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Upper East Side remains divided over Frick Collection’s expansion

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A Landmarks Commission meeting on Tuesday provided hours of testimony both for and against the expansion

Selldorf Architects

After four hours of contentious public testimony, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission decided not to vote on the planned expansion of the Frick Collection, on Tuesday.

Dozens of people—local residents, members of the Frick family, historic preservationists, members of community organizations—passionately spoke for and against the expansion, which includes a seven-story addition that will sit snugly with the Frick Art Reference Library, an underground auditorium that will sit below the iconic Russell Page-designed garden, and a two-story addition above the museum’s music room, among several other additions.

The expansion is being designed by Selldorf Architects. The firm’s leader, Annabelle Selldorf kicked off her presentation by showing several helpful slides that illustrated the various expansions the property had undergone since it was first built as a mansion for industrialist Henry Clay Frick by renowned architect Thomas Hastings of Carrère and Hastings, between 1912-14.

The mansion opened as a museum in the 1930s, and in the same decade architect John Russell Pope was hired to design a seven-story addition to the mansion, which now functions as the Frick Art Reference Library. In the 1940s, the museum purchased three adjacent townhouses on East 70th Street, demolished them, and then built the underground museum vault on that land. The Russell Page garden and the surrounding reception hall were added in the 1970s.

Many who oppose the current expansion plan say the additions are too large, and would block the design of existing library. One such skeptic was Upper East Side resident and Broadway producer Jane Bergère who felt the Frick’s expansion plan had been “railroaded” through the community, and that the museum hadn’t considered other options like building underground.

LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan (Tuesday was her last outing as the Commission’s chair) however felt that continuous expansion over the decades is part of the museum’s mission and fabric, as is evidenced in the slides presented by Selldorf.

“This is an incredibly respectful and sensitive proposal,” she said. “Even as a mansion, there was always the intent that it would be a museum. The development at the site shows that there is a history of development, and this addition seems like the next logical step.”

Many of the LPC Commissioners agreed and applauded Selldorf’s “restraint,” and “thoughtful” design. One Commissioner, Michael Devonshire, was on the fence. He bemoaned the loss of the Frick’s Music Room as part of the expansion, and said that the architects and museum needed to do a better job of protecting the northern wall of the garden designed by Russel Page—this has also been a chief concern of advocacy groups like the Cultural Landscape Foundation, and many local residents who spoke out against the expansion plans on Tuesday.

In his response to some of the public testimony, the Frick’s director, Ian Wardropper, said he was disappointed to learn that people felt the museum had rushed the proposal. He said he had been working on the expansion plans for the last five years (a previous Davis Brody Bond-designed expansion was rejected by the community), and was fully committed to incorporating the community’s needs. He said that plans for expanding the existing reception hall, and adding the underground auditorium had come from fruitful discussions with the community.

The rendering for the expanded reception hall.

Construction on the expansion won’t get underway until 2020, which Wardropper said gives the local community a lot more time to engage with the project and gave their input on fine-tuning the expansion details. Simultaneous to the Landmarks Commission approval, the museum will also be seeking approvals from the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals. If the Museum decides to make any changes during that time frame, it will have come back to the Landmarks Commission for approval again.

Even so, the LPC hasn’t yet officially signed off. On Tuesday, LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan decided that the museum and the architect should refine the proposal with all the suggestions that had been provided at the meeting and come back at a later date. If you’re interested, here’s a link to the full proposal submitted by Selldorf Architects and Beyer Blinder Belle.

A view from East 70th Street with the Page garden in front, and the seven-story addition in the rear.

The Frick Collection

1 East 70th Street, Manhattan, NY 10021 Visit Website