Friday, November 15, 2013

The Henry C. Frick Mansion -- No. 1 East 70th Street

photo by Alice Lum
Henry C. Frick had an excellent eye for art and a ghastly lack of diplomacy and charisma.   When just 21 years old-- in 1871--he formed a small business with two cousins that converted coal into coke.  The material was then sold to steel manufacturing plants.

By the time of his wedding a decade later he had bought out the partnership which now had 1,000 employees and controlled 80 percent of Pennsylvania’s coal.   While Frick and his new bride, Adelaide, honeymooned in New York City in 1881 he became acquainted with Andrew Carnegie.  The meeting resulted in a partnership between H. C. Frick & Company and the Carnegie Steel Company—later to become United States Steel.

But Frick’s name would soon become synonymous in the minds of American workers with greed and cold-hearted disregard for the lower class.  He helped organize the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club in the 1880s, an elite group of millionaires with a private lodge on Lake Conemaugh high above Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  The equally-private lake was the result of the earthen South Fork Dam which was shoddily repaired with little or no concern for safety or stability.

On May 31, 1889, following heavy snowmelt and rain, the dam gave out releasing 20 million tons of water onto the town of Johnstown.  2,209 people were killed.

A year later workers struck Carnegie Steel’s Homestead Works.  Ardently anti-union, Frick ordered the construction of a solid fence protected by barbed wire.  When striking workers encircled what they termed “Fort Frick,” the tycoon ordered 300 Pinkerton detectives to descent on them with Winchester rifles.  Nine workers were killed in the melee that followed.

As a direct result, Frick was the victim of an assassination attempt on July 23, 1892.  He survived, but his reputation did not.  He is often remembered as the most hated man in America at the time.

By 1905, despite the personal and professional friction between him and Carnegie, Henry Frick was spending more and more time in New York City.  He signed a ten-year lease on the George W. Vanderbilt house on Fifth Avenue and 51st Street, then “spent thousands of dollars in alterations, eliminating the garden in front and adding a massive entrance,” according to The New York Times later.   The newspaper estimated his rent at $100,000 “making this Vanderbilt house the most costly private residence under lease in the city.”

At the time, Carrere & Hastings’ masterful white marble New York Public Library was rising ten blocks to the south.  The magnificent building would make obsolete the Lenox Library further uptown at 71st Street.   As Frick’s lease neared its expiration, the fate of the beautiful Lenox Library was evident—the building would be demolished and the land sold.

The magnificent Lenox Library would be razed in 1912 and on its site Henry Frick would raise his equally-magnificent home.  photograph by H. N. Tiemann & Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1907 Frick bought the entire block front on Fifth Avenue from 70th Street to 71st Street for his permanent New York residence; spending $2 million on the land alone.   But he would have to wait until the library building was gone.  Finally, on May 26, 1912 The New York Times reported that “Henry C. Frick is to build his new Fifth Avenue residence where the old Lenox Library now stands, between Seventieth and Seventy-first Streets, and work on it will be begun in a few weeks.”  Frick had chosen the architects of the new Public Library for his palace.

Although Frick generously offered to pay for the dismantling and reconstruction of the Lenox Library in Central Park, the city ultimately decided against it.  “Housewreckers will begin within the next two or three weeks to tear down the heavy, dignified building given by James Lenox to the city in 1870,” said The Times.

Employees at Carrere & Hastings were closed-mouthed about the cost of the proposed Frick house.  “None of the members would even hazard a guess as to what the new house will cost, but it is probably quite safe to say that it will total $3,000,000,” opined the newspaper.

The Times also held out no great initial expectations.  “There will be nothing spectacular in its exterior appearance,” it said.

Another Times journalist apparently had more information.  On the same day a separate article noted “Plans are being prepared by the architects, Carrer & Hastings, for the new residence, which in all probability will be one of the finest private residences on the avenue.”

Indeed there were only two larger parcels of private home real estate in the city—those of Andrew Carnegie and Charles M. Schwab.  But Frick's art gallery would be, perhaps, unsurpassed.  The New York Times told its readers “The picture gallery will be the chief feature.  It will be one of the largest in the city.  Mr. Frick is taking more pride in the arrangement of the gallery than in any other part of his new mansion.  It will contain some of the most valuable and famous paintings in the world, including not only works of enormous intrinsic value, but famous paintings in the art literature of the world.”

