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A Frick family feud

Two sisters stand against their relatives to keep the Frick archives in Pittsburgh

Sunday, May 27, 2001

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification: (Published May 27, 2001) In a story printed earlier for today's editions, the date of death for Martha Frick, one of four children born to Henry Clay Frick and his wife, Adelaide Frick, was incorrect. Martha Frick died in 1891.

(Published June 17, 2001) In a May 27 story on the Helen Clay Frick Foundation, we noted that J. Fife Symington, former governor of Arizona, refused a request to resign from the organization's board after being convicted on six counts of fraud. What we failed to note was that Mr. Symington successfully appealed his conviction, which was overturned by a 2-1 vote of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1999.

To her 15 grandnieces and nephews, Helen Clay Frick was a delightful but demanding maternal figure who served Earl Grey tea in the music room of her Point Breeze estate every afternoon and took them on memorable art tours of Europe's great museums. Although she was a formal Victorian woman who shunned publicity, the diminutive heiress never shrank from a fight, especially to defend the image of her father, Henry Clay Frick, the vilified tycoon whose hard-nosed tactics helped provoke the Homestead steel strike of 1892.

At Clayton, the house that was the home of their "Grauntie," Helen Clay Frick, sisters Arabella Dane, left, and Martha Frick Symington Sanger recall cherished childhood memories and explain their fight to keep the Frick family archives in Pittsburgh. "These archives are the soul of a family," Dane says. "Helen Clay Frick was the keeper of the family memory. How can you run a historic house without historic background?" (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

Now, Frick descendants are battling each other to control the family's image and their ancestors' archives, a thick, rich slice of Gilded Age art and decoration, business and labor history, documenting the rise of industry, Victorian life and the 20th century.

The legal conflict that resumes here this week focuses on a unique, complete record of Helen Clay Frick's voluminous correspondence, diaries, journals from European trips, plus the business papers of five Henry Clay Frick companies, receipts for his many fine art purchases and family letters, photographs, architectural drawings and numerous home movies.

Two of Helen Clay Frick's grandnieces say that a desire to fulfill her wishes is fueling their fight to keep the archive, most of which relates to Western Pennsylvania, from leaving Pittsburgh. Their battle has pitted them against family members who want the archives moved to New York, a hub of Frick art history.

"She was there for me. She was my mentor," said Arabella Dane of her great-aunt.

During her 96 years, Helen Clay Frick stood up for her convictions. She tangled with John D. Rockefeller Jr. over operation of The Frick Collection, the family's New York art gallery. She also tried to stop the publication of a book by historian S.K. Stevens and clashed with University of Pittsburgh trustees.

So, when Helen Clay Frick gave advice, it usually came with the same admonition. Dane can still see fire flashing in her great-aunt's Delft blue eyes and hear her saying, in a steely voice, "Do the right thing!"

So, on Tuesday, Dane and her sister, Martha Frick Symington Sanger of Stevenson, Md., author of a candid, critically acclaimed biography on Henry Clay Frick, will appear in court in the Downtown office building erected by their great-grandfather.

Backed by Maryland and Pittsburgh lawyers, the smartly dressed, outspoken women will oppose 10 of their relatives in a hearing before Allegheny County Orphans Court Judge Lee Mazur.

The judge must decide whether to approve an agreement reached in March by the Pennsylvania attorney general's office and the Helen Clay Frick Foundation. Dane, a voting member of her great-aunt's foundation, was not told of the deal and opposes it.

Under the agreement, Henry Clay Frick's business papers would be housed in the University of Pittsburgh's Archives Service Center in Point Breeze. Two blocks away is Clayton, the Frick family's Victorian estate, which opened as a museum in 1990 after a $6 million restoration.

The remainder, including family letters and Helen Clay Frick's papers, would go to the Frick Art Reference Library in New York City.

The dispute began in November 1999, when the Helen Clay Frick Foundation trustees -- who are all family members -- voted 10-1 to transfer the archives to New York.

Dane was the lone dissenter. Sanger, who served on the archives committee for nearly a decade, did not have a vote.

Lawyers for the family foundation obtained a court order last fall to transfer 4,500 photographs, scrapbooks and family films to New York City. Once those materials are preserved, Judge Mazur ordered, they must be returned to Pittsburgh.

The archives are stored in compact shelving on the second floor of the Clayton carriage house. The records stretch nearly 1,400 linear feet, and 600 feet are cataloged. Since Helen Clay Frick's death 17 years ago, about a dozen researchers have used them with permission from the family foundation.

The archives closed in March 2000 just after Dane and Sanger moved legally to prevent their transfer from the carriage house to New York.

