The Battle for the Frick: Can Thousands of Garden-Loving Activists Stop a Museum?

The grand staircase to the second floor of the Frick. (Courtesy The Frick Collection)

The grand staircase to the second floor of the Frick. (Courtesy The Frick Collection)

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, I went to meet a man vociferously opposed to the proposed renovations of The Frick Collection, and we met on enemy territory: The Frick Collection.

“This is an institution devoted to connoisseurship that represents the best of Western civilization,” said Charles Warren, who goes by Chip, an architect with a pleasant, fussy air about him, complete with pocket square.

He was looking at the museum’s glorious indoor garden court—marble, crisp, gorgeous, once a portico that was very open-air, a centerpiece of a house unlike any houses they now make in Manhattan—and speaking between sighs.

“I can understand why they want to expand,” he said. “But when they propose that this is a modest change, well, it’s just not.”

The lovers of old buildings are up in arms.

In the spring of 2014, the Frick—on Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park, as prime as real estate gets anywhere on earth—announced plans for a 60,000-foot addition, adding six stories to the original design of robber baron Henry Clay Frick’s home. The expansion, which digs up a small garden on 70th Street adjacent to the museum, will allow for more gallery space and a performance pavilion.

This desire to grow is hardly shocking considering the Frick’s recent success, the smashing blockbuster that was “Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting From Mauritshuis”—a show featuring Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring and Fabritius’ Goldfinch (which was also on the cover of the year’s biggest pseudo-literary airport read)—was seen as a mandate, and the board acted accordingly. No longer would the masses stand in lines curling around the block.

A rendering of the new Frick Collection, if the plans are approved. (Courtesy The Frick Collection)

A rendering of the new Frick Collection, if the plans are approved. (Courtesy The Frick Collection)

At the time, the museum’s director, who has the wonderfully Pynchonian name of Ian Wardropper, described the changes thusly, in a press release fairly standard as far as these things go: “A visit to the Frick will still resonate with the comfortable grandeur of the Gilded Age but will now provide the expected amenities of a 21st-century museum.”

But—as it happened with a widely derided attempt to whizbang up the New York Public Library, or the seething backlash to the Museum of Modern Art’s plan to smash the American Folk Art Museum’s home to smithereens in pursuit of a spiffier lobby—there was instant, bitter opposition to the building project. Michael Kimmelman at The New York Times went on a rampage rarely seen in the Gray Lady, calling the proposal a “self-inflicted wound” to the city and compared trashing the garden to throwing a Vermeer in front of traffic.

Petitions to stop the expansion popped up on Change.org and Facebook. People who had never even been to the Frick to see its spectacular permanent collection of Vermeer, Rembrandt, Fragonard, etc., were up in arms.

There are sensible reasons to be squirrelly about such a project, way beyond nostalgia and architectural fetish. Several—if not nearly all—recent museum renovation projects have been over-budget and unsuccessful. And this one would be masterminded by Davis Brody Bond, the firm that did the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which is, to say the least, not considered an unqualified success. And there’s a case to be made that no park space whatsoever in Manhattan should ever be surrendered—although, in this instance, Central Park is right across the street. But beyond the specifics of this particular museum or these specific plans, it just seemed to hit a nerve with New Yorkers who just want to stop seeing nice things get screwed up.

Soon, a group of passionate museum people channeled their rage against callous, greedy trustees everywhere and formed “Unite to Save the Frick.”

My companion for the afternoon, architect Mr. Warren, a former chairman of the neighborhood’s Community Board 8, is a member of this scrappy crew of scholars, historians, Upper East Side advocates, aesthetes, bureaucrats, professors, heiresses, philanthropists, artists, gardeners, and descendants of Henry Clay Frick hell-bent on blocking the renovations. Robert A. M. Stern and Maya Lin are just two of the other boldface names picketing the plan, so to speak. The online petition is nearly 4,000 strong, and growing.

The second floor of The Frick. (Courtesy The frick Collection)

The second floor of The Frick. (Courtesy The frick Collection)

On the flip side, the expansion plans have the full support of the board—which includes Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman, antiquities collector Barbara Fleischman, and Pemmy du Pont Frick, an heiress to the two fortunes of her name. It also has a fairly straightforward proposal to put in front of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (in late spring, according to a somewhat indeterminate timeline) once it jumps the comparatively low hurdle of Community Board 8 approval.

The Frick has declined repeatedly to present even a ballpark figure for how much the expansion would cost, though opponents, and past history of New York museum renovations, put it comfortably in the millions. The institution’s endowment is pretty robust. A representative for the museum’s finance department said the endowment in 2015 has scaled $315 million, which is not bad for a museum that usually has a yearly attendance of 300,000. For instance, a MoMA spokesperson told me its endowment hovers around $1 billion, but it   gets 2.8 million people through its doors each year. The little museum has money, for sure.

