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Beaux Arts on Botox: The Frick Collection’s Planned Expansion

Rendering of the Frick with expansion by Davis Brody Bond on right (seen from 70th Street, looking west Courtesy of Neoscape Inc., 2014

Rendering of the Frick, with a portion of expansion by Davis Brody Bond on the right (seen from 70th Street, looking west)
Courtesy of Neoscape Inc., 2014

More on this here.

Following in the footsteps of the Morgan Library and Museum, another New York jewel-box museum established by a Gilded Age mogul/collector—the Frick Collection, founded by Henry Clay Frick—has outgrown its space and plans to expand.

But without mentioning the Morgan, the Frick’s press release announcing the expansion yesterday suggests that the approach to be taken by its architects, Davis Brody Bond, will be the antithesis of what Renzo wrought in 2006 under the Morgan’s previous director, Charles Pierce Jr. Piano’s new main entrance, opening into a sleekly modern, soaring glass atrium, became the main event in the expanded Morgan, upstaging its historic spaces. The financier’s rooms in that new configuration felt like a minor diversion from the main architectural event.

By contrast, the Frick’s press release emphasizes how its new construction will be “in keeping with the scale and design of the original house and he library wing,” as “an architecturally respectful addition” that will show “reverence for the 1913-14 Frick mansion and the 1935 additions.”

“You feel the presence of the founder when you walk inside. That is something critical that can’t be lost,” Carl Krebs of Davis Brody Bond told Robin Pogrebin of the NY Times (who published her “scoop” online the night before the information was released to the rest of us). The immediate experience of the august ghost-in-the-museum is exactly what was lamentably lost at the Morgan under Piano’s auspices.

The Frick’s treatment of the landmark Carrère and Hastings building, one of few surviving late-Gilded-Age residences in New York, is sure to receive close scrutiny by the various public-approval bodies who will have to weigh in, includng the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Trying to smooth the inevitably rocky road through the public-approval process, the architects opted to slavishly ape the material and detailing of the century-old building (assuming that the above rendering is reliable).

The façade of the proposed addition—the tall part of the building on the right side of the above image (which discreetly cuts off its eastern expanse)—is not merely un-Morgan; it’s also un-architecture.  Deference is one thing; dutifully copying the superannuated Beaux-Arts vocabulary is another.

Considerably less reverence will be shown for the 1977 additions, including the outgrown reception hall designed by Harry van Dyke, John Barrington Bayley and G. Frederick Poehler and the gated 70th Street garden, designed by Russell Page. Both will be supplanted by the new construction.

Russell Page's 1977 garden at the Frick

Russell Page’s 1970s garden at the Frick

Still remaining will be the Frick’s original, larger 5th Avenue garden, which (like the 70th Street garden) is used for events but generally closed to the public. A new publicly accessible roof garden will crown the new construction.

Here’s a drawing of the project that gives a clearer sense of the mass of the new construction:


From Davis Brody Bond

Although some will rue the loss of intimacy from 60,000 square feet of new construction (one-third of which will replace the 1977 addition), there’s no question that it’s long overdue and sorely needed (as witness three previous scotched expansion plans). The cramped underground special-exhibition galleries are, to my mind, inadequate, unappealing and unworthy of the superlative quality of much that has been displayed there. Included in the expanded gallery space will be the sumptuous, previously off-limits upstairs rooms, to be used for permanent-collection display. In all, there will be 50% more space for temporary exhibitions, 24% more for the permanent collection.

The mob scene at the recent Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis gave timely support to the Frick’s argument that “several critically acclaimed exhibitions have underscored the strong public demand and the need for additional space in order to continue to fulfill the Frick’s mission of providing the public easy access to the institution’s offerings.”

Davis Brody Bond has a good track record in New York for resourcefully working within the constraints of existing spaces, both in its restoration, adaptive reuse and expansion of the flagship Carrère and Hastings building of the New York Public Library (predating Norman Foster’s controversial, ill-fated involvement) and in its functional, sensitive design of the interior spaces of the just opened 9/11 Memorial Museum, where it had to work within and around the preexisting parameters of the preserved (and still functioning) slurry wall, the footprints of the destroyed World Trade Center towers, and the monumental objects installed in the halls.

The "Last Column" against backdrop of the slurry wall at 9/11 Memorial Museum Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The “Last Column,” against backdrop of the Slurry Wall, at 9/11 Memorial Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The firm also was responsible for the Frick’s own successful 2011 transformation of an outdoor loggia into its engaging, enclosed Portico Gallery for sculpture and decorative arts:


Here’s what Davis Brody Bond’s much more ambitious Frick assignment will accomplish for that institution, according to the above-linked press release:

The new addition, which will provide the institution with a net gain of 42,000 square feet, will house more gallery space, an expanded entrance hall, additional space for the Frick’s world-renowned art reference library, new classrooms, a 220-seat auditorium, expanded administrative space, and updated conservation laboratories.

In addition, the entrance hall will be enlarged and a larger museum shop will be created.

What’s conspicuously missing from the press release, almost always included in announcements of this kind, is the projected cost of the project and where the money is expected to come from. Often the capital campaign is given a head start before a museum goes public with its construction plans. The Frick has so far given us no explicit cause for confidence that this plan will succeed where attempts in 2001, 2005 and 2008 have failed.

Here’s what the Frick’s press spokesperson has told me about the financial details (or lack thereof):

We are still determining the estimated cost at this time. Once we determine the final cost of the project, we will launch a capital campaign to raise the necessary funds. We are confident we will be able to raise the funds necessary for the project.

If all goes according to plan (always a big “if,” especially in New York), construction will start in spring 2017 and be completed “as early as 2020.” The Frick expects its museum and library to stay open during the construction.

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