Additions To Frick Collection Approved

Image credit: LPC.

Some commissioners lamented loss of Music Room and house museum character, but acknowledged those issues were outside of Landmark’s purview, and found impact on the exterior fell within bounds of appropriateness. On June 26, 2018, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to award the Frick collection a certificate of appropriateness to allow for an expansion that will improve circulation, increase exhibition, education and conservation space, and create a café. The individual City landmark was built for industrialist Henry Clay Frick by Carrere & Hastings in 1914. After the deaths of Frick and his wife, the mansion at 895 Fifth Avenue, was converted into a museum based around Frick’s art collection. The conversion and expansion were overseen by architect John Russell Pope, and include the construction of a library adjoining the museum.

The museum had initially released an expansion plan in 2014, which would have added 60,000 square feet to the institution, and caused the infill of a garden designed by Russell Page. The plan was withdrawn in the face of public outcry before entering the public review process.

The Frick initially presented plans to Landmarks at a public hearing in May of 2018. The additions, presented by architect Annabelle Selldorf, were sited in three locations. A seven-story addition adjoining the library portion of the site would fill in a rear yard, creating administration and conservator space, as well as new connections between the library and museum.  The addition would interpret Pope’s original design in a contemporary manner, with matching Indiana limestone and bronze casement windows. A second addition would be built above the museum’s Music Room, circular domed room conceived as a recital space and lecture hall, to allow for a new elevator and additional space for conservators and a café vestibule. The work would entail the demolition of the existing Music Room. A third addition would raise the roof of the reception hall by slightly less than five feet to enable handicapped access to the second-floor galleries. The reception hall addition would appear as a clerestory with bronze windows and a copper roof.

Other work would include the installation of wheelchair ramps and elevators, as well as upgrades and repairs to the physical plant.

Museum Director Ian Wardropper stated that expansion was necessary to accommodate an increase in visitors, improve its conservation facilities, add space for temporary exhibitions and amenities, and to make the building handicapped-accessible.

Speakers generally said the plan was superior to the one put forward in 2014, though some opposition remained. The plan was endorsed by the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, among others. Other preservationists, however, felt the proposal required further refinement and implored the museum to seek ways to advance their institutional mission without destroying the Music Room. Some nearby residents urged Landmarks to deny the proposal, saying it would severely negatively impact the building’s architecture and integrity and argued the commission should demand that the museum locate additional space off-site or underground.  Henry Clay Frick’s granddaughter Martha Frick Symington Sanger decried the “still-over-the-top” expansions and its “ultra-modern” design.”

Commissioners generally found that the additions had been sensitively designed to minimize their visible impact. Some expressed concern about the addition to the library being built flush above the rear wall of the 70th Street garden. Commissioner Michael Devonshire asked for more information from the applicants to ensure that that more of the floor area could not be sited below grade, particularly conservation space.

The applicants addressed concerns raised at the hearing when they returned in June. Ian Wardropper reiterated that the work was necessary to ensure the museum’s perpetuation for the next 80 years, and said the four Frick family members had submitted letters to Landmarks in support of the proposal.

Annabel Selldorf presented alterations and provided information addressing commissioners’ concerns. The plan for the addition to the library would be pushed three feet back from the north garden wall, which she said she had come to believe was an essential part of Russell Page’s design. New, smaller, planters would be installed on the top of the wall, with hornbeam saplings replacing existing hornbeams, which in turn had replaced a succession of pear trees that failed to thrive. Selldorf said the reduction in floor space was a “real sacrifice” in terms of the programmatic needs the expansion was intended to address.

She said it would be infeasible to further excavate below grade to create the desired space. She said excavating below the Fifth Avenue garden would trigger a building code requirement for an egress stair, which would need to be located inside the museum or on the grounds, substantially defeating the purpose of the excavation. Structural liner walls and underpinning limited the usable space below grade, as did the root ball of a magnolia tree. Uses would also be extremely limited due to the lack of light and air. Structural engineer Guy Nordenson said more expansive excavation posed a risk to historic fabric.

Regarding the planned demolition of the music room, Selldorf said the room’s Versailles pattern floor and millwork would be retained. She said the space was needed for circulation and temporary exhibition space, and the museum did not wish to hang art on circular walls. She reminded commissioners that the display of art, not musical performance, was the core of the Frick’s mission

Responding to comments from the previous hearing that conservation space might be better sited underground, Selldorf said the museum’s conservators wanted natural light in the workspace, and provided examples of other internationally renowned museums whose conservators worked in spaces filled with natural light.

The additions would ultimately constitute 11,000 square feet of new above-ground floor area.

Commissioner Michael Devonshire asked if a Request for Evaluation received by Landmarks to consider the Music Room as an interior landmark would be impacted if the Certificate of Appropriateness were approved. Executive Director Sarah Carroll said awarding a Certificate of Appropriateness to the proposal currently before Commissioners would not preclude the possibility of a future interior designation.  She said there was still a long process before construction would commence that would allow for the request’s due consideration. Counsel Mark Silberman advised that if the Music room were landmarked, the applicant would need to modify their expansion plan only if the designation affected its exterior massing.

Devonshire said he could not support the proposal without first seeing more documentation regarding excavation feasibility. As one of the “icons of Fifth Avenue and the City,” the proposed mass could only be appropriate if all possibilities for alternative siting were exhausted.

Commissioner Goldblum said he was also disturbed by the planned destruction of the Music Room, while acknowledging that its preservation was not Landmark’s purview. He asked Landmarks staff to work with the Museum to explore ways to protect the room, regardless of the outcome of the Request for Evaluation. He said Selldorf and the museum were well up to the “curatorial challenge” of displaying art in a round room.

He said he could generally support the proposal as an architectural intervention, but said the design of the midblock addition should be changed so that it did not read as a frontal facade behind the garden. He also said he would like to see the addition to the reception hall set further back, to read more like a solarium.

Commissioner Kim Vauss said she understood the source of objections, as the work would effectively change the typology of the Frick Collection, and its “jewel like” quality on Fifth Avenue would be lost. However, she accepted the museum’s need for the additional floor area, and said the block-sized site could stain the additional massing. Commissioner Jeanne Lutfy reasserted her conviction that cultural institutions needed to be allowed to grow and change, and said the proposed expansion “fits together well,” and would not have a “jarring impact” on passersby’s perception of the museum. Commissioner Wellington Chen stated that as an architecture student he had been taught that museums, hospital and universities always expand, and found the modified proposal improved and appropriate.

Commissioners Anne Holford-Smith and Diana Chapin agreed that the interventions were sensitive and appropriate, and the museum’s expansion was a programmatic necessity

John Gustafsson, chairing the commission in the absence of a permanently appointed chair, said the Landmarks authority did not extend to evaluating use and necessity, and found the proposal to be appropriate under Landmarks’ criteria. After conducting a quick poll of commissioners, he led a vote to award the Frick a certificate of approval. Commissioner Devonshire dissented, and Commissioner Goldblum abstained.


LPC: The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, Manhattan (LPC-19-25099) (June 26, 2018) (Architects: Selldorf Architects, Beyer Blinder Belle).

By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer for the Center for New York City Law.)


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