This is a door that’s a big deal. Besides being embellished with the monogram of its owner, it’s crowned by a limestone pediment for which Audrey Marie Munson, “Miss Manhattan,” the leading model for New York City’s public statues of the day, posed.
Opening this door was an equally big deal.
This is the front door to a mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 70th Street in New York City. It was the home of Henry Clay Frick, who made millions in the coke industry that was essential to the creation of iron and steel. Ever since seeing Frick’s Pittsburgh home, Clayton — a sumptuous place with embossed velvet wallcoverings, mahogany furniture, and tiger and bird’s-eye maple woodwork — I’ve been itching to open this door and step inside.
Frick was also an art collector with a good eye, selecting paintings, sculptures and decorative art “that were pleasant to live with,” his daughter, Helen, said. His custom was to take paintings on approval for months before he finally decided to purchase them. This way, he would be certain that they fit in well with the rest of his collection. Frick envisioned that his home would eventually become a place to encourage and develop the study of the fine arts, so that the public could enjoy his collection. Today, this door is the main entrance to The Frick Collection, a museum presenting fine paintings by the European Old Masters and 19th-century American artists, Italian bronzes, 18th-century French furniture and Sèvres porcelain.
In 1905, Frick rented the former New York City home of William H. Vanderbilt at 640 Fifth Avenue. The next year, a plot of land on Fifth Avenue between 70th and 71st Streets caught his eye. It was the site of the Lenox Library, a building which Richard Morris Hunt designed to hold the collection of a philanthropist named James Lenox. Six years later, the library’s holdings were incorporated and moved into the newly built New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Frick took title of the land, and the building was torn down to make way for “a small house, with plenty of light and air and land” that would be “a comfortable, well-arranged home, in good taste, and not ostentatious,” Frick ordered.
He was determined to create a superlative setting for his equally superlative art collection.
Frick commissioned Thomas Hastings to design a Neoclassical house, and hired Sir Charles Allom, a leading British decorator with Buckingham Palace to his credit, to handle the interior decoration on the first floor, the second-floor breakfast room and his private sitting room. He also hired Elsie de Wolfe, the first American professional interior decorator, to design and furnish 14 rooms on the second and third floors. As the trio worked, Frick reminded them of their mission to create “a liveable, homelike house and in the best of taste” while keeping their spending under control.
When Frick moved into his new home in November 1914, he personally oversaw the unwrapping the placement of each piece in his collection. He rearranged rooms as he acquired new items.
Frick took great joy in his art collection, and in the home he created to display it. The grand West Gallery was originally designed as an art gallery, just as it is today, and most of the same paintings hang on its forest-green velvet walls. Allom installed special lighting that illuminated each painting by an individual concealed spotlight, directing the light to fall only on the canvas and the frame. Before the room was completed, Frick wrote, “The picture gallery is going to be a dream. I like its proportions immensely.” When he lived in the house, Frick enjoyed sitting alone here at night, looking at the paintings.
When J.P. Morgan, also an art collector, died in 1913, some of his collection was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Frick purchased several items from Morgan’s collection, including Limoges enamels, porcelains, and bronzes that he displayed in the oak-paneled library on waist-high bookcases, for which Allom designed special tooled-leather pads to keep Frick’s most important works on art, music and literature from getting dusty. When Frick’s grandchildren visited, they played with the smaller bronzes on the library floor.
Perhaps Frick’s most memorable purchase from Morgan’s estate was a series of 14 paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard called The Progress of Love. Frick had the drawing room totally rebuilt to accommodate them, and spent over $5 million on sculptures, furniture, porcelains and bronzes to complement them.
Frick was an avid reader, and his bookplate read, “Those who do not read are going back instead of progressing.” He often read in a chair in the Living Hall, looking up to gaze at one of his favorite paintings, St. Francis in the Desert, by Giovanni Bellini. He napped on the library’s sofa, beneath Miss Mary Edwards by William Hogarth, and on the sofa in the West Gallery, beneath King Philip IV of Spain by Diego Velazquez.
The Fricks read, played cards, and talked over after-dinner coffee in the oak-paneled living hall. They were surrounded by Hans Holbein’s portraits of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell; El Greco’s painting of St. Jerome; 18th-century ebony and gilt-bronze French cabinets; Chinese porcelains; and Japanese lacquer panels.
Frick lived in the house for just five years. In November 1919, Frick contracted ptomaine poisoning that was either caused or aggravated by the lobster he ate for lunch, which led to heart failure. When Frick was dying, he took to his bed, staring first at Lady Hamilton as Nature by George Romney, then rolling over to stare at a studio copy of Miss Louisa Murray by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Frick’s wife, Adelaide, and their daughter, Helen, continued to live there after his death. When Adelaide died in 1931, the house was converted into a museum, following Frick’s wishes.
In his will, Frick provided a $15 million endowment for the house and his collection, stipulating that it open to the public as The Frick Collection. Helen continued to expand the collection by acquiring new works of art. John Russell Pope was commissioned to convert the family home into a public facility, moving the front door to 70th Street, transforming the courtyard and carriageway into a garden court with a skylight, a pool and fountain, and plants. He added a music room, where T.S. Eliot read from his poems and great 20th-century musicians like Isaac Stern have performed. He created a new entrance hall and additional galleries, and incorporated the Frick Art Reference Library into the space. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., whose father planned Central Park, designed the museum’s garden. The Frick Collection opened to the public on December 16, 1935.
In the 1970s, the museum acquired three neighboring properties on 70th Street for the addition of a new wing housing a reception hall, gift shop and coat room, together with a garden designed by Russell Page.
One of the most appealing things about the Frick Collection is that it not only has stayed true to its founder’s intent, but that it also retains much of the atmosphere of the Frick family’s home. Many of the paintings are still arranged according to Frick’s design.
The Frick Collection and Frick Art Reference Library Archives have digitized photographs and documents related to the Fricks, the house’s construction in 1913 and its conversion into a museum. Click here to browse them.
Click here to see a digitized album of the earliest known photographs of the interior of the house, taken in 1927.
And click here to see an online exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of the Fricks’ moving into their new residence at 1 East 70th Street. Digitized photographs and manuscripts tell the story of the house’s planning, construction, furnishing and early days. 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the completion of Henry Clay Frick’s New York residence at 1 East 70th Street, now the home of The Frick Collection. This online exhibition draws upon documents and photographs in The Frick Collection and Frick Art Reference Library Archives to tell the story of the house’s planning, construction, furnishing, and early days.
For more on The Frick Collection and the Frick family’s New York home, see The Henry Clay Frick Houses: Architecture, Interiors, Landscapes in the Golden Era, by Martha Frick Symington Sanger; Art in the Frick Collection: Paintings, Sculpture, Decorative Arts, by Charles Ryskamp, edited by Joseph Focarino; Building the Frick Collection: An Introduction to the House and Its Collections, by Colin B. Bailey; The Frick Collection–A Tour, by Edgar Munhall, with Susan Grace Galassi, Ashley Thomas, and the Acoustiguide Corporation staff; and “The Frick Collection,” the first chapter in American Art Museum Architecture: Documents and Design, by Eric M. Wolf. Read about the Frick’s bowling alley with ornate vaulted ceilings and carved mahogany walls, not open to the public, but now used for storage by the Frick Art Reference Library, in No Access New York City: The City’s Hidden Treasures, Haunts, and Forgotten Places, by Jamie McDonald.