The formidable Frick

The East End’s Gilded Age museum expands
Image courtesy of the Frick Art & Historical Center A new orientation center will offer visitors a high-tech introduction to the Fricks' 19th-century lifestyle through interactive display panels, a touch table and computer tables. A new orientation center will offer visitors a high-​tech introduction to the Fricks’ 19th-​century lifestyle through interactive display panels, a touch table and computer tables.
Rate this item
(0 votes)

One hundred and twenty five years ago, the eastern side of Pittsburgh’s East End — its grand villas powered by electricity and surrounded by gleaming motorcars — was arguably the richest and most tech-​savvy neighborhood in the country. Within a half-​mile stretch between Point Breeze and Wilkinsburg dwelt a dazzle of shrewd self-​made millionaires: Henry Heinz, the Carnegie brothers, the Mellons, George Westinghouse (who wired the neighborhood) and Henry Clay Frick. If you squint a little, it’s possible to conjure those ghosts today at the corner of Penn and South Homewood, where the Frick family mansion, art museum and other collections have been open to the public since 1990.

When Frick’s daughter Helen inherited $38 million upon her father’s death in 1919, she was called the richest heiress in the country. But it was her older brother Childs who would produce the family’s next generation. Miss Frick died unmarried in Pittsburgh in 1984, leaving a trove of exquisite furnishings, a world-​class collection of Renaissance art in her home and museum, a carriage for every day of the week, and a conundrum: How should the broad-​lawned estate, the last example of the neighborhood’s Gilded Age, be interpreted for the 21st century?

Bill Bodine, the museum’s director, frames the question as one faced by other elegant 19th century house museums, from The Breakers in Newport to The Huntington in Pasadena. “How do you respect your founder but be a community institution?” he asks.

Since its opening in 1990, The Frick has grappled with an answer to that question. Now, a $15 million expansion of the museum, including an orientation center and educational facilities, defines The Frick as a deep local resource. Its first phase, the glass-​clad orientation center, will open next June. “This place is not an art museum, not a history museum, not a decorative arts museum,” says Bodine, who will retire in June. “This is a museum of Pittsburgh in all of its facets.” A flurry of initial visitors to Clayton (a name Frick bestowed on several houses) showed Pittsburgh’s curiosity about Victorian-​era wealth, defined by extravagances such as the orchestrion, a towering mechanical music box. As the Frick added greenhouse tours, a popular café, temporary exhibits, free outdoor summer concerts and school field trips, attendance grew to its current level of 130,000 visitors a year.

I’m absolutely convinced that having the [art] museum there, and later the rest of the Frick, has been a great anchor for the East End of Pittsburgh,” says board Chairman David Brownlee. “In the late 19th and early 20th century, this neighborhood was an extraordinary place, the venture capital and entrepreneurial center of the world. The Frick is the only survivor, if you will, that shows what life was like and provides a vehicle to tell those stories.”

But soon leaders of the young institution began to debate the context for the museum’s disparate collections. “We could pursue the dusting option,” recalls Bodine, who arrived in 2002. “We have enough money to open the doors every day and dust. But why would anyone come here, if there were no programs, if things didn’t change, if there weren’t new educational learning experiences and family programs? The [family] endowment is sufficient to sustain the old Frick. But what’s the new Frick?”

Over the past decade outreach programs have expanded. Today, Frick programs (excluding the summer concerts) attract 14,000 annual participants. Traveling programs at the Homewood/​Brushton YMCA and Silverlake Commons (a senior housing complex) bring 19th-​century artifacts to the neighborhood. A popular walking field trip for Faison Elementary kindergartners is called MATCH, for Museum Around the Corner from Here. The museum subsidizes transportation for other school and community groups. All told, half of those touched by education programs are students, an investment in the Frick’s future audience.

A strategic plan completed in the mid-​2000s identified three goals: to preserve and protect the collection; unify the visitor experience; and broaden and diversify the audience. The plan implied a future expansion, including three phases of construction. But the recent recession delayed its start until last spring, when trustees broke ground on the new orientation center.

The new 3,000-square-foot center puts an arrow on the starting point for understanding the collections. “Right now, people get out of the car in the parking lot and have no idea where to go,” Bodine explains. Designed by Schwartz/​Silver and Associates (Boston) and Loysen + Kreuthmeier (Pittsburgh), and nestled between the café and the Car and Carriage Museum, it will use next-​generation technology to interpret the 19th-​century site. Exploring themes such as “an evening out,” educational technologies developed by the award-​winning Seattle-​based design firm of Belle & Wissell incorporate interactive display panels, a touch table and computer tablets for individual use, and will allow visitors to learn the interlocking stories of the collections.

Future construction will add an expanded three-​classroom education center, onsite collection storage, and more room for the car and carriage collection. The original playhouse, now the gift shop, will be devoted to children’s programming. Finally, a new community center will add rental space for events. All are designed to achieve LEED certification for energy efficiency.

A capital campaign has already raised $6.5 million of the $15 million price tag. In an appropriate footnote, half of the amount in hand came from the fortune of Frick’s earliest mentor.

In 1871, Frick borrowed his first $10,000 from Judge Thomas Mellon, whose agent had approved the 21-year-old’s plan for a battery of coke ovens to supply Pittsburgh’s mills. “May be a little too fond of pictures, but not enough to hurt,” the report read. “Knows his business down to the ground.” A decade later, Frick was a millionaire, returning from his European honeymoon to become Mellon’s neighbor.

The historic relationship persisted well beyond their lifetimes. The Richard King Mellon Foundation has made grants for operating support at the Frick, and is the major single donor to the current campaign. Trustees, including descendants of the Frick family, have also been enthusiastic backers.

Among those is Suzzara Durocher, who has vivid memories of her mother’s great aunt Helen. During her childhood, she was a frequent guest at the homes of her “Grauntie” in New York and Pittsburgh. During visits to Clayton, she played in the garage that housed its antique autos and explored the backyard museum of Renaissance art. The museum, opened to the public in 1970, was only one of many bequests. In addition to founding the Frick Fine Arts Department at the University of Pittsburgh and preserving Overton, her father’s Westmoreland County birthplace, Miss Frick developed the Frick Art Reference Library in New York, one of the nation’s premiere resources for the study of Western art.

Durocher calls The Frick “a beautiful oasis. As an educator, I love how they’re fine-​tuning the education programs. More important is the new visitors center. That will be used by everyone. People will access the site in a more efficient and beautiful way.”

Christine O'Toole

Christine H. O’Toole Based in Pittsburgh, Chris contributes to newspapers and magazines around the country. She’s written two travel guidebooks to Pennsylvania and reported from twelve countries. Next up: Cambodia.

Explore Related Stories:

Other stories in this category: « New and newer Gershwin in Pittsburgh »
Close Window Welcome to Pittsburgh Quarterly
Keep up with the latest

Sign up for our Newsletter, Pittsburgh Quarterly This Week.

We’ll keep in touch, but only when we think there’s something worth sharing. To receive exclusive Pittsburgh Quarterly news and stories, please fill out the form below. Be sure to check your email for a link to confirm your subscription!

View past newsletters here.

Don’t miss a story! Sign up for our newsletter to receive award-​winning journalism in your inbox.

Please let us know your name.
Invalid Input
Please let us know your email address.
Invalid Input