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Moving the Frick papers to new York starts a family feud

Sunday, December 19, 1999

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick and his daughter Helen were lifelong, compulsive keepers.

  Henry Clay Frick photo from the Heinz Regional History Center.

School notebooks, letters, diaries, photographs and film reels, newspaper clippings, architectural drawings, souvenirs and memorabilia; business records from coal, coke, railway and steel companies; checks and receipts for household goods from food to fine art -- all this and much more is housed at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze. It is an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind record of life in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania in the 19th and 20th centuries.

And in the spring, it could be leaving Pittsburgh permanently for a new home at the Frick Art Reference Library in New York. Trustees of the Helen Clay Frick Foundation, which owns the archives, voted 10-1 last month to move the Frick family archives to Manhattan.

But a minority of Frick family members -- three of Henry Frick's 14 great-great-grandchildren -- believe an art library in New York isn't the right place for a collection that is mostly about life and industry in and around Pittsburgh. They say they will fight the transfer of the materials in court.

Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Legislature adopted resolutions supporting efforts to retain the Frick archives in Pittsburgh.

"It would be a huge, huge loss to Pittsburgh," said Martha Frick Symington Sanger of Stevenson, Md., who spent 10 years researching the Frick archives for a 1998 biography of her great-great-grandfather.

"These papers contain a wealth of information on the history of Western Pennsylvania, its emergence as the nation's industrial capital and the lives of one the state's most influential men and his family," Sanger said. "There isn't more than 5 or 10 percent that has anything to do with New York or the Frick Collection."

Frick, who was born 150 years ago today in a small springhouse on his grandfather's Westmoreland County farm, began the Frick Collection after moving to New York in 1905 and established it as an art museum in his will. Situated in the palatial former Frick family home across from Central Park, it is adjacent to the Frick Art Reference Library, founded by Helen Frick in 1920, a year after her father's death.

The Frick family archives belong in New York because the Frick Collection is "the one institution dedicated exclusively to the activities and history of Mr. Frick, primarily as a collector but also as one of America's great entrepreneurs," said its director, Samuel Sachs. Beyond that, Helen Frick's life and work was mostly in New York, not Pittsburgh.

"The family as a whole felt that joining that material to the material already in New York would make it easier for scholars," said Townsend Burden of Washington, D.C., a great-great-grandson of Frick and a member of the foundation board.

The move has the blessing of the director and board of the Frick Art & Historical Center here.

"We feel we are not competent to preserve [the archives] the way they ought to be," said Thomas Hilliard, chairman of the center's board. "The archives are not large enough to be supported on their own. They're used about 10 or 15 times a year, and they ought to be in a larger place so it's more economical to keep them. We would be the most expensive, if we fixed up a place and hired the people. It doesn't seem to be the wisest thing to do."

In her will, Helen Clay Frick, who died in 1984 at the age of 96, endowed Clayton, the Fricks' Point Breeze home, as a house museum and established her namesake foundation, bequeathing to it the family archives. But she made no specific stipulation about where the archives should be housed.

Sanger said that a few years before her great-aunt's death, all of the archival materials -- Henry Frick's papers in the Frick Building Downtown, Helen Frick's papers from her office in the Frick Art Reference Library in New York and papers from Helen Frick's farm in Westchester County, N.Y. -- were consolidated at Clayton. If Helen had wanted the family archives to reside in New York, Sanger argues, she would have left them to the library. Instead, because of a falling-out with the library board, Helen Frick left no archival material -- and no money -- to the library that was her life's work.

The Helen Clay Frick Foundation board is made up of a maximum of 11 of Henry and Adelaide Frick's descendants; Allegheny County Orphan's Court thought a larger board would be too unwieldy. Sanger said she was not on the board because her work on the Frick biography could have resulted in a conflict of interest.

The foundation had considered proposals from the University of Pittsburgh and the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, both of which stipulated that the gift be accompanied by a grant of well over $1 million to catalog and conserve the archives, as did the Frick Library in New York.

"It's important for us to keep collections like this in the region, where scholars can have access to similar collections," said Brent Glass, director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, who in October asked the foundation not to move the archives to New York. "There are several fine institutions in Pittsburgh that could capably take care of these archives if the Frick Art & Historical Center doesn't wish to do so."

"It's a loss to Pittsburgh," said Andrew Masich, president of the Heinz history center. "This is where the research on Pittsburgh is most likely to occur because of the significance of the family to this region, and it would have been a wonderful complement to the collections of the Heinz history center, or at Pitt."

Rush Miller, a historian and head of the University of Pittsburgh's library system, said, "It's certainly a very significant archive, and scholars and historians dealing with Pittsburgh history and this region would have found this material very useful. It means that they'll have to travel to New York to use it."

Miller said Pitt's Archives of Industrial Society, just two blocks from the Frick Art & Historical Center, would have been "the logical place to put it, and would have been very accessible to the research community in this area."