Ultimately, the controversy is about who will control access to and profit from a large chunk of history.

"These archives are the soul of a family. Helen Clay Frick was the keeper of the family memory. How can you run a historic house without historic background? How do you do that if you've gotten rid of the original materials?" Dane asked during a visit to Clayton this month.

"If they move these archives, it will be like cutting a big hole in a tapestry. Why would you do that?"

Joanne Moore, who served as project manager for Clayton's restoration, said the archives were the key to returning the estate to its 1892 grandeur. Every bill for every purchase, whether three nails or a million dollar painting, still exists.

"I don't think the archives have ever been understood. I think there's been a fear of what may be uncovered. I think that may be where some of the fear has been -- people are going to think Mr. Frick was a bad man. Hello, folks, that ship has sailed. It's over. See it for what it is, and move on," Moore said.

The family rift caused by the legal dispute distresses both sisters.

"I really don't enjoy it at all. It's too upsetting and too painful," Sanger said.

In addition to absorbing legal costs out of their own pockets, Dane and Sanger are taking personal risks they know could jeopardize family relationships.

But, Sanger said, "If we lose our family, we never had it. It will be interesting to see how or if a breach can be healed."

Before Sanger became interested in family history, she was the first woman steward for the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association, a national group that governs steeplechasing in the United States. Sanger also helped rewrite the organization's rule book.

Dane, a horticulturist and avid equestrian who lives in Boston, is active in the Garden Club of America and the American Horticultural Society.

The two sisters are close. Dane supplied many photographs to Sanger for her new book, due out in October on Henry Clay Frick's houses. Sanger values Dane's directness.

"We kind of pick each other up when we fall down or are discouraged. She's very clear with me if she feels that I've gone off in a wrong direction. She cared about our great-aunt, quite unbelievably," Sanger said.

The donor's wishes

Helen Clay Frick's lifelong passions for collecting art and burnishing the image of her industrialist father drove her to build two art libraries, two art museums and create two historic houses.

When she died in 1984 at the age of 96, her will endowed Clayton as a house museum. The will also bequeathed the family archives to her namesake foundation.

Voting members of the Helen Clay Frick Foundation board

Dr. Henry Clay Frick II, son of Childs Frick and grandson of Henry Clay Frick, and his family:

-- Dr. Henry Clay Frick II of Alpine, N.J., previous longtime chairman of the board

-- Emily "Pemmy" Frick of Alpine, N.J., wife of Dr. Frick and trustee of The Frick Collection

-- Adelaide F. Trafton of Topsham, Maine, daughter of Dr. Frick and chairwoman of the Helen Clay Frick Foundation Board and the board of the Frick Art & Historical Center

-- Henry Clay Frick III of Alaska, son of Dr. Frick and an environmentalist

Children of Frances Burden, daughter of Childs Frick and granddaughter of Henry Clay Frick:

-- I. Townsend Burden III of Washington, D.C., businessman and secretary of the foundation

-- Dixon Frick Burden of Telluride, Colo., businessman

-- Frances "Dixie" Burden of Rockport, Mass., who leads spiritual retreats for nuns and priests

Children of Martha Frick Symington, daughter of Childs Frick and granddaughter of Henry Clay Frick

-- Helen Clay Chace of Mt. Kisco, N.Y., also president of The Frick Collection in New York and docent at The Cloisters

-- Arabella Dane, a Boston horticulturist

-- J. Fife Symington III of Phoenix, former Arizona governor (refused request to resign from the board after he was convicted on six counts of fraud)

Son of Adelaide Blanchard, daughter of Childs Frick and granddaughter of Henry Clay Frick

-- Peter Blanchard III of New York City, environmentalist and trustee of The Frick Collection board


In dispute is whether Helen Clay Frick's will specified where her archives should be housed. She turned Clayton and its contents into a museum so that people would understand "the life that was lived within these walls."

Without the archives, that understanding will diminish greatly, Moore said.

"The archives are the heart and soul of the place. It's the true human spirit. It's the essence. This is their handwriting. These are their thoughts. This is their way of life. This is how they chose to do it. This is what they thought was important. This is what lives on. These materials should not leave that site," Moore said.

To accomplish that goal, Dane and Sanger have formed a nonprofit organization called Keep the Frick Archives Here Fund. Any tax-deductible donations will defray the costs of their legal campaign.

Sanger believes that publication of her candid book, "Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait," published in October 1998, fueled the plan to move the archives.

"There wasn't any talk of removing them until my book came out," Sanger said, adding that the only resistance she encountered during a decade of research and $150,000 worth of expenses came from Frick entities.

