In early June, the Frick Collection announced that it was throwing in the towel. After a year of putting up with stinging and relentless criticism over its planned Davis Brody Bond-designed expansion—which would have eliminated the beloved, but gated, Russell Page Garden—the museum decided to go back to the drawing board.
“We are grateful to all of those who have supported the plan and understand that both they and those who have opposed it share a great deal of affection and respect for the institution,” said the Frick’s Director Ian Wardropper in a statement at the time. “The Frick will immediately begin to develop a new plan that will help us satisfy our critical needs.”
The most visible and vocal opponent of the Frick’s expansion plan has been Unite to Save the Frick (USF), a media savvy coalition that includes community and preservation groups, as well as artists and architects like Robert A.M. Stern and Maya Lin. But it wasn’t just the high-profile coalition and onslaught of bad press that sank this plan. Getting the Davis Brody Bond scheme approved by the New York City Landmarks Commission would have been an extraordinary challenge, especially after Charles Birnbaum, founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, resurfaced a 1977 Frick press release that referred to the Page Garden as “permanent.” (As part of the Davis Brody Bond scheme, a new rooftop terrace would have been planted on the building.)
While the Frick has not yet unveiled a second draft of its expansion plan—or announced an architect for the commission—USF has come up with a planning study of its own that it believes would give the Frick everything it wants without the public backlash. The study was conducted by Helpern Architects, which is run by David Helpern, a co-chair of Community Board 8’s Landmarks Committee. This alternate vision was recently shown exclusively to The Architect’s Newspaper.
Helpern believes that his study would accommodate the expressed desires of the Frick including a 220-seat amphitheater, an enhanced entrance, and more space for galleries, classrooms, and a reference library without eliminating the Page Garden and requiring such a significant new structure. “What we are showing is an approach, a way of thinking about enlarging the Frick,” said Helpern in his firm’s offices. “This is a planning exercise; this is not a design or architectural exercise.” Helpern made clear that this study is not part of an audition to work with the Frick, but rather an attempt to get the museum’s board to consider a less invasive expansion.
The study leans heavily on the repurposing and consolidation of existing mechanical spaces to create new square footage; for example, the mechanical yard would be used for visitor services or support, and mechanical and storage space in the sub-basement would be turned over for educational spaces. Other key interventions include the expansion of the existing reception hall (existing spaces that are pushed out would be relocated elsewhere in the complex) and locating the new auditorium beneath the Page Garden.
In total, the plan would renovate nearly 77,000 square feet of space and create about 18,000 square feet of new space, which would be split almost evenly above- and below-grade. This is in contrast to the 60,000 square feet of new construction required in the Davis Brody Bond plan. To the casual passerby, said Helpern, the new construction would likely go unnoticed.
Helpern and USF have not done a cost estimate for the plan, but admit that it would not be cheap given the significant excavation it requires and the inherent challenge of working on a landmarked structure. But, Helpern added, the Davis Brody Bond would have been a significant financial undertaking as well.
USF says it plans to present this vision to the Frick soon.