Plans to expand the Frick Collection were approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as they came before the LPC for a second time in just under a month. Upper East Side residents and some preservationists remain divided over the museum’s expansion plans, but the LPC’s verdict is a major boost for the institution, which saw a previous expansion plan fall by the wayside due to community opposition.
Annabelle Selldorf, the project’s architect, presented a revised proposal, with seemingly minor changes, alongside Frick director Ian Wardropper. Those changes—which include an approximately three-foot setback on the art reference library addition to give more prominence to the Russell Page garden on East 70th Street—generally fell in line with what the LPC had suggested at its meeting in May.
The Commission voted 6-1 in favor of the expansion, with one abstention. (Frederick Bland, the vice chair of the Commission, is a managing partner at Beyer Blinder Belle, one of the firms working on the Frick expansion. He was not present at Tuesday’s meeting.) The only dissenting voice on the Commission was Michael Devonshire, who wondered whether the Frick had exhausted all other options before exploring its current plan, particularly building underground instead of destroying the museum’s beloved music room.
Devonshire’s apprehension also brought up a larger question: Should the LPC debate how a particular institution or structure decides to use its space, or should it weigh in only on the architectural merits (or demerits) of a proposal? Almost all concurred on the latter. Commissioner John Gustafsson noted that the LPC did not ask megamansion owners what they intended to do with their massive homes, and that it seemed unfair to pose the same question to an institution.
Commissioner Jeanne Lufty also asked Commissioners to think about how readily the Commission had approved the expansion of the American Museum of Natural History—another project helmed by a notable architect (Jeanne Gang)—which is much larger than the one proposed by the Frick.
Commissioners concurred that while it was sad to lose features of the museum like the music room, it wasn’t the Commission’s business to tell the Frick how to utilize its interior spaces. That being said, there’s currently a proposal to landmark some of the interior spaces (including the music room) in front of the commission’s staff. If they deem it appropriate, and the LPC landmarks the space, the Frick will likely need the commission’s approval once again.
For now, the museum moves to the Board of Standards and Appeals for its approval. Construction isn’t expected to get underway until 2020, and opposition is unlikely to quiet in the meantime. On Monday, the New York Times published an op-ed by Martha Frick Symington Sanger, one of the great-granddaughters of Henry Clay Frick, who built the mansion that now houses the museum. Sanger is joined in her opposition by a new advocacy group, Stop Irresponsible Frick Development, which held a protest on the steps of City Hall on Monday. Sanger has instead proposed an alternate plan designed by architect David Helpern, which among other things looks to utilize spaces like an abandoned bowling alley below the museum, to expand its existing space.
“Indeed, for each harmful modification proposed by the Frick Collection there exists, in fact, an alternative that would avoid unnecessary elimination of its defining landmark architecture, historic Russell Page Garden and intimate ambience,” Sanger wrote in her op-ed. “Let us engage an independent professional to evaluate the feasibility of excavation for proposed new facilities; revisit the possibility of modernizing and repurposing existing underground facilities; purchase the adjacent, 6,000-square-foot building that is currently on the market for less than 10 percent of the anticipated cost of the current proposal; and seek landmark status for the music room, which could just as easily be preserved as a gallery.”