Andrew Reed, nephew of the classical revival’s late champion Henry Hope Reed, has asked me to post a petition to save the Frick Gallery from its proposed renovation. I wrote back that I was at odds with myself over the wisdom of the plan, which would add to the gracious old museum on Fifth Avenue a set of spaces designed in its original classical manner.
I’ve argued that this addition would play an important role in the public discourse on architecture by showing how a historic building could (and should) be expanded in its own style. Few such examples of major expansions exist. One of them, here in Providence, is the 1990 classical addition to the 1904 John Carter Brown Library.
For decades it has been considered mandatory to design additions to historic structures that contrast with the original, often in the most vulgar possible way. The idea is that an addition must be easily distinguishable from the original to preserve the latter’s authenticity. That could be done more effectively and pleasingly with a plaque. It is vital to resist this bogus “authenticity” if the world is ever to get back on the path to a beautiful future, and the Frick addition could be a rare opportunity to do so.
Lost, however, would be its lovely Viewing Garden, designed by the British landscape architect Russell Page. It was designed to be seen through the arched windows of the Reception Hall Pavilion (itself an addition) as if it were a work of art, which it is. The pavilion would also be demolished for the new addition. Of course it may be argued that the pavilion, designed in the 1970s by John Barrington Bayley, Harry van Dyke and G. Frederick Poehler, is itself a great example of an addition to a classical building in a classical style. And it is. But a new example more relevant to observers of the architecture scene today could be of greater exemplary utility than an addition, however fine, performed four decades ago.
The original mansion was designed for Henry Clay Frick by Carrère & Hastings, with classical additions made in the 1930s by John Russell Pope after it was decided to turn Frick’s house into an art museum. The art is arrayed much as he placed it in his life. The new addition, stepped and classical, seemingly sensitive, would not change that, supposedly.
The Frick proposal does follow the regrettable addition to the Morgan Library by Renzo Piano and the canceled interior renovation by Norman Foster of the New York Public Library. Ridiculous though it is, the outrage against MoMA’s demolition of the Folk Art Museum (a carbuncle attached to a carbuncle) also feeds a growing and altogether necessary resistance to the corporate muscle pumping of American cultural institutions. That the new Frick addition is being designed by the modernist firm of Davis Brody Bond, which designed the 9/11 memorial museum, cannot help but promote a further raising of the public eyebrow.
Michael Kimmelman’s piece, “The Case Against a Mammoth Frick Collection Addition,” in the New York Times is definitely worth reading.
In fact, the petition and its associated reference material is quite persuasive and, as I wrote to Andy Reed, I am not entirely convinced that the proposed new addition is the best way to go, even if it is in the proper spirit. Is it possible that an expansion that meets the Frick’s actual needs could be done without sacrificing the garden or the pavilion? The petition argues that it could be, and the more I think about it the more I am inclined to support a petition that makes the case for trying to rethink the current proposal.
Still, some sort of addition in a classical style would be appropriate, useful and valuable – but not one that sacrifices the gallery’s gentle elegance. The experience, so rare, of visiting a cultural institution masquerading as a personal home must be preserved.
The intimacy of Philadelphia’s Barnes Collection, which was founded on principles similar to those of the Frick, was destroyed when its board moved it into a new modernist building downtown. The Frick board has in mind no such dishonest subornation of a founder’s parting wishes, thankfully, but perhaps a reconsideration of its current plan is in order.