The Frick Collection’s Expansion Plans Spark a Garden Preservation Movement
Controversy often brings on latent appreciation. Such is the case with the Frick Collection’s viewing garden on East 70th Street, which is now faced with potential destruction if the expansion plans of one of the country’s most beloved museums come to fruition. Visitors to the Frick’s website will note that pictures and descriptions of the garden have been completely expunged, along with any indication of its position on a representational map of the museum, as though it never existed.
But it’s still there. The Frick’s gated viewing garden is the work of the legendary British landscape designer Russell Page, who was commissioned in the early 1970s to create a garden in the space left empty upon the demolition of the neighboring Widener mansion—brought down for a museum expansion that was put off because of the era’s faltering economy. Current plans from architects Davis Brody Bond call for an addition to be built in place of the 1977 Page garden, as well as the adjacent reception hall pavilion—a 1977 structure by architects John Barrington Bayley, Harry Van Dyke, and G. Frederick Poehler. In an e-mailed statement provided to NYC&G, Frick spokesperson Heidi Rosenau writes that the museum “explored options that would preserve the gated private viewing garden on 70th Street, while achieving long-held goals of improving access to its works of art and educational programs, and creating facilities to better preserve the museum’s masterpieces. After an analysis of the alternatives, the Frick determined that this site remains the best location for an addition that will most closely meet the institution’s needs. This reconstruction plan will also allow visitors to the second floor of the mansion which has always been off-limits. . . . The [Page garden] will be replaced by a garden atop the new addition that will [also] be open to museum visitors and offer views of Central Park and an outdoor space for contemplation.”
The Frick, housed in a 1914 mansion built by Carrère and Hastings for American industrialist Henry Clay Frick, will still retain the 1935 Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.–designed garden facing Fifth Avenue and John Russell Pope’s 1935 garden court, but the impending loss of the Page garden is distressing to thousands of preservationists and garden lovers, who have formed an international grassroots organization, Unite to Save the Frick Coalition (USFC), in an effort to k.o. the expansion effort. Bolstering their position further, they argue that the entire site of the Frick Collection, including the adjacent Frick Art Reference Library, was declared a New York City landmark in 1974, with the museum itself named both a state (1984) and a national (2008) landmark, and that in procuring landmark status with the city, the Frick itself declared the viewing garden a “permanent” feature, though it now maintains that Page’s contribution has always been temporary. The expansion plan—groundbreaking is currently set for spring 2017, with a projected completion date of 2020—has not yet been approved by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Page’s legions of admirers are quick to point out how the seemingly simplistic viewing garden is brilliantly designed and worthy of preserving. Perhaps his most innovative move was to raise the garden slightly above sidewalk level on East 70th Street, allowing better views of the space for both passersby outside and museum visitors inside. “It brings the garden closer to your face,” says Jennifer Nitzky, president of the New York chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects and a USFC supporter. “It makes you feel like you’re in the space, rather than looking down into it, ultimately making the garden more engaging.”
“As its own entity, the garden separates the museum from the block itself,” adds architect and USFC member Peter Pennoyer. “It allows the Frick to be perceived as a freestanding monument.” Plantings such as crabapple, Kentucky yellow-wood, and a Japanese pagoda tree were chosen not just for seasonal interest, writes Gabrielle van Zuylen in her seminal book, The Gardens of Russell Page (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1991), but are placed “in asymmetrical positions to lend depth and mystery to the shallow space” and complement the off-center rectangular pool and water jet. “Although the overall feeling of the garden is classical French, Page chose solutions that were not strictly traditional.”
The fight to save Page’s garden could be a watershed event for the preservation of gardens as works of art. “When I look at this garden, I think of it as a piece of living art,” Nitzky says. “It was designed to make people stop and look and contemplate, just like a painting in a museum. In a city like New York, it’s a rare jewel.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 2015 issue of New York Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Fight at the Museum.