Frick Director Explains Why Garden Must Be Razed: Hoelterhoff

I’m meeting Ian Wardropper, director of the Frick Collection on Fifth Avenue in New York, in a paneled room where Henry Clay Frick once rested after beating up union folk and buying Old Masters.

Seated at a boardroom table that replaced the old titan’s bed, Wardropper, a respected art historian who came to the Frick in 2011, clicks through an illustrated history of the collection that takes us up to now.

Now is a complicated moment for Wardropper, whose proposal to expand the Frick hasn’t been well-received by those who like it just the way it is, a hushed residence inspiring contemplation.

This is probably the last place on the planet where you may not take a selfie or a child under 10.

Wardropper hopes to build an addition of 40,000 square feet that would rise to six stories next to the entrance on East 70th Street.

That would obliterate a garden designed in 1977 by Russell Page, who has many admirers, including me. Its history is complicated. While documents dating to the 1970s, indicate the trustees considered it a permanent fixture, today’s trustees do not.

Why can’t the Frick, if it really does need to expand, spread into the contiguous Frick Art Reference Library, where few scholars ring the bell?

I like that idea. Wardropper likes his plan better.

My Mandate

Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Hoelterhoff: So to you this is the logical culmination of plans started some 50 years ago which included razing three adjacent townhouses?

Wardropper: If you look at the trajectory, the trustees didn’t spend 30 years buying up townhouses -- three! -- to put in a garden, though it is beautiful I will admit.

Hoelterhoff: When you became director was expansion your mandate?

Wardropper: No, though I inherited three architectural plans by three different firms that had tried to address the spatial needs in previous years.

Hoelterhoff: Without using the garden?

Wardropper: Without going into the garden, though plans were drawn up in 1967 for a three-story building before the garden was added in 1977. Essentially what they did was excavate underneath and build on top. Building on top is sort of tricky. How much would Landmarks allow to be built on top?

Location, Location

Hoelterhoff: So what happened?

Wardropper: None of those plans yielded more than about 18,000 square feet. And there were two main problems with the plans. Not enough space and not enough space in the right places.

If you want to build a larger reception hall -- and we need one -- it should be near the front door rather than in the basement -- that kind of thing.

Hoelterhoff: Some people wonder why you didn’t buy the ornate building on the other side of the garden that included the Berry-Hill Galleries, now closed.

Wardropper: A previous director, Sam Sachs, bid on the gallery and so did I about a year ago. There are issues: The 6,500 square feet -- that’s about an sixth of what we need. And there were -- and are -- other tenants, which made it tricky to buy the entire building. You get holdouts.

Still, the gallery on the ground floor was key to any plans since it allowed us to connect underground to our physical plant. We had a firm look at what it would cost to bring the place up to code: more than $4 million just to do the architectural work.

The Library

Hoelterhoff: The Frick Library on the other side street has a great portal. How about a second entrance?

Wardropper: To me it is an article of faith that the Frick continues to use the front door. It’s really important to our identity.

Hoelterhoff: But the Library is huge: 11 floors filled with books that don’t get many visitors.

Wardropper: It’s constructed in a classic library structure of short stacks, each stack supporting the one above. So as we analyzed what it would take to gut it, we found out that probably it would give us, at the most, 25,000 to 30,000 square feet.

Hoelterhoff: The Orsay Museum in Paris is a repurposed train station. Entire industrial zones get rehabbed into condos.

Wardropper: To me the Library makes no sense. First, scholarship is part of our identity. Essentially, we would have to reorient the museum to have this be a reception hall. So after 80 years of everybody coming in from 70th Street in a very carefully orchestrated series of rooms that go from small living spaces to the grand hall, we would have to reorient the collection in a whole different way.

And if you ask most museums, they prefer to have a single entrance for security reasons alone.

A Revised Plan

Hoelterhoff: You cancelled a presentation in front of the Landmarks Commission in January. Why?

Wardropper: We’re close to a revised plan that hasn’t been fully approved, so I can’t go through it. But there were certain façade details that needed to be changed. For instance, I want it to be absolutely clear where the original building was and where the new building begins.

Hoelterhoff: Aren’t you turning the Frick Collection into a mini-museum? Many of us love the place because it’s different, eccentric. It’s a private mansion. Why do you need so much space?

Wardropper: I like the eccentricities too. But right now we have people tripping down the circular staircase into the tiny exhibition rooms below. We have lawsuits every year. Turning the music room into a gallery for special exhibitions simply makes sense and reflects proposals that go back decades. It will allow us to do better exhibitions.

The gift shop -- this isn’t about commerce, but it’s so small people have to enter sideways.

What’s also critical is an ADA access ramp, which means that people with disabilities can actually go in the front door like everybody else.

We don’t have a loading entrance. Right now, a major painting or object comes through the main door on a temporary ramp. I have to talk to museum directors in advance about the situation. It’s not professional.

There’s also this: By moving offices into the new wing, we can open the residential second floor where we are right now.

A lot of people like that idea, even if you don’t.

Hoelterhoff: Right. Do you still have Frick’s bed?

Wardropper: No. There have been so many changes since Henry’s day that we would use the room for exhibitions.

Hoelterhoff: You haven’t offered any cost estimates.

Wardropper: We’re not prepared to yet, because we have to go through the Landmarks procedure and we don’t know what they are or aren’t going to accept.

Hoelterhoff: If you get approval, what is a projected time line?

Wardropper: We would begin in 2017 and open in 2020.

Manuela Hoelterhoff of executive editor for global cities at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.