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A Visit to the Frick

On one of the coldest days of the year 15 students, two teachers, and two WMF staff members huddled in the entryway of the Frick Collection. As fingers and toes began to regain feeling there was a noticeable shift in sentiment—contentment at having escaped the cold gave way to wonderment as the group began to fully appreciate its surroundings. The students were all freshmen at Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design (WHSAD) and were visiting the Frick for WMF’s Preservation in Practice (PiP) series. As part of a long-term commitment to preservation training in the United States, WMF developed a preservation arts curriculum which has been taught at WHSAD since 2009. Through the PiP program, WMF brings students together with professionals at preservation sites throughout New York as a supplement to classroom lessons. Today, this group of students was going to learn about historic preservation in an art museum.

The visit was headed by Robert Goldsmith, Deputy Director of the Frick, who began the tour by eliciting the group’s impressions of the building. One student’s astute response of “it’s really fancy” prompted a discussion of the space’s origin as the residence of Henry Clay Frick, a pioneer of the mid-nineteenth-century steel industry and art enthusiast. Goldsmith then tied the creation of the collection to the larger theme of historic preservation, explaining that Frick built the space not only as a residence but also with the express intention of housing his extensive art collection in a setting removed from the harmful pollutants which permeated his hometown of Pittsburg.

The tour then proceeded to the newly opened Portico Gallery where Carl Krebs, an architect at Davis Brody Bond, the firm responsible for the project, the first major renovation at the museum in nearly 35 years, spoke about some of the unique challenges they faced working to create a space that would effectively display art. One especially salient point he made was that, given the extreme amounts of sun that stream in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, the space could only be used to exhibit collections less susceptible to natural light, such as the collection of clocks which were on display during the tour. Moreover, given that this addition was the first major renovation to the Frick in over three decades, Krebs also spoke about the challenges of working on a structure with great historic significance, especially the implications of the building’s designation as a historic landmark. Krebs highlighted that, as much as possible, the character of the space was unchanged; original stonework was cleaned and repaired but few major alterations were made and the pre-existing HVAC system was merely updated to suit modern technology. Since our tour took place on a day when the thermostat was barely above zero, the challenges of maintaining an appropriate temperature and humidity level were especially evident. At the end of the tour students, chaperones, and a few curious on-lookers asked questions and, by the end, I think we all left feeling not only well informed but more committed than ever to preservation.