Courtesy Selldorf Architects
Courtesy Selldorf Architects

Any quibbles with the proposed renovation and expansion of New York’s Frick Collection should be filed under the category “First World Problems.” That does not mean, however, that the $160 million (projected as of now) nip-and-tuck of this venerable old institution is an achievement. Instead, it shows the powerlessness of contemporary architecture in the face of both past achievements and entrenched interests and attitudes.

This is especially frustrating because the Frick is the site of one of the most brilliant examples of how renovation can enhance and expand a building’s use and beauty. The original building was constructed in 1914 as a home for the Pittsburgh robber baron Henry Clay Frick and his family from designs by the New York firm of Carrère and Hastings. Upon completion, it took its place on Fifth Avenue in a row of residences that turned the often ill-gotten gains of these tycoons into pastiches of Italian city palaces and French chateaux. The Frick mansion distinguished itself with a certain delicacy in detailing and siting. Its single most important contribution to the city was the front garden, running the length of the avenue and extending Central Park into the private realm, which made the whole appear both more modest and, paradoxically, more luxurious than the neighbors that hogged and loomed over the street.

Courtesy The Frick Collection

In 1935, the best Neoclassical architect this country has ever produced, John Russell Pope, renovated and expanded the residence so that the building could serve its new purpose as a museum showcasing the family’s collection of old masters. He added the Garden Court and Oval Room, two of the most perfectly scaled and detailed spaces in New York, as well as a seven-story library and research center to the rear. Pope’s achievement was above all else to make the transformation seem natural. The (to my mind) somewhat prissy detailing and massing of the original was left facing Fifth Avenue and Central Park, while the addition scaled the building up to the new realities of the apartment blocks that were by then beginning to cast shadows upon and replace the mansions. Pope’s more muscular and sculptural detailing performed a similar operation on the texture of the building, both inside and out. Landscape architect Russell Page’s rear garden then completed the transition in the 1970s by giving each block an appropriate place and scale.

Courtesy The Frick Collection First-floor plan, unchanged since unveiled in April.
Courtesy The Frick Collection Second-floor plan, incorporated changes made in June.
Courtesy The Frick Collection The red areas in this section drawing show new construction under the Selldorf expansion, much of which the firm says will be repurposing of already existing space.

What Pope was not able to do was to provide the kind of spaces appropriate to a modern museum. Today, such institutions are machines for bringing people and art together, and that process requires a lot more space, both in front of and behind the scenes. From education to conservation, and from management to support services, everything now needs additional square footage. Not only that, but larger crowds of visitors and their handling—from making sure people are not waiting outside in the rain, to selling them tickets and taking their coats, to making sure that those who are less abled can enter and move through the building—needs even more space. The Frick has struggled with these issues for years and, after several failed attempts, now seems to have found a way to answer to those demands.

Courtesy The Frick Collection During the public commenting process, changes were made to preserve Russell Page's garden wall.

Its chosen architect, Annabelle Selldorf, FAIA, is, however, no John Russell Pope. Her design evidences no conception of classical architecture, its rules and its potential, and the result, like most of her previous work, is awkward in its proportions. That said, the operation appears to be more or less successful. Visitors will be able to move through the beautiful and intimate, but cramped, foyer and into the kind of ticketing lobby they might recognize from other museums or boutique hotels. A small set of special exhibition rooms have been carved out on the main level, so that the Frick can show these presentations without de-installing its permanent collection. A new staircase, whose shape attempts to do homage to Carrère and Hastings original residential version just a few steps away, will take visitors up to a few new permanent collection galleries on the second floor. The offices that were there have been tucked into a new attic. In the basement, all mod cons will be on offer, including a purpose-built auditorium that will replace the Music Room where those few who were able to obtain tickets could enjoy intimate concerts. A small ribbon of space tacked onto the Pope library addition will greatly expand that building’s usefulness and provide new offices and facilities. Unlike in previous versions of the expansion plans, the Page garden will remain intact.

Courtesy Selldorf Architects
The new ticketing foyer will help make the building more accessible.
Courtesy Selldorf Architects
The new staircase does "homage to Carrère and Hastings original residential version."

So, what’s not to like? The fact that the operation will turn the Frick into just another art museum.

True, it will be easy to escape to the historic rooms, where you don’t notice all the modifications that have been done over the years to add the kinds of controls that secure both the art and the people while easing your viewing experience. But, unlike the example of the new spaces Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, added to the monument that another robber baron, J.P. Morgan, left as a museum and library to the city of New York, the new Frick spaces will have no qualities of their own.

That anonymity will continue to the exterior façade work, which really does bring to mind the work of the many cosmetic surgeons toiling away in the Frick’s neighborhood to improve the looks of its graying neighbors. Taut and almost featureless, Selldorf’s proposed additions appear so without distinguishing elements that I am at a loss of words to describe them. The new façades will just stretch out before you, coming off as timeless and whitely bland as the surrounding buildings.

Courtesy Selldorf Architects
The new addition can be seen between the original residential house and the taller library to the right.
Courtesy Selldorf Architects
Frick Collection, currently.
Courtesy Selldorf Architects
Frick Collection, proposed.

What should have happened? In an ideal world, of course, there would have been an architecture that gives a proper and distinct set of spaces and character to the new, both inside and out. However, neither the preservation guidelines that have the Upper East Side in a vise nor either the heirs to the Frick traditions or the rich who look down at the building from nearby apartments would ever allow something like that to happen. Failing that, an architect who really understands how classicism works might be able to at least continue Pope’s work. It is not too late for that: Selldorf came up with a reasonable set of floor plans; a good Neo-Classicist could style those with a bit more elegance.

What should really happen is that the Frick should just move. It should recognize that, at its core, it is and always will be a house museum showing a collection of old masters to a limited audience. Whatever else it wants and needs to do should happen elsewhere, perhaps somewhere like Long Island City or New Jersey—or maybe even back in Pittsburgh, where Frick gained the means to build all of this in the first place. Like the Cooper Hewitt, which has been trying for decades without any success to turn Frick’s partner-in-crime Andrew Carnegie’s mansion further up Fifth Avenue into a world-class design museum, the Frick should realize that some buildings were just never meant to be modern cultural and educational institutions. Spending $160 million to contribute a new cultural and research institution not hunkered down and bursting at the seams in this enclave of white privilege would seem a much better strategy for all concerned.