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The Frick mansion excels at decking its breathtaking halls

Sunday, December 15, 2002

I left Clayton, the Frick mansion, feeling giddy, as I do whenever I tour it. At the holiday season, it's particularly beautiful. This year, the curators have concentrated on reproducing an authentic Christmas as celebrated by the Frick family 100 years ago. The holidays were always a big deal here. Christmas, New Year's, Henry Clay Frick's birthday, Mrs. Frick's birthday and their wedding anniversary all came within a few weeks of each other.

You never saw so much pine roping, ribbon, and so many flowering plants inside one house in your life. There is also a 12-foot-high Fraser fir Christmas tree and two interesting mistletoe "kissing balls." All this embellishes what is already the best example of a Victorian residence anywhere in the world. Have I been to every public Victorian residence in the world? Not yet. I just know there couldn't be one better.

At the Frick house in Point Breeze, one can get dizzy turning circles trying not to miss anything: velvet wall coverings, woven in Italy and embossed in France, flocked wall papers, wood carvings, leather-like embossed wall paper, gold damask paneling and stained glass. I express myself as a food person when, looking at them I say, yum-yum.

Everything is in perfect taste and in mint condition. During the preparation for going public before the house opened in 1990, what needed to be was taken down and sent to wherever in the world it would get the finest rehabilitation. For example, the sooty wallpaper in the library sitting room was removed and shipped to Paris. There it was cleaned, repaired and returned to Pittsburgh. Here the panels were mounted on aluminum and rehung.

My eyes bulge when I think what this must have cost and what the endowment for the house, buildings and grounds must be. But that no expense was spared is why this house is singular. And it belongs to Pittsburgh. It's our other world-class architectural attraction, second only to Fallingwater.

I've toured the house a dozen times, and I never leave without having learned something new. A staff of 40 salaried docents guides guests through. You can't stump them. The most arcane question gets a definitive answer. For instance: What did Mr. Frick give Mrs. Frick for Christmas?

Among the things he gave her were dessert plates of the very finest porcelain. I remember that answer because I would have appreciated such a gift. The red plates set out on the table this Christmas are English, made by Copeland and Sons, founded by Josiah Spode. Two additional dessert sets are housed in the side board, both made by the same company. The exceptional turquoise set with gold cherubic figures in the center was hand-painted by the firm's premier artist, Samuel Alcock.

The Fricks shared an interest in beautiful things. In Pittsburgher Mary Brignano's informative and charmingly written site guide, on sale at the gift shop, she tells how, in 1881 at a dinner party, Henry Clay Frick, 32, saw Adelaide Childs, 22, daughter of a shoe manufacturer, for the first time. She was in conversation with someone across the room. He insisted on an introduction. In less than a year they were married. Frick recognized in Childs the woman he wanted for a wife. Their marriage appears to have been a very happy one.

On the campus of the Frick Art & Historical Center are other important stops. There's the Greenhouse, the gift shop, the award-winning Cafe, and the Car and Carriage Museum. Facing Reynolds Street is the must-not-miss Frick Art Museum. Through Jan. 5, the museum show features 19th- and 20th-century French drawing from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Copenhagen. In the rotunda are four beautiful pieces by the contemporary artist Linn Meyers, a former Pittsburgher.

One of the pleasures of this museum is its physical beauty. Helen Clay Frick intended it as a gift to Pittsburgh, and no expense was spared to produce it. Each time I enter the elegant rotunda, I catch my breath. This is the season to pay attention to Miss Frick's exquisite private collection, much of which relates to the Christian faith and is displayed reverently on walls covered in velvet and damask. For those visiting these rooms, curatorial assistant Jennifer Roche has prepared a four-page guide to use while in the museum. It is available on request.

So many splendid shows pass through this space. The galleries are small and, rather than overwhelming, the art is energizing. With registrar Sarah Hall, whose office is in the museum and who is open to visits from those in the gallery with questions, I walked through the current show. We stopped at a few of Sarah's favorite pictures, the first a curious Edouard Manet of a woman (Annabel Lee), dressed in street clothes stretched out on the beach, her hat tied with a Franz Kline bow.

Sarah likes the quirkier works. She stopped to consider pictures I sped past. What she made me see as especially nice were the charcoal olive trees of Maurice Esteve and a charcoal snippet of a city viewed across water, by Henri Harpignies.

Stopping at a small Edouard Vuillard pastel, she mentioned that from Jan. 19 through April 20, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., will host a Vuillard exhibition of 200 works. It was Pittsburgher Andrew Mellon who gave the seed money for the National Gallery, coincidentally the very person whom Henry Frick asked for an introduction to Adelaide Childs, the woman who became his wife.

Coming next to the Frick museum is a show of 19th- and 20th-century painting from the Kelvingrove Gallery, Glasgow. It opens at the Frick on March 2. All the famous painters of the period will be represented.

The Frick Art & Historical Center holiday hours, through Jan. 5, are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays; and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. It's closed on Mondays. Clayton tours are $10 for nonmember adults, $8 for seniors and students. For Clayton, reservations are recommended. The museum is free. Information: 412-371-0600.

Marilyn McDevitt Rubin can be reached at mrubin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1749.

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