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Monday, February 10, 2020
Decades before Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919) moved to New York City and began filling his mansion with artistic masterpieces, another extraordinarily wealthy collector was populating his own mammoth structure with books and art in exactly the same location. James Lenox (1800–1880) was one of the richest men in New York in the second half of the nineteenth century, and one of its most influential philanthropists and bibliophiles. His public library stood where The Frick Collection stands today and did so from 1877 until Frick demolished it in 1912. Was it or was demolished only the second floor and made some additions
The Lenox Library was one of the earliest libraries that were open to the public in New York (Reed, 18-19). Lenox had been collecting books, bibliophily, and fine art since 1845. Before he decided to formally establish his library, Lenox stored his book collection in piles in his townhouse on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 12th Street. He simply remembered where he put his books when they were added to his collection. As Lenox aged, this system became less reliable, and he decided to construct a building to house his book and art collections. (Stevens, 144-146)..
For the site of his library, Lenox chose a plot of land, located on Fifth Avenue between 70th and 71st Street, on the farm he had inherited from his father. This area of New York was rural, though it was quickly developing. The farm’s hay field remained active for years after the opening of the library. Lenox hired the well-known and highly regarded architect Richard Morris Hunt (1827–1895) to design the building. Construction began in 1871 and ended in 1877. In January of that year, the galleries of painting and sculpture opened to the public. The manuscript and rare book rooms opened later in the same year. The remaining reading rooms did not open for access to the book collections
The Lenox Library was considered one of the most notable architectural attractions in New York at the time of its completion. It was designed in the Neo-Grec style, though critics also considered it modern classic—citing the French influence of Hunt’s École des Beaux Arts education. Some visitors felt that the façade was too severe, but others loved its grandeur and stateliness (Stern, 200).
The building spanned the length of the city block it occupied. A central courtyard faced Fifth Avenue, flanked by two wings. The first floor rooms had twenty-four foot ceilings, and the second floor rooms had forty-foot ceilings—creating incredibly lofty and grand spaces (“The Lenox Library,” American Architect). Through the courtyard, visitors entered a large vestibule with two majestic staircases. To the south was a reading room, and to the north was a gallery. On the second floor, the main gallery ran parallel to the street. It featured large windows that overlooked Central Park and contained five arcades, paintings and sculptures were placed throughout the space. Repeating the first floor layout, a reading room was located to the south, and a gallery was located to the north. The building continued up for another half floor, with a balcony gallery running along the entire length of the courtyard (“The Lenox Library,” American Architect).
Early reviews of the library recount that after entering the south wing reading room on the first floor, the initial thing visitors saw was the Gutenberg Bible in a rosewood case (“Biblia in the Lenox Collection”). This bible was the first of its kind to enter the New World and was perhaps the greatest treasure of the library. Its display suggests that the finest books in the library’s collections were exhibited in its reading rooms and meant to be admired as much as to be used for research.
In the art galleries, visitors reported that the “individuality of the collector” was quite apparent in the collection and arrangement of the pictures (Strahan, 8). The works were not arranged according to artist or genre but rather according to the taste of Lenox. His art collection was described as “decidedly solid rather than brilliant,” an opinion that seems consistent across criticism in the past and today (Saule, 319). Highlights included works by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Gilbert Stuart (1775–1828), Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), and Thomas Cole (1801–1848) (Lenox Library: A Guide to the Paintings and Sculpture). A large scale painting by Minhály Munkácsy (1844–1900) was added to the collection in 1879 and was greeted with much acclaim (Strahan, 8).
The Lenox Library was not only one of the first public libraries in New York, but it was also one of the first public art exhibition spaces. Aside from the burgeoning institutions of the National Academy of Design and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Yorkers had few places to view fine art in their city. The Lenox Library helped pave the way for future cultural institutions by becoming a part of the founding collection of the New York Public Library as well as conceding its plot of land to what would eventually turn into The Frick Collection.
To learn more about the architecture of The Lenox Library and of the New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC)’s Frick Art Reference Library, look for the tours given by the Frick every year for Open House New York (OHNY) Weekend.
Henry Clay Frick
Henry Clay Frick was born, from relatively modest Mennonite stock, on December 19, 1849, in West Overton, a rural community in southwestern Pennsylvania. The second child of an immigrant farmer who married the daughter of a flour merchant and whisky distiller, Frick worked as a salesman in one of Pittsburgh's most prominent stores and became the well-paid chief bookkeeper of the family distillery; he retained an expertise in accounting for the rest of his life.