Given that, is there even a chance that the Frick can be saved? Chip Warren and his fellow Unite to Save the Frick members think so.

“I’m not really a preservationist, but somebody’s got to speak up for these buildings,” he said, whispering as we passed through Frick’s incredible collection. “I’m not one of those people who wants to stop time, this isn’t Williamsburg”—he meant colonial, not hipster—“but is this needed?”

Another sigh.

“And what is the purpose of this ‘multipurpose’ room” they wish to add?

He’s a champion of the idea that the domestic touches of the house remain intact—that it be always the Frick Mansion, a reminder of a time when Fifth Avenue was suburbia for the nation’s steel magnates and railroad tycoons and oil barons and little else. He doesn’t want it to become like one of those staid institutions built solely for the purpose of hanging art.

“It is a function of the character of the Frick just having been built as a residential place and as a residence—and, also, having Mr. Frick’s art in the space connects you on a personal level,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council and another Unite to Save the Frick supporter.

Mr. Bankoff is a wonky depository of landmark trivia. We met in his office, and he rattled off a quick history of the East Village building it’s housed in: “It’s the 1898 Ernest Flagg rectory of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. The first one was made out of wood. It burned. The second one was made out of wood. It burned. Third time they got it right. They made it out of stone. It’s had a couple of fires but it’s still there. And then this was the rectory. In fact, the rector still lives upstairs.” 

He seems more of a practical man than the gimlet-eyed, handkerchief-clad Mr. Warren, but even he is hanging on to the notion the Landmarks Preservation Commission will choose to deny the Frick their dreams of expansion, whenever the museum properly submits and the commission members get through making their decision. (The Frick says they wish to start construction in 2017, and museum officials say they have been discussing the proposal with Landmarks informally in advance of submitting that official proposal in late spring.)

“I think that there are some really serious reasons why the damage to the Frick—and to the architectural character of the Frick, and to the sense of place in the Frick—should be judged quite strongly by the Landmarks Commission,” Mr. Bankoff said. 

Much of the protest has focused on the proposed destruction of the Frick’s conservatory garden and water lily pond (the much larger, magnolia-filled Fifth Avenue Garden will remain) designed by celeb British garden designer Russell Page. Sometime home to ducks and turtles, it’s on the former site of a townhouse torn down in the 1970s.  Originally, the space was meant to be a new wing but then, ultimately, because of recession in that decade, it became a garden. 

The details of that narrative, though, are contested. The garden was described at the time as “permanent” in press releases, but Frick officials at the press conference for the addition said it was “temporary.” And while Frick flacks (which includes a crew from PR czar Howard Rubenstein) now make the argument that this newly proposed renovation will add another rooftop garden—this one open to the public, unlike the Russell Page garden, which is trod upon rarely, usually by fabulously wealthy donors at a gala—Unite to Save the Frick insists the institution is revising history to eliminate a treasured spot.

“We have this New York idea of occupying every single foot possible,” Mr. Warren said.

We turned a corner in the Frick’s rustic maze and saw through a window a bright flash of green, the verdant carpet of the doomed garden.

Mrs. Frick's Boudior. (Courtesy The Frick Collection)

Mrs. Frick’s Boudior. (Courtesy The Frick Collection)

“Like, here, we can see the garden, and that won’t be here anymore.”

Peter Pennoyer, an architect who reps the Upper East Side so hard that he was named ambassador to the Upper East Side by the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, is also a proud Unite to Save the Frick member. 

“This is a building I’ve admired my entire life, and I feel like this step would be taking something away that very special and very rare,” Mr. Pennoyer said over the phone. “It’s an architectural masterpiece, and it’s a shame to add on to it and change its relationship to where it sits.”

After strolling through the museum for some time, Mr. Warren walked outside, and stepped before the giant fence that keeps the public from getting into the garden. He put his hands on the iron and looked inside.

“If they had gotten their hands on some Titian ceiling, or some object that they have to put on view—that’s a requirement,” Mr. Warren said. “But this isn’t a requirement, what they’re doing. I just hope the Landmarks Commission has the sense to turn this down. Otherwise, we’ll be Houston.”

Expecting little in the way of a comment from the Frick regarding the thousands-strong coalition singularly focused on defeating them, I reached out to press representatives with a quick note, asking for a statement. But instead of keeping quiet for fear of making things worse, the museum did the opposite. They invited me over for coffee.

And, thinking about it, why wouldn’t they? The Frick has a trump card its opponents could never pull: access to the very private, very cherished Frick family quarters on the second floor of the museum, restricted to even the most connected of visitors.

