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Hamptons Life

What Were They Thinking?

Publication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By Preston T. Phillips, Architect   May 7, 2012 1:29 PM

The Frick. With the very utterance of the name “Frick,” one envisions a time of opulence, taste, refinement and noblesse oblige no longer possible.

Housed in one of the last great Golden Age mansions on Fifth Avenue, The Frick Collection occupies the block between 70th and 71st streets, fronting on Central Park. Designed by Thomas Hastings a century ago, and later enlarged by John Russell Pope, the neoclassical tour de force is without peer.

“The Collection,” as it is called, opened to the public in 1935 and comprises

in situ

superb examples of 18th century French furniture, Oriental rugs, porcelains, bronzes and paintings by the greatest European artists—Bellini, Vermeer, Ingres, Corot, Gainsborough, El Greco, Rembrandt, Titian and Renoir among them.

To visit the Frick is a rich and enlightening experience, and one that I try to muster two or three times each year. It is a destination of great solace, inspiration, scholarship and reverential reflection.

For a quick two weeks every spring the magnolias are in bloom in the Fifth Avenue Garden beyond the ornamental fence and privacy wall. As it happened, a recent visit to New York coincided with this event, and also with the current show of nine loaned works of Renoir’s full-length pictures. The exhibition is presented in the stunning Oval Room, where the last time I visited featured a similar show of full-length Whistler portraits.

I recently read of the inaugural exhibition in the new Portico Gallery, which faces south across the aforementioned Fifth Avenue Garden, and currently houses a legendary collection of Meissen porcelains from the collection of Henry H. Arnhold. What better time to see the magnolias in bloom than from what was originally the once-open portico?

After enjoying the splendid Renoirs, I made a quick turn out of the Oval Gallery, across the end of the tranquil Garden Court, through the hushed ambience of Henry Clay Frick’s Library, and through what was once an exterior doorway into the new Portico Gallery.

This is the first major addition to the Frick’s display capabilities in more than 30 years. According to the Frick archives, Mr. Frick had considered this expansion in 1917 for his ever growing sculpture collection, but delayed the project due to World War I. He died before the expansion could be, in the words of the museum, “resumed.”

If the story had only ended there.

Alas, fast forward to 2010. The noted architectural firm of Davis Brody Bond was commissioned to enclose the portico to house the promised gift of a trove of Meissen porcelain from Mr. Arnhold, plus one of the great highlights of The Frick Collection—the monumental and flawless 18th century terracotta “Diana The Huntress” sculpture by Jean-Antione Houdon.

The enclosure of the portico involved adding large glazing panels between and behind the open colonnade so that a series of towering glass bays was created facing south into the garden. The columns remained freestanding outside of this new enclosure, which makes perfect sense in concept. However, the selection of an oversized dark bronze frame for the glass was a grave error in aesthetics.

Given that every window frame, shutter, exterior grille and door—save the 70th Street carved mahogany entrance door—is painted to match exactly the Frick’s limestone color, this decision is even more prominent. “Frick Gray” is a well-known color among the community of New York’s architects and designers.

If the architects’ intention was to differentiate this new enclosure from the original building, they certainly succeeded.

Better to have created a shimmering frameless glass enclosure (see the 5th Avenue Apple Store), which would have largely disappeared, than this. After all, the new enclosure isn’t holding up anything but itself.

The Portico Gallery’s problems don’t end with the window frames however. The portico is a shallow, long space which culminates in a wonderful rotunda at its terminus facing Fifth Avenue. This is the lone triumph of the addition, as this once-open pavilion now showcases “Diana,” plus its original tall, arched window as a backdrop with Central Park beyond, and a new matching door facing the garden—all painted “Frick Gray.”

This space and the placement of “Diana” is stunning. The Portico Gallery proper, however, is rife with visual conflicts, including the wall-hung glass vitrines holding scores of priceless 18th century porcelains.

The vitrines are cantilevered from the wall in the most cumbersome and heavy manner possible (one needs to look no further than some of the nearby fine jewelry shops on Madison Avenue to see that the detailing of the protecting glass is far from state-of-the-art). I could not help but think of the entrance to my high school and the display cases into which sports trophies were stored. No delicacy or finesse were in the offing in either installation.

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