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One Very Contentious Garden

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The Frick Collection's proposed expansion calls for the demolition of its jewel-box garden, designed by British landscape architect Russell Page. But that’s only part of the story.


The outcry over the Frick Collection’s proposed expansion is primarily focused on the fact that the current plan would call for the demolition of the Russell Page–designed garden, pictured here, on 70th Street, installed by the preeminent British landscape designer in 1977. It’s pretty clear (especially when you’re standing in line to get to the coat check, then on another line to buy a ticket) that the Frick could do with extra square footage to handle the increase in visitors — from 250,000 to now 340,000 a year, over the last ten years, according to the Frick’s director, Ian Wardropper.




This is a rendering by the architectural firm Davis Brody Bond of the proposed elevation of the expansion on 70th Street. The firm also did the 2011 conversion of the exterior loggia into the Portico Gallery. The new addition in shadow is superimposed on the three original townhouses that were adjacent to the mansion when it was completed in 1914, designed by Carrère and Hastings. The coat check and ticket pavilion, plus the garden, take up those three lots today.




One of the goals of the expansion is to turn certain former private rooms on the second floor into gallery space. That means that the public could finally ascend those stairs! Frick stated in his will that his mansion would be left to the public as a museum. The history in a nutshell: Henry Clay Frick dies in 1919. His daughter, Helen, starts building the Art Reference Library on 71st Street, designed by Hastings; it’s completed in 1924. In 1931, Henry’s wife, Adelaide, dies, and the house begins its conversion to accommodate the Frick Collection. A new wing designed by John Russell Pope in 1935 includes the Garden Courtyard, a new entrance on 70th Street, the Oval Room, the East Gallery, and the Music Room.




So, in fact, the Frick has been expanding ever since it was first converted into a museum. Pope’s 1935 addition was so in keeping with the original architecture that many people think it’s always been part of the building. Wardropper explains: “In 1967, when the museum was close to purchasing the third of three townhouses on East 70th Street, they commissioned a Pittsburgh firm to do a three-story building on the site — it would replace the three townhouses [that were demolished after acquisition by the Frick]. It was stated very clearly by the chairman of the board at the time that this building was to provide a larger auditorium, a bigger education space, pretty much what we are talking about now, but that was 45 years ago.” The current proposal for an extra 45,000 to 50,000 square feet would provide space for conservation, classrooms, an enlarged entry reception area, a new auditorium, an expanded gift shop, a new gallery, connecting the library to the museum, and a rooftop garden.



Emotions run high when it comes to the garden, seen here in a sketch by Russell Page. “I just feel that the loss of the garden would be an irreparable loss, a really sad thing,” the architect Robert A.M. Stern told me on the phone. “It is just a great public asset, and you don’t have to go into the Frick to enjoy it.” Wardropper explains that the garden was really a placeholder once the proposal for the new three-story building was scrapped in the 1970s owing to the faltering economy. “So they built a one-story pavilion — the current building containing the coat check and ticket desk — on the three lots instead of the three-story building and put up a beautiful garden, which basically was to cover the space.” There are many issues at stake for those who want to save the garden; they claim it is now landmarked, but the Frick maintains the land was always destined for development. Wardropper notes, “The space is landmarked but not the greenery on it. It’s a complicated distinction.” The various stages of landmark status of the Frick and its new additions are complicated, to say the least, and will be the focus of an upcoming hearing with the Landmarks Preservation Commission.


The top image is a photo of the Frick today taken from Fifth Avenue. The bottom rendering shows the addition as it would look completed.


An aerial view of the proposed addition. Wardropper says that there have been three master plans for an expansion, drawn up between 2001 and 2008, but that each plan failed to provide enough extra space. He also notes that one of the first things he did when he joined the Frick in 2011 was to put a bid in for the Berry-Hill gallery space in the building adjacent to the garden. There were still tenants in the building, so it would have been a toehold, but at least a first step, in eventual acquisition. “The whole building could indeed have solved our problems,” he says. But the Frick’s bid on the available Berry-Hill space was rejected. “It just was not in the cards,” Wardropper says.


It’s extremely tricky to expand upon a beloved museum that's always felt like each visitor’s personal oasis. On the one hand, there is a valid argument for a much-needed update, but on the other, no one ever imagined that the public would fall in love with this magical garden that adds so much to the museum’s sense of privacy and elegance. When asked what he would do if the Landmarks Preservation Commission turned down the request to replace the garden, Wardropper said, “We have three other plans that we can look at, and that is certainly possible. The question for us in the end is, I think, one facing any institution at a change in its history: Is it worth doing a half-measure? And honestly I don’t know what the answer is to that question at the moment. Personally, I am loath to do it halfway, but if we have to, we have done a lot of studies over the years that gives us a head start to rethink.”


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