“You’ve just gotten past the hottest velvet rope on the Upper East Side,” said Heidi Rosenau, who works in the press office (and clearly knows how to win me over), guiding me to the living quarters of Henry Clay Frick’s family. The steel baron had been a despicably ruthless man in pursuit of fortune—he ousted from Carnegie Steel the man who saved his life after an assassination attempt, owned a shoddy dam that burst and killed over 2,000 Pennsylvanians, and banished his own son to France when he feared a patricidal coup—and the fruits of these methods were on full display.

Iron-wrought curlicues wrapped around the top of the marble stairs, priceless masterpieces dotted the walls, Elsie de Wolfe chinoiserie washed over the ceilings, and at the turn of the heart-stopping staircase was an Aeolian-Skinner organ on which organists would entertain guests from the clans of Whitney, Morgan, Schwab, Carnegie and Vanderbilt.

For 80 years, this has been guarded from the public, opened to the rarefied and very few, and if the renovations are approved, it will rend its velvet rope and let in everyone.

After scooping my jaw off the floor, I followed Ms. Rosenau to Henry Clay Frick’s bedroom—or, as she described it, “the place where Henry Clay Frick died,” as if his sins of capitalism (and little stunts such as ending a protest by ordering a siege that left 16 people dead on the ground) still linger. It is now a conference room, and awaiting me in it was the Frick’s Ian Wardropper.

There were porcelain china coffee cups and porcelain china saucers, so as I sat and sipped some java, Mr. Wardropper clicked through the slideshow on a screen he had installed in Henry Clay Frick’s bedroom, explaining why Unite to Save the Frick is misguided and wrong.

“What we’re proudest of is the marriage of the museum and the house,” Mr. Wardropper said. “It is a house—we really encourage our visitors to spend time with works of art. And, of course, that’s something that we’d never want to change. The major change would be people would be able to come upstairs.”

Ian Wardropper. (Courtesy Patrick McMullan)

Ian Wardropper. (Courtesy Patrick McMullan)

Then he started rattling off statistics and snippets from the history, arms gesturing until his wrists would stick far out of his semi-decent fit of a suit. He was trying to make the argument that the new space is desperately needed, and the renovations justified. Here are some of his points. The collection started with 635 works; they now have 1,119. They usually show half of the collection at any given time; they are currently showing 31 percent of it. The upstairs parlor rooms, as grand as any in this city, have to be used, somewhat unthinkably, as offices. The staff and the public can’t flow easily through the library and the collection; they have to exit through the main doors and walk to the other side of the block. Wheelchair access is quite limited.

And then he went on to discuss the garden, the vortex of protest, the gem of green so cherished by Unite to Save the Frick, the penny on the track that could derail the train.

“Look, the museum didn’t spend 32 years and a lot of money to build a garden,” he said, a slight strain emerging in his even tone. “The garden was a consolation prize, when they couldn’t do what they wanted to do. We always said the interior space would meet the foreseeable needs of the museum—now is the future.”

And the garden is there for what, exactly?

“During parties, we sometimes let people go out there to smoke,” he said. “But otherwise, it was only used once for an outdoor party, and we were worried that someone was going to trip and fall in the pool. Yes, it’s a beautiful garden, we all love the garden, but we feel like the needs outweigh that.”

He floated a theory that the majority of people opposed to the renovations are bleeding-heart Upper East Side lifers, locals who would decry a re-shelving of their go-to corner store. Others are neighbors who would be impacted by construction. As for Unite to Save the Frick, he sees them as a legitimate threat, even if he doesn’t seem to grasp the idealism behind the signatures.

“I knew this was coming, and I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I don’t know why it’s become such a cause célèbre,” he said. “The opposition group has been really successful, they’re very well funded, and they know when to stoke the flames. So I have to give them credit.”

“The fear that the Frick is going to change fundamentally is the harder thing to understand,” he added. “This comes from a general love for this institution, from a love of the past.”

Then he got up and began to give me a tour. We walked from Henry Clay Frick’s bedroom to the bedroom of his daughter, Helen Clay Frick, then to the bedroom of his wife, Adelaide Childs Frick (“Say what you will about the daughter separating the husband and the wife”) and then to what used to be the lady of the house’s dressing room.

“This is my office,” Mr. Wardropper said. “It’s a nice space, and it will be a good space to show small paintings, small works of art, and it has the feeling of the rooms of the family.”

“So, you have to move out?” I asked.

“I have to move out—I gave up my office for the cause,” he said, staring out the window, with its view of the 5th Avenue portico garden and then to Central Park. “And many people say this is the most beautiful office in New York.”

If his nightmare comes true, and Unite to Save the Frick somehow stops the expansion, at least Mr. Wardropper gets to keep his office. And his view.