"It's not trying to rob Western Pennsylvania of its heritage, but make it available to anyone who has a legitimate interest in Western Pennsylvania," Burden said. A full catalog of the Frick archives would be available online, and copies of full documents could be mailed to researchers for a fee.

But with the archives housed at the Frick Art Reference Library, they will not be as accessible to the general public as they would be if housed at Pitt or the Heinz history center, and Sanger believes this is the real reason those two institutions were eliminated.

"When the door was closed to keeping the papers at Clayton, my family members wanted them under a family roof" where "they'll be able to control them," Sanger said. "There's nothing in those archives [for the family] to be afraid of."

"The sensitivity of family members who are still alive is something we might want to respect," said foundation trustee Adelaide Trafton of Topsham, Maine, who supports the move to New York. But "the intent of the foundation is to make these materials available in a much more public way."

Burden disagrees with Sanger's assessment that the content of the archives relates more to Pittsburgh than New York. Between 50 percent and 60 percent deals with the Frick Art Reference Library, he said, with Henry Frick's business papers making up about 8 percent.

As for the other 30 percent to 40 percent, he said, "I'm not sure."

Burden's interpretation is at odds with a 1997 report by former Frick family archivist Stephen Hussman, who spent more than two years processing the archives. After Hussman resigned, his position went unfilled, and about half of the archives remain unprocessed, with their contents identified but not fully cataloged.

Hussman's report reveals that of 735.9 linear feet of archival material, 28 linear feet relate to the Frick Art Reference Library and the Frick Collection.

Mixed opinions

The foundation's decision to send the archives to New York wasn't made overnight. It spent two years exploring the question of where the material should be housed.

"I think the foundation engaged in a very thorough process and made a responsible decision," said DeCourcy McIntosh, director of the Frick Art & Historical Center here. "I feel positively about it because the important thing is that the documents and film be cataloged and conserved and processed as efficiently and quickly as possible and be made available to scholars as soon as possible. I know the Frick Art Reference Library has the capabilities and facilities to do all that, and is motivated to give this archive the highest priority."

Asked his own opinion on where the archives should be housed, McIntosh demurred. "The decision is essentially one for the members of the Frick family to make," he said.

But in interviews in 1998 with consultants hired by the foundation to assess where the archives should be housed, McIntosh freely recommended that the archives be moved to New York.

The five consultants, all nationally prominent historians and archi-vists, were asked to assess the importance of the Frick archives for research, evaluate the appropriateness of both locations, and suggest what costs and other needs would be associated with continuing maintenance of and access to the archives.

While the consultants agreed with Hussman that the content of the archives related overwhelmingly to Western Pennsylvania, they reached different conclusions about where the records should be housed. Presented with two choices, some were clearly influenced by McIntosh's lack of interest in housing the materials at the Frick Art & Historical Center and by the eagerness of Patricia Barnett, director of Frick Art Reference Library, to accept them.

Edie Hedlin, director of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, said the facilities at Clayton for housing the archives were adequate and could be improved, and that any negatives "would not preclude Clayton from hosting the Frick archives should the Frick Art & Historical Center wish to continue that arrangement. It clearly does not, however."

Princeton University librarian William Joyce recommended dividing the original material among several sites. He suggested the possibility of sending Henry Frick's business papers to Pitt's Archives of Industrial Society, and New York-related material to New York, with copies of relevant material given to the institutions that did not get the originals.

Darwin Stapleton, director of the Rockefeller Archive Center in New York, recommended the Frick archives be transferred to New York, partly because McIntosh believed "the geographical location of the HCF archives makes it unlikely that they will be as heavily used by researchers as they would be" in New York.

Stapleton wrote that McIntosh no longer believed there was a need to keep the archives handy because, with Clayton up and running, "there were no longer outstanding questions that needed to be answered, and that scholarly interest in the site [and therefore in the archives] had been minimal."

Stapleton disagreed, saying "the history of successful historical sites is that they undergo regular reinterpretation as the significance of the sites becomes different over time."

Glenn Porter, director of the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Del., found both locations inadequate and recommended they be placed at the University of Pittsburgh, "which already has in place the needed infrastructure of staffing and facilities" and "holds numerous other collections of related manuscripts, books, photographs and other items that provide the full and rich context into which the Frick papers naturally fit."

David Hounshell, a Carnegie Mellon University history professor, recommended keeping the archives in Pittsburgh, either at the Heinz history center or at the University of Pittsburgh. "My bottom line assessment is that moving the Frick archives to New York would be a huge mistake."

Although one solution might appear obvious -- dividing the archives between Pittsburgh and New York -- the family ruled it out.

"The decision was that the collection would stay intact because in every document there are references to other documents," Sanger said.

Sanger said she and other family members who oppose the move would take legal steps to stop it, either by filing an objection in Orphan's Court here or by filing for an injunction to stop the transfer.

"This is Pittsburgh's patrimony," Sanger said. "It shouldn't leave."

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