The Frick

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The Fifth Avenue Garden at The Frick Collection.

I first found the Frick when I was young in New York, just out of college in the early 1960s. Someone must have told me about it. I did not have a refined sense of art appreciation or history. I had a passing curiosity.

The first time was a Saturday. There were very few visitors; you could count them on both hands. So it was almost like being in a private space. It was a very quiet, hushed, and one had the sense of being in the sainted galleries of a very rich man’s house. That in itself was an other-worldly experience to this country boy just learning about city life.

Then of course I saw Holbein’s portrait of Sir Thomas More, the very image I’d seen blown-up on the screen of Art History 101. I was astounded by the painter’s ability to present detail to the point of giving it life.

Henry Clay and Helen Frick , c. 1910, Edmund Charles Tarbell. Credit: ©National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Frick built the house for his collection but he also built it to live in. Although the family never lived there after Mr. and Mrs. Frick died, and it had long before become an official museum, it still retained the feeling of a family’s mansion, as if to say, this is how the great tycoons of the Gilded Age lived.

Frick wasn’t the only one of his ilk who lived palatially, and amongst great art and architecture. As it is today, he was one of many men and women of wealth, of varying degrees of interest and focus, who collect art and antiques. But in retrospect, we can see that Mr. Frick had a vision. His collecting, like his business, was intentional. Connoisseurship was acquired, like a talent; and obviously it was the way the man could express passion.

I’ve been to the Frick many many times over the years since my first visit. It has changed and grown. It’s no secret anymore, and you won’t find a Saturday or any day where you can count the visitors on your two hands. Unless it’s closed.

However, several months ago, Heidi Rosenau
 who heads the public relations department at the Collection asked me and JH if we’d like to tour “the house,” the residence, as it was initially for Mr. Frick, his wife, and his family.

He was a man of his time. The house was equipped with all kinds of power, state of the art; an enormous institutional kitchen, a complex and massive heating and circulating system; storages for everything from food to furniture; its own generators, vaults, as well as the requisite organ with which guests and family were entertained. And the staple of the Edwardian Age, a bowling alley and billiards room where the men can have a game or two over cigars after dinner.

What impressed me in seeing the building from its bowels to its towers, was the thoroughness of the residence. They’d thought of everything, and it had all the attributes of an institutional building. Later on this was expanded when after World War I, Miss Frick was concerned the damage an air raid could do on New York and most specifically the Collection. And so, five floors beneath the street, there was built a vault that can hold the entire collection.

To look through the rooms on the second and third floors is to still see the signs of life now gone, as if the residents hadn’t been gone all that long (it’s been close to eighty years). Because there remains in the rooms and the hallways, a sense of the daily lives that made up this great legacy for us, the public.

L. to r.: The imposing door to the old family silver vault. ; The original laundry room space, still in use, but updated.
The magnificent Frick bowling alley, built with the construction of the house in 1913-14, contains 2 lanes and a non-mechanized ball return that functions still, operating by the grace of pure physics. There is also a lovely billiards table. This tiled, wood-paneled room is not on public view because of code issues, but has been lovingly preserved by the institution.

In an engineering room, one can still find the 1930’s-era climate-control-monitoring system. Such systems have been replaced by modern ones, but the institution preserves them as part of the “story” of the house. This room feels a bit like something one might have found on the Titanic, and in fact, the Fricks were originally booked to sail on the ship’s maiden voyage, but a turned ankle forced them to postpone.
The Frick’s original wood shop was built into the house for on-going finishing work, the notion that updates might be made, and so forth. It remains in use today for framing, construction of plinths, cabinetry, and so forth.
The top-floor cedar closet remains aromatic after nearly 100 years and is still in use for linen storage.
Nearby is a remarkable linen-storage closet with a deep, swinging (unique?) cabinet designed for blanket storage. Its monumental hinge is a clear reminder that one is in the house of a steel baron.
L. to r.: A petite closet containing just 2 snow shovels.; A beautiful internal marble-walled staircase with a lovely brass handrail.
The office of Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator Colin B. Bailey was, suitably, once the 2nd floor private study of Henry Clay Frick. It maintains a fairly similar appearance today, given its function. Deep red silk wall hangings dating from the 1930s also help convey a sense of the original décor, along with a period sofa, and plenty of books.

Call buttons, no longer in use, were at Henry Clay Frick’s fingertips to reach his valet, housekeeper, and so forth.
Henry Clay Frick’s nearby bedroom, today referred to as the Walnut Room is in use for meetings.

Its wood paneling incorporates stunning carved decorations such as a Grinling Gibbons-esque garland above the fireplace (a similar example can be found above the fireplace in the gallery referred to as the Library). The carving is contemporary to the house and was done by Brooklyn craftsman Abraham Miller, whose tools have found a home in the Frick archives.
Detail of wood paneling above the fireplace.

L. to r.: As curators plan the placement of works in special exhibitions, an early step is to use this scale model of the downstairs galleries.; A view between two rooms on the 2nd floor of the mansion.
The Director’s Dining Room is a cheerful room on the 2nd Floor of the Frick mansion. When the house was a private residence, this Central Park-facing space was occupied by two bedrooms, that of Henry Clay Frick’s spouse, Adelaide Childs Frick and their adult daughter Helen Clay Frick, who founded the Frick Art Reference Library on 71st Street.

L. to r.: The ceiling of the 2nd Floor hallway is decorated with a bright and charming Chinoiserie painted mural, which inspired the theme of this year’s Young Fellows Ball. Elsie de Wolfe, later Lady Mendl was the interior decorator for the family’s private rooms.; This view of the 2nd floor landing includes a lovely Sir Henry Raeburn painting. Works in the collection may be moved around for different installations, and this portrait of Mrs. James Cruikshank is often found on public view in the gallery called the Library. It was united by Henry Clay Frick with Raeburn’s portrait of her husband, both finding a suitable home in the mansion one hundred years ago this year.
This view of the 2nd floor landing shows, to the right, a decorative screen behind which are a vast number of organ pipes. A large Aeolian-Skinner organ sits near the staircase. Henry Clay Frick employed Archer Gibson to play for him, and engagements included twice-weekly dinner parties. Mr. Gibson also played for Schwab, Carnegie, Emily Vanderbilt Sloane, Florence Vanderbilt Twombly, and many others who had Aeolian organs in their homes.
The Director’s Office was once the private study of Mrs. Frick.
During her residency, it was adorned with paneling and the group of Boucher paintings that currently occupy the gallery called the Boucher Room. They were moved in the 1930s to this public viewing space when the house was being prepared for its new function as a museum.
Features of this serene room today include a lovely marble fireplace and beautiful carved wood doors. Today is Anne Poulet’s last day in her post as Director. Her successor, Ian Wardropper, starts on Monday and will occupy this wonderful room.

A marble fireplace in what was a 3rd Floor guest bedroom (now the office of Senior Curator Susan Grace Galassi, whose Picasso exhibition opens Tuesday).
L. to r.: A wall sconce in an upstairs guest bedroom.; A sconce in the hallway outside of the Director’s Office provides beautiful soft lighting.
An elegant ceiling fixture in what was the original 2nd floor breakfast room, now an office.
Atop the Frick Art Reference Library building on 71st Street, there is a terrace with a lovely view of Central Park.

A view of the terrace atop the 1935 Frick Art Reference Library building.
A charming tiled 1930’s breakroom in the Frick Art Reference Library looks like a period diner.
A portion of the Frick’s IT department works out of this office in the Frick Art Reference Library building. The room is decorated with late 17th- or early 18th-century wood paneling from the Benjamin Doak House in Marblehead, MA.

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