Already Frick had assembled a staggering collection including a famous 1644 three-quarter length portrait of Philip IV of Spain by Valesquez.   Frick paid about $400,000 for that painting alone—nearly $9 million today.  At the time of the article, he had just returned from Europe, bringing with him Rembrandt’s “The Merchant,” and a year earlier had added Romney’s portrait of Lady Milnes, and Gainsborough’s full-length portrait of the Hon. Anne E. Duncombe.

A month later the estimates of Frick’s city palace had risen to $4 million, and on January 5, 1913 The Times Dispatch of Richmond, Virginia reported on the impending construction and placed the cost a “more than $5 million.”  That figure would be about $83 million in today’s dollars.

Newspapers repeatedly compared the coming mansion with the ex-Senator Clark mansion; at the time the most expensive private home in the city.  Reporters could not resist injecting not-always-subtle insults to that house.   Comparing the plans for the Frick house to the Clark mansion, The Times Dispatch said “The new Frick residence will not be a gaudy, showy affair.  It will be a long and low structure, simple in details.”

Seen shortly after completion in 1915 from across the avenue, the mansion engulfs the block.  The wing at left is the original art gallery.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Indeed, Carrere & Hastings’ plan was not gaudy—although “showy” could be debated.   “With princely disregard for the value of Fifth avenue real estate, Mr. Frick sets the front of his mansion seventy-five feet back from the avenue,” remarked the El Paso Herald on November 16, 1913.  “Men who are wise in New York real estate matters express the opinion that never again will it be possible to secure a whole block of frontage on Fifth avenue for private residence purposes.  Indeed, the new Frick mansion is likely to be the last on Manhattan Island to cover anything like so spacious an area.”

The newspaper called the house “an architectural masterpiece in the Italian Renaissance style, with interior arrangement and decoration in keeping.”

Readers across the nation followed the construction.   The Times Dispatch reported that “The dining room will be at the southwest corner of the building, behind the drawing rooms, and will look out upon a large fountain and sunken gardens.  A wide corridor will connect the library and the drawing rooms.”

An army of workers swarmed over the construction site as the house rose.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The journalist added “One of the features of the sunken garden, which will be close to Fifth Avenue, shut off from the curious by the stone garden wall, will be a pool, sixty-feet long and fifteen feet wide.  This will be in the centre of the garden and at its south end will be a large fountain.”

As the mansion neared completion, Frick set off on a European furniture buying trip.  The Evening World reported on April 10, 1914 “In selecting the furniture he will have the advice of Miss Elsie de Wolfe.”  The newspaper added, almost parenthetically, a most extraordinary item.   “News has come to Mr. Frick’s friends that he has under consideration a plan to leave this residence at his death to the city as a museum for the public.”

Manhattan millionaires had a tradition of donating their extensive art collections to museums—most notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  But Henry C. Frick envisioned his yet-to-be-completed mansion as a permanent monument to his stellar art collection.  It was an unheard of concept.

Within just the past year or two he had added to the collection with a Valesquez, a Franz Hals, and Whistler masterpieces including the portraits of Rosa Corder and Count Robert de Montesquiou from the Richard A. Canfield collection.  Frick paid $200,000 for the two Whistler portraits alone. 

Later The Sun would say “For years he planned to build a home in New York, and in his trips abroad ransacked Europe for rare old panellings, bits of carved woodwork and ceilings of great beauty until he had spent a fortune on the interior decorations.”

Over a century before Frick began construction on his mansion, famed French artist Frangonard painted a series of architectural panels for Louis XV’s mistress, Madam du Barry.  The panels, begun in 1772, were purchased by J. P. Morgan in 1902 for $400,000 and installed in his London mansion.  

Upon his death, the Fragonards were purchased by the Duveen Brothers for $1.2 million and shipped to New York City where they were put on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.   Henry Frick admired them so much that he had the architects change course, designing a Louis Seize room to accommodate them.  Frick paid about $1.5 million for the 14 panels.