In her lavishly illustrated book, Sanger recounts that in 1918, Henry Clay Frick admitted in a letter to his daughter Helen that he discouraged one of her suitors by throwing a marriage proposal into a wastebasket.

"You are becoming far too popular ... this is only a line to assure you that you are always in my thoughts," Frick wrote.

Frick, Sanger contends, turned his daughter into a surrogate spouse once Adelaide Childs Frick lapsed into chronic bad health and depression after the deaths of a daughter and son in the summer of 1892.

The revelation upset family members, Sanger said, because they drew the inference that Helen Clay Frick was in love with her father.

Instead, Sanger said, Helen Clay Frick was dominated by her father.

Even before the book was published, tensions were mounting between Sanger and Dane and the members of their family who sat on the foundation board.

In a 1997 letter to family foundation trustees, Dr. Henry Clay Frick II, an elderly surgeon who presided over the board at that time, chastised Sanger and Dane for their "lack of civility" during a board meeting on Sept. 30, 1997.

The physician said he would oppose the appointment of Sanger as a foundation trustee, "as there are other family members equally qualified and less disruptive. I am also going on record that the family archives should be permanently housed at the Frick Art Reference Library in New York, and I intend to accomplish that result."

Sounding like a stern but weary patriarch, Dr. Frick admonished the family foundation trustees:

"There is no room for personal agendas. There is no room for anyone who wishes to control any of the foundation's activities. There is no room for anyone who threatens litigation whenever she or he does not get her or his way.

"I said to you earlier this year that I was hopeful that we would be able to sail through calm waters. At my age, I have the right to enjoy smooth sailing."

In the spring of 1998, the water was anything but smooth for Sanger, who won a court order in Pittsburgh that gave her permission to publish 11 additional images from the Frick family archives in her upcoming book.

Sanger's lawsuit began after DeCourcy McIntosh, departing executive director of the Frick Art & Historical Center, said her many requests for reproductions of photos burdened his staff.

McIntosh, who recommended that the archives go to New York, used them in researching his own book, "Collecting in the Gilded Age."

Later this year, McIntosh will move to New York to research a book on the Knoedler Art Gallery, which sold many paintings to the Fricks. The Knoedler Art Gallery is a few doors away from the Frick Art Reference Library.

Part of the contest involves a quieter struggle by two museums for money and power. The Frick Collection in New York houses Henry Clay Frick's world-renowned art collection, while Clayton includes the mansion, an art gallery, greenhouses, a gift shop and a popular cafe.

Four members of The Frick Collection board sat on the Helen Clay Frick Foundation board when the decision was made to move the archives to New York.

The museum that wins the right to exploit the archives will earn potential revenues from producing copies of papers and photographs for books, posters, educational videos or feature-length films.

The Frick Collection in New York, Sanger said, charges $100 to reproduce a picture of a picture if no negative exists and $75 for a color positive. The agreement reached in March calls for those exploitation rights to go to The Frick Collection.

Part of the argument to transfer all of the archives to New York was that Pittsburgh lacked "sufficient resources, manpower and experience" to preserve the archives. But Sanger counters that money is not an obstacle to accomplishing that task.

Court records show that the Helen Clay Frick Foundation's assets totaled $26.7 million as of September 1999. The Frick Art & Historical Center, which operates Clayton, had a $75.6 million endowment at that time.

With all that money, Sanger said, "You could easily add on to the carriage house" to provide more space for the archives and a staff to preserve and index them.

Dane and Sanger contend that trustees of the Helen Clay Frick Foundation voted in 1997 to use the income generated from investments to fund grants by board members. As a result, each voting member of the family foundation board received $15,000 to give to his or her favorite charities. In 1999, that amount was increased to $50,000 annually for each family member. Dr. Frick and his wife, Emily, each receive $100,000.

"It's about status," Dane said, adding that she and her sister disapprove of their family members' financial priorities.

"We haven't endowed the archives. We haven't taken care of West Overton," Dane said, referring to the Westmoreland County museum that was the birthplace of Henry Clay Frick.

"Are you serving your needs or Helen Frick's needs?" Sanger said. "Helen Frick's needs comes first."

Life with "Grauntie"

As children and adults, Dane and Sanger visited their "Grauntie," a nickname Helen Clay Frick invented for herself by contracting the words "great" and "aunt."

Dane's bond with her great-aunt was established early.

A year after her birth in 1943, Dane was bitten by a rabid dog. She spent the next year recovering from the wound at Clayton while her mother, Martha Frick Symington, cared for three other children born between 1941 and 1945.

Helen Clay Frick engaged a nurse to look after her great-niece. Many years later, Dane brought her children to Pittsburgh for visits.