West Overton was eight miles north of Connellsville, a center in the fledgling iron industry, whose rich coal beds yielded seams of high-grade bituminous coal, ideal for coking. In March 1871, Frick, in partnership with a cousin, invested family money to acquire low-priced coking fields and build fifty coke ovens. Within a decade, H. C. Frick Coke Company would operate some thousand working ovens and produce almost eighty percent of the coke used by Pittsburgh's burgeoning iron and steel industries.
Once launched in the coke industry, Frick moved permanently to Pittsburgh, establishing residence in the prosperous Homewood section of the city after his marriage in December 1881 to the twenty-two-year-old Adelaide Howard Childs, daughter of a boot and shoe manufacturer. The Fricks' first home was an eleven-room, two-and-a-half-story house purchased for $25,000 in August 1882. This Italianate residence, called Clayton, was remodeled in 1891 into a twenty-three-room four-story Loire château, a style popularized during the 1870s in New York. It is now home to the Frick Art & Historical Center.
Frick and Adelaide had four children, only two of whom survived into adulthood: a son, Childs, born in 1883, and a daughter, Helen, born in 1888. Helen, who never married, founded the Frick Art Reference Library in memory of her father in 1920. She remained its director until 1983, the year before her death at age ninety-six. Childs Frick's children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have served as presidents of The Frick Collection and members of the Board of Trustees since the museum formally opened to the public in December 1935.
In May 1882, Frick entered into partnership with the Scottish-born steel manufacturer Andrew Carnegie. For the next two decades, as the expansion of the railways created an ever-increasing demand for iron and steel, Frick dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the joint fortunes of the H. C. Frick Coke Company and the Carnegie Brothers Steel Company. He was a lifelong opponent of organized labor, and his refusal to allow union workers at his mines led to the infamous Homestead strike of July 1892, in which ten men were killed and sixty wounded. The same month, Frick himself was attacked in a failed assassination attempt by a twenty-five-year-old Russian anarchist. He cabled both his mother and Carnegie: "Was twice shot, but not dangerously."
Frick grew disenchanted with Carnegie and became honorary chairman of the board in December 1894. Five years later, Carnegie abolished Frick's position as chairman of the H. C. Frick Coke Company and the two went to court over the value of Frick's interest. In March 1900 a settlement was reached in which Frick received $30 million in securities. In 1901, having moved from Pittsburgh to New York, Frick became one of the directors of J. P. Morgan's newly incorporated United States Steel Corporation; his official biographer noted that he was the largest individual railway stockholder in the world.
A visit to William H. Vanderbilt's art-filled mansion at 640 Fifth Avenue spurred Frick to begin collecting paintings himself (his first purchase was a Pennsylvania landscape), much of it under the guidance of art dealers Roland Knoedler and Joseph Duveen. The Vanderbilt mansion, with its elegant furnishings and art-lined galleries, made quite an impression on Frick; according to biographer (and great-granddaughter) Martha Frick Symington Sanger, Frick later remarked, "It is all I shall ever want."
Frick died in 1919. In his will, he left the house and all of the works of art in it together with the furnishings ("subject to occupancy by Mrs. Frick during her lifetime") to become a gallery called The Frick Collection. He provided an endowment of $15 million to be used for the maintenance of the Collection and for improvements and additions.
Unlike other house museums, such as the Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston, the trustees of the museum continued to collect art after Frick's death, many of the acquisitions overseen by his daughter, Helen. Despite the feeling inside that Henry Clay Frick has, perhaps, just stepped out for a moment, the museum is not a 1914 home frozen in time, but an ever-expanding, world-class collection. It plays host to traveling shows, such as the recent blockbuster Mauritshuis exhibit featuring both "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" and "The Goldfinch," and if such crowded exhibitions are to become more frequent, the current expansion plans seem understandable. Some would argue that crowds are not what the Frick needs, but Frick might not agree. When he was still alive, nearly anyone who wanted an admission ticket to the mansion's West Gallery was given one; as Sanger notes in her biography, Frick derived so much pleasure from those who enjoyed his paintings that he "would often step silently in [to the gallery], observe the observers, and...steal out again, unnoticed."