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.
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.