Dane and Sanger told stories about their great-aunt recently as they toured the mansion and shared their memories with a journalist.

As the two women waited in the driveway where carriages once arrived, Dane recounted a funny moment.

When tea time arrived one day, Helen Clay Frick turned the tables on her nurse, Barbara Hunter, who was ill with a cold.

"Grauntie insisted that she get in bed and force-fed her the tea," Dane recalled, prompting laughter from members of a small tour group.

Like their mother, Dane's children camped in the third-floor turret, the scene of slumber parties that included "Grauntie," who abandoned her own bedroom and slept on a chaise longue.

Inside the turret, the elegant, wood-paneled room affords a spectacular view of Clayton's sprawling front lawn and majestic trees. As they revisited their favorite hideout in the house, the two sisters shared a gleeful hug.

Visiting Clayton was like entering a time warp because the shades were always drawn and everything was preserved, Sanger said. At times, it seemed a bit spooky.

Old-fashioned phones, with a stand and an ear piece, were still in use. Letters from the 1890s tumbled out when drawers were opened. Calling cards from people offering condolences on the 1891 death of Martha Frick remained in Helen Clay Frick's room.

"Every day when we were here, we would walk up to the cemetery,"' Dane said, adding that visits to the family plot in Homewood Cemetery may seem odd now but gave them a sense of family continuity.

In the mahogany-paneled dining room where the Fricks entertained Theodore Roosevelt, Dane said, "We would only eat in here for formal dinners," adding that they always dressed up for dinner.

On occasion, Helen Clay Frick would insist that her visiting relatives speak only French, Dane said.

A lovely compromise

Adelaide Trafton, who now chairs the Helen Clay Frick Foundation board, is the daughter of Dr. Henry Clay Frick II. She, too, remembers her great-aunt and godmother fondly.

"We used to have lunch and go clothes shopping. She was always taking us to musicals in New York," Trafton said, adding that before the theater, they ate lamb chops and peas in her great-aunt's kitchenette at the Frick Art Reference Library.

A therapist at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and resident of Topsham, Maine, Trafton insists that the foundation's goal is to preserve the archives and make them available to the public.

"There have been so many rumors that we wanted to protect them from public access. That is totally untrue. We would very much like to spend money on the conservation process," Trafton said.

The archives, she concedes, were not a priority after her great-aunt died in 1984 because restoring her home took precedence.

In 1997 and 1998, the foundation hired five prominent historians and archivists to evaluate the importance of the family archives, consider the appropriateness of storing them in Pittsburgh or New York and estimate costs associated with preserving and maintaining them.

Initially, Trafton said, family members ruled out the option of dividing up the archives.

"The main reason is that in order to catalog them and make sense of them as a whole, they should be sorted in one place so that we get an understanding of the whole picture. We really don't have a whole sense of what the whole story is and what the whole collection is. That's why we want them in one place."

But the agreement signed in April calls for Henry Clay Frick's business papers to remain at the University of Pittsburgh's archives of industrial society and the remainder to go to New York. The foundation will spend up to $115,000 a year for up to seven years to preserve and catalog the records, films and mementos.

"I don't think of it being divided up. I think of it as being shared," Trafton said, adding that Rush Miller, director of Pitt's library system, and Patricia Barnett, director of the Frick Art Reference Library, will see to it that the archives are preserved, indexed and made available to historians on line.

"It comes down to a lovely compromise. Two minds working on something from different viewpoints can be very enriching," Trafton said.

What's past is prologue

From a historic standpoint, the decision does not make sense, Sanger said.

Helen Clay Frick had a falling-out with the trustees of the Frick Art Reference Library, and, although it was her life's work, she did not endow it in her will or deposit her papers there.

In 1965, Helen Clay Frick clashed with the University of Pittsburgh over its management of the Henry Clay Frick Fine Arts Department, which she established and financed for 40 years. It was one of the first academic programs for the study of fine arts at a major university.

After her dispute with the university, Helen Clay Frick removed her artworks from Pitt and built another museum to house her extensive art collection. That museum is on Reynolds Street in Point Breeze, behind her home.

"The last places that Helen Frick would want her papers would have been The Frick Collection or the University of Pittsburgh. It's just shocking to me that her family trustees have invalidated her this way," Sanger said.

Dane and Sanger are convinced that family members are disregarding Helen Clay Frick's wishes by moving the archives to New York.

"It would be a moral wrong for me not to stand beside my sister. It's just unthinkable. You know you can't live with yourself if you don't do what's right," Sanger said.

On the manicured Clayton lawn, the two women paused at a large, deep brick well. Each one tossed a coin where water had once flowed.

Dane thought of her great-aunt.

"May all her wishes come true," she said.

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