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Editorial: The Frick archive

Pittsburgh is the right home for records on industrial life

Wednesday, December 22, 1999

First the steel jobs left Pittsburgh. Now, the steel papers?

The Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze, the former home of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, houses a vast archive on early 20th century life and industry in Western Pennsylvania. It contains an array of records - notebooks, letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, household receipts, business ledgers. The artifacts display or describe some element of Frick family life, the operation of Carnegie Steel Co., the lay of local coal mines and other subjects touched by Mr. Frick and his descendants.

Scholars and historians dealing with Pittsburgh history have relied heavily on the archives. But now the trustees of the Helen Clay Frick Foundation, which owns the records, have voted 10-1 to ship them to New York. It would be a body blow to Western Pennsylvania's heritage.

The majority of the board, which consists of Frick family members, wants to unite the Pittsburgh records with other holdings at the Frick Art Reference Library in Manhattan, adjacent to the massive former family home there. But one family member and a family archivist say little in the Pittsburgh records has anything to do with New York or the Frick art collection there.

That's why Martha Frick Symington Sanger, the great-great-granddaughter of Mr. Frick, is fighting the move. She herself wrote a biography in 1998 of the family patriarch and knows firsthand the value of the archive.

She argues that Helen Clay Frick, the industrialist's daughter who died in 1984, bequeathed the family records to her foundation and endowed Clayton, the family's Victorian residence in Point Breeze, as a house museum. Although she didn't stipulate where the archives should be stored, her will left no historical material or funding to the library because she had parted ways with the library's board.

Given all that, the Frick great-great-granddaughter believes the archive should stay in Pittsburgh. But there's another reason.

Although the Frick Art & Historical Center doesn't feel competent to preserve the records in Point Breeze, other local institutions, like the University of Pittsburgh and the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, have offered to house the archives. That's a deal that the Frick descendants should take. It would make these histories available to the public and maintain them in the place that was forged by Henry Clay Frick and his associates.

Students of history do not go to Kansas City to research the whaling industry. They do not go to Minneapolis for information on Hispanic migration. Likewise, the records that chart the toil, the cost and the profit of industrial-age Pittsburgh don't belong in Manhattan. They must be near the rivers where the molten steel flowed.

New York may be the center of the human universe, but it was never the Steel City. The Frick archives recount the rise of an entire industry - one that may have faded here, to be sure, but one that still calls Pittsburgh its spiritual home.

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