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Book assesses Frick family houses, both inside and out

Tuesday, December 18, 2001

By Patricia Lowry Post-Gazette, Architecture Critic

Three years ago, Martha Frick Symington Sanger gave us "Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait," an astonishing psychological biography of her great-grandfather and his daughter Helen.

Now she takes us inside "The Henry Clay Frick Houses," the first book to explore the architecture, interiors and landscapes of six family houses.

As a child, Sanger took her extraordinary surroundings for granted. Later she came to understand their significance as an expression of American wealth, taste and culture. After her mother died in 1996, as Sanger began sifting through more than 20 boxes of family albums, she realized she had the makings of a book.

 
 

"THE HENRY CLAY FRICK HOUSES"

By Martha Frick Symington Sanger

Monacelli Press. $65.

   
 

Indeed, this large-format book has some of the feel of a family photo album, packed with black-and-white pictures documenting how the houses, gardens and family members looked through the years.

With an essay devoted to each house, Sanger details their design history, from construction to changing interiors to gardens and landscapes, putting their evolution in the broader historical and cultural context of their times.

The book begins in Westmoreland County, suggesting how West Overton, Abraham Overholt's successful farm and distillery and his simple, refined home, shaped grandson Henry Clay Frick's values, work ethic and tastes.

Photographs show how interiors at Clayton, Frick's first house, evolved from an ornate, late-Victorian style to the classicism then promoted by Ogden Codman and Edith Wharton in their 1902 book, "The Decoration of Houses."

For his second home, Frick turned to Codman's aesthetic compatriots, the Boston architectural firm Little & Browne. Eagle Rock, a 104-room brick "cottage" in the neoclassical style, was set in a romantic, 25-acre landscape in Prides Crossing, Mass.

By 1912, Frick was planning his third house -- the Beaux Arts museum-in-waiting by Carrere and Hastings at One E. 70th St. across from Central Park. To outfit it, Frick chose the creme de la creme: Sir Charles Allom, Britain's leading decorator, and Elsie de Wolfe, then New York's most fashionable decorator. But as a client, Frick was penny-pinching and demanding, and his notes to Allom and de Wolfe often had an imperious tone.

Those who benefited from his largesse had to play by his rules. After buying his son Childs and daughter-in-law Frances a Codman-designed country house on Long Island in 1918, he forbade them to furnish it with trophies from Childs' African safaris. After Frick's death in 1919, the house filled up with lions, caribou, water buffalo, gazelle and antelope.

Sanger devotes the epilogue to Helen Frick's "spiritual sanctuary," the Westchester County, N.Y., farmhouse she purchased in 1920.

Writing in an accessible manner that doesn't presume knowledge of styles and designers, Sanger greatly expands our understanding of Frick as a patron of architecture and the decorative arts. One of the joys of this book is diving into her rambling, chatty captions, which give the provenance (often European royalty) and present location of paintings and furniture seen in the photographs.

The book isn't an homage to Frick, whom Sanger continues to view with a critical eye, but a tribute to her great-Aunt Helen, to whom the book is dedicated -- for her foresight in preserving West Overton and Clayton as museums and for the supportive role she played in establishing the New York house as the Frick Collection.

Yet in 1969, tired of maintaining a house she had considered pretentious, Helen Frick had Eagle Rock carefully demolished, sending the billiard room paneling, the car and carriage collection and sections of wrought iron fence to the Frick Art Museum she was building here.

The Childs and Frances Frick house, known as the Clayton Estate, is now the Nassau County Museum of Art. Today, only Westmoreland Farm remains in the family, given by Helen before her death to one of her great-nieces.

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