On March 15, 1915 the New-York Tribune somewhat sadly reported “The public has had its last look at the Fragonard panels which formed part of the vast art collection of the late J. Pierpont Morgan.

“To-day they will be taken from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the galleries in the residence of Henry C. Frick, at Fifth Avenue and Seventieth Street…The centre of interest for the huge throng of visitors that flocked to the museum yesterday was the separate room in the walls of which were set the panels that will hereafter delight the eyes of only Mr. Frick and his guests.”

A room in the house was especially designed to accommodate the Fragonard panels.  photograph

That year the house was finally completed and The North Dakota newspaper the Bismark Daily Tribune joined the host of publications nationwide in describing it.   “A palace such as any oriental potentate would envy is the $4,000,000 home which has just been completed by Henry Clay Frick, the coke man of Pittsburg, who is to make his permanent home here.”

That newspaper, too, poked at Senator Clark.  “Unlike the Clark residence, which was built at an expense of between $6,500,000 and $7,000,000, the new Frick home is not a gaudy, showy affair.”

The house would see the comings and goings of celebrated politicians and business titans.  But perhaps none was more publicized than the visit of Marshal Joffre and other French dignitaries in May 1917 during World War I.   Newspapers reported on the thousands of cheering New Yorkers who waved French and American flags as the motorcade inched from City Hall to the Frick mansion.

Once the guests were in the house, The New York Times reported that “During the evening Fifth Avenue and Seventieth and Seventy-first Streets, about the Frick residence, were crowded with the curious, who hung about in the seeming hope of seeing some of Mr. Frick’s distinguished guests.  Through some of the open windows the sounds of the organ could be heard for a block or more.”
The vast lawn--highly valuable Manhattan real estate used for grass--spoke of Frick's endless wealth --photo by Alice Lum

The newspaper said “Inside the house vista after vista of costliness and splendor met the eyes of the hero of the Marne and helped to make him forget his rude days of campaigning against the Germans.  In the centre is a large living hall, opening upon an inner garden in the rear of the mansion.  On either side of this hall are a fine library and drawing room.  To the southward is the dining room from which the French guests looked out upon the great fountain and the sunken garden.  Adjacent is the grand staircase.”

El Greco's "St. Jerome" hangs above the mantel in the warmly-paneled "living hall" in 1927.  Photograph
The Times felt that the dignitaries would have much to admire among “Mr. Frick’s treasures which were spread before the eyes of Marshal Joffre and the other French guests of honor.  In his art gallery, through which his distinguished visitors could stroll from the house proper whenever the spirit moved them, are examples of Rembrandt, Reynolds, Romney, El Greco, Valesquez, Turner, Veronese, Holbein, Gainsborough, Lawrence, van Dyck, Goya, Whistler and other artists.”

The newspaper dropped an editorial comment on the value of the paintings.  “For many of these Mr. Frick paid prices that were a nine days’ wonder when they were announced.”
The New York Times opined that the French visitors would find the sunken garden and decorative pool relaxing -- photo by Alice Lum

With the war’s end 21,000 soldiers arrived in New York City in March 1919 to receptions and massive celebrations.  A Victory Arch, designed by Thomas Hastings, was erected on Fifth Avenue outside the Public Library.  Among the returning soldiers were the wounded and disabled who were unable to participate in the victory parade.   Special accommodations were arranged for their viewing of the parade.  Five hundred seats were provided in front of the Public Library and the New-York Tribune reported on March 24 that “Shell shock patients from the Gun Hill Hospital will be seated between Fifty-ninth and Sixtieth streets, on the camouflaged stand on the west side of the avenue.”

Frick opened his vast Fifth Avenue lawn for the injured soldiers.  “Twenty-one hundred severely wounded men from the Grand Central Palace Hospital will occupy automobile trucks parked at each intersection between Forty-fifth and Fifty-first streets.  Those better able to get about will be accommodated in the covered stand erected by Henry C. Frick in front of his residence on Lenox Hill.”

