The question of how to expand the Frick Gallery, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, without threatening its architectural integrity continues following a May 29 hearing of the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission. Four hours of testimony for and against the latest design were heard. The commission listened, and put off its decision.
The new plan, by Annabelle Selldorf, is quite judicious and temperate, and with two minor tweaks should be accepted and built posthaste. It saves the beloved Russell Page-designed garden and pond along 70th Street and the reception hall by John Barrington Bayley. Their elimination was the bane of a 2014 plan by Davis Brody Bond, which was otherwise respectful of the Frick’s palimpsest of classical stages.
I originally supported the Bond plan because of its classicism. The public must be exposed to examples of classical additions to classical buildings so as to open minds to the obvious alternative to decades’ worth of contrasting modernist additions. (Go to my blog’s search engine and type in “Frick” to track my evolution on this topic.)
The Bond proposal would have accomplished this, but at a very heavy cost. An email from Andrew Reed, a nephew of the late classicist Henry Hope Reed, a Bayley friend and collaborator, caused me to rethink my support for the Bond proposal. Then in 2015 a counterproposal by architect David Helpern offered a way rescue the garden and reception hall. That led to the cancellation by the Frick of the Bond proposal and the emergence of the proposal by Selldorf, which would also save the garden and the reception hall.
Although under the Selldorf plan, expansion from north of the garden would push in its direction, the expansion would not invade its space. It would eliminate a long-existing service area. Controversy here seems mainly over trees that might no longer serve Page’s goal of providing the garden with a perception of greater depth. Overall, the expansion would not add to the height of the accretion of past expansions, and with two exceptions the detailing fits into the Frick’s vaunted classicism by Carrère & Hastings in 1914, John Russell Pope in 1935, and Bayley in 1977. (Selldorf’s detailed plan gives a magnificent illustrated history of the accretion of additions.)
The two exceptions are horizontal sets of windows that add a floor above the reception hall and vertical sets of windows that act as a seam to connect the east and west segments of the expansion. Both of these sets of fenestration read as modernist; that reading should be edited to fit them more elegantly into their setting.
But beyond that, the Selldorf plan seems to square the circle quite well. It places before the public the benefits of a classical expansion much better than the Bond proposal did. And it also puts on full display the benefits of a counterproposal – that of David Helpern – which got the Frick’s board to wonder why two beloved past additions could not be saved. (If only Trump had heeded the counterproposals that offered relief to the public from the absurdist Frank Gehry memorial to Frank Gehry – oops, I mean Ike.)
Now it’s time for the Landmarks Commission – whose idea of historical preservation has not been a friend to the classical revival – to do its job. If it knows what its job is.
Addendum: I am informed that in addition to the fenestration problems, and far more serious, are changes to the interior of Bayley’s reception hall and the elimination of the Music Room, which harks back to Pope. These must be addressed before the Selldorf plan is acceptable.
Increasingly, I lean toward the idea that boards of directors like that of the Frick are odious mechanisms whose evolution compromises the purpose of almost every institution in modern America. Does the Frick suffer from mission creep? Instead of building expansion, maybe a severe reduction of programming is in order.
Below are views (excluding underground portions) of Davis Brody Bond proposal (at left) and alternative suggested by David Helpern, whose team had no contact with Frick in its development of a counterproposal to Bond.