frick himself, his feud with Carnegie, the strikes, and everything else, and gives one up to this heart-stirring experience." Just what Henry Clay Frick wanted.

Unlike other house museums, such as the Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston, the trustees of the museum continued to collect art after Frick's death, many of the acquisitions overseen by his daughter, Helen. Despite the feeling inside that Henry Clay Frick has, perhaps, just stepped out for a moment, the museum is not a 1914 home frozen in time, but an ever-expanding, world-class collection. It plays host to traveling shows, such as the recent blockbuster Mauritshuis exhibit featuring both "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" and "The Goldfinch," and if such crowded exhibitions are to become more frequent, the current expansion plans seem understandable. Some would argue that crowds are not what the Frick needs, but Frick might not agree. When he was still alive, nearly anyone who wanted an admission ticket to the mansion's West Gallery was given one; as Sanger notes in her biography, Frick derived so much pleasure from those who enjoyed his paintings that he "would often step silently in [to the gallery], observe the observers, and...steal out again, unnoticed."

Further reading:
· Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait by Martha Frick Symington Sanger
· Meet You In Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Partnership That Transformed America by Les Standiford
· Building the Frick: An Introduction to the House and its Collections by Colin B. Bailey
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]