Nine months later the house would be the scene of a much graver event.  At 5:30 on the afternoon of December 3, 1919 Henry Frick’s funeral was held in the music room.   The millionaire capitalist, deemed ruthless and heartless by some, lived among the art treasures in his splendid Fifth Avenue palace only four years.

The very day of the funeral The Sun reported “The announcement yesterday that Mr. Frick’s almost unrivalled art treasures were to pass to the city came as a surprise to all save a few of his intimate friends.”  Of course the donation of the mansion and the artwork would not come to pass while Adelaide Frick still lived.

“The gift to the city is subject to the life interest of Mrs. Frick in both the residence and the works of art,” reported The Sun on December 3.   The house and the art collection were appraised in 1923 at $93 million.

The City of New York would wait for its museum for some time.  Adelaide Frick lived on until October 4, 1931 at the age of 71.   During the last two years of her life she was mostly ill during the seven months a year she lived here (she spent the summer months at the country estate in Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts).  When in residence here she saw only her immediate family and intimate friends.

Adelaide’s nephew, Karl F. Overholt, spoke to a reporter about the house shortly after her death.  “He said that the Frick residence in this city was more of a museum than a home and that even the few rooms she occupied on the second floor contained articles in the Frick art collection.”

Architect John Russell Pope was commissioned to renovate the house into a functional museum.  Among the $1 million alterations would be a new art reference library erected at Nos. 10 and 12 East 71st Street, and a one-story addition to the mansion.   The Times noted “In keeping with the expressed desire of the trustees to maintain the residential character of the house and to avoid giving it the atmosphere of a museum, the alterations to the Frick mansion will be of a minor nature.”

The Reference Library, to the rear, was sympathetically designed to meld with the mansion -- photo by Alice Lum

Necessary were the addition of a reception room and cloak room, an enclosed court, entrance gallery and a lecture hall.   The museum was opened by invitation on December 11, 1935.  Critics remarked favorably at the residential nature that was preserved in Henry Frick’s home; a highly unusual concept for anything other than a house museum.

Henry Frick’s magnificent Fifth Avenue mansion would be in itself a remarkable and important example of residential architecture.   The tycoon’s vision of retaining his collection within its walls created one of New York City’s and the nation’s most unique and important art collections; doubling the importance of the structure.

photo by Alice Lum


  1. Did not know Frick offered to dismantle and reconstruct the beautiful Lenox Library building at his own expense. For a much maligned figure, maybe with some historical justification, that was a very generous offer not to mention his intentions to create a museum in new york with his art collection

  2. Great article Tom.
    I had the pleasure of being a medical student at Columbia and interacting with Dr. Henry Clay Frick II, his grandson. Dr. Frick was a Professor of Gynecologic Oncology and one of the kindest and most unassuming surgeons I have ever known. According to Columbia lore although he was driven acoss the GW bridge with a chauffer he never acted or dressed in a way which would disclose his status. He supposedly never cashed his meager pay as a resident and many uncashed checks were found in his small and spartan residents' sleeping rooms. He often had on a well worn shirt and was an extremely kind gentleman with a memory of his students. As I understand it, the Frick family retained the right to sleep in the second level rooms as a pied a terre for years after the ground level became a museum which they exercised after attending the theater or opera in the city. I was VERY sorry to learn that he passed away.

  3. Another very fine post - longer with more details and photos to savor. I especially like the detail that Frick offered HIS LAWN for the injured soldiers ! I continue to enjoy your blog so much. Hopefully one day we will see a book printed from it ?? (hint hint )

  4. The story behind Elsie de Wolfe and her working for Frick in acquiring treasures for this house in 1914 is very interesting. Apparently she located him on a golf course and begged him to preview the upcoming dispersal of the contents of a magnificent chateau just outside of Paris. Frick asked her what were the best items in the collection, and she replied "everything". He immedately began buying and in a matter of about 2 hours time he had spent nearly 1 million dollars. Since Miss de Wolfe received a finders fee percentage of the price of every item purchased, she soon realized that she was becoming a very rich woman.

    Frick supposedly gave her a red enamel Faberge clock she had admired in the collection as a thank you gift.