Loading...
Home > Archive > Russell Page Archive: The Frick Collection

Russell Page Archive: The Frick Collection

One of Russell Page’s few public commissions, his design for the 70th Street garden at The Frick Collection, a museum close to Central Park in Manhattan’s East Side, is an excellent example of his ability to develop his plan around the particularities of the site. Constructed in 1977, it still survives to this day. Its popularity was made evident in 2015 when public protests successfully halted plans to demolish it.

  • The Frick Collection, Rough Sketch of the Garden

    RP/1/14/15/14 (2 of 9)

    [1976]

    27 x 20.9 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A coloured ink sketch on paper, probably related to Page’s initial idea for a central fountain in the garden.

  • The Frick Collection, Garden Sketch Plans A and B

    RP/1/14/15/1

    April 1976

    76 x 101 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    An ink and pencil design on tracing paper dated April 1976, marked 'Frick Collection, Garden sketch plan A, scale 1/4" = 1 foot' and 'Frick Collection, Garden sketch plan B, scale 1/4" = 1 foot.' Two suggested layouts for the garden are shown; in A, two separate lawns flank a pool in the middle, in B the two grassed areas have been replaced by one lawn with the pool sunk into it.

  • The Frick Collection, Disposition Paths and Planted Areas

    RP/1/14/15/6

    August 1976

    76 x 57.5 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    An ink and pencil design on tracing paper, marked 'Frick Collection, Disposition paths & planted area, scale 1/4" = 1 foot.' The plan is close to Page’s ‘Design B’ for the Frick Garden (RP/1/14/15/1), although with some modifications, such as the removal of the bird bath and the small trees at the west end of the pool, and changes to the flower beds in the lawn.

  • The Frick Collection, General Garden Layout

    RP/1/14/15/4

    June 1976

    76 x 61 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    An ink and pencil design on tracing paper, marked 'Frick Collection, General garden lay-out, scale 1/4" = 1 foot.' This relates closely to RP/1/14/15/6 but Caisse de Versailles have been added; a series of six of them are placed along the east wall. Four fountain jets are indicated along the north wall (one of them is marked ‘water’).

  • The Frick Collection, Garden North and East Facades

    RP/1/14/15/2

    April 1976

    76 x 77 cm (plan)

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    An ink and pencil design on tracing paper dated April 1976, marked 'Frick Collection, Sketch plan garden N & E facades, scale 1/4" = 1 foot.' The lower drawing shows the east wall; there are trellises indicated in the three niches (with pyracantha to climb up them). A statue on a pedestal sits within the central niche; two bench seats occupy the two side niches, following the design indicated in plan B (RP/1/14/15/1). Plants to climb the walls at either end are suggested: ‘loosish vines Rosa Mermaid or Rosa Albéric Barbier’ at the southern end, ‘clematis montana grandiflora and clematis Madame le Coultre’ at the northern. The upper drawing shows the north wall. It is likely that there are four fountain jets included at intervals along the base of the wall (see RP/1/14/15/5). A cross section of the wall is also shown; this indicates Page’s plan for a planter filled with a screen of trees to sit on top of the wall.

  • The Frick Collection, Fountain Jets

    RP/1/14/15/5

    June 1976

    76 x 86 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    An ink and pencil design on tracing paper dated June 1976, marked 'Frick Collection-garden, Suggestion for 4 fountain jets below north wall.' The design for a fountain jet which Page proposed placing in front of each of the four recesses along the north wall.

  • The Frick Collection, Central Pool

    RP/1/14/15/3

    June 1976

    52 x 76 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    An ink and pencil design on tracing paper dated June 1976, marked 'Frick Collection garden, Sketch suggested detailing for central pool, scale 1/2 inch = 1 foot.' A drawing providing suggested dimensions of the pool, as well as the positioning of the overflow/waste. There are also specific measurements for the paved edging surrounding the pool and the height of the water level below the stone edge.

  • The Frick Collection, Paths and Planted Areas

    RP/1/14/15/7

    August 1976

    65 x 48 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A dyeline copy of a design dated 10 August 1976, marked 'Frick Collection, Disposition paths & planted area, scale 1/4" = 1 foot.’ The design of this plan is close to RP/1/14/15/4 and RP/1/14/15/6, although it would appear that the fountain jets in the north wall have been removed. A note on the plan indicates that Page was considering enlarging the planting area in the north-east corner by six inches which would mean reducing the lawn by the same amount.

  • The Frick Collection, Drawing of Garden

    RP/1/14/15/13

    [1976 or 1977]

    36 x 57 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A dyeline drawing of the Frick garden. Marked ‘House and Garden,’ it was reproduced in an article in the magazine in 1977.

  • The Frick Collection, Architects Detail Site Plan

    RP/1/14/15/15

    June 1975

    66 x 125.3 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A dyeline plan of the Frick Garden drawn up by the architect Harry Van Dyke (job no. 7305, scale ¼” 1’-0’, drawing no. A-2).

  • The Frick Collection Garden, East Wall, Architects Plan

    RP/1/14/15/12

    January 1979

    48 x 50 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A dyeline elevation drawing of the east wall of the Frick garden, drawn up by the architect J. B. Bayley (reference number 1976/81/8, scale 1/8").

  • The Frick Collection Garden, East Wall, Architects Plan

    RP/1/14/15/11

    January 1979

    45 x 46 cm

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A dyeline elevation drawing of the east wall of the Frick Garden with a design for a suggested trellis, drawn up by architect J. B. Bayley (scale 1/8").

  • The Frick Collection, Side View

    RP/4/3/36

    July 1982

    ©Estate of Russell Page

    A colour photograph showing a side view of the 70th Street garden at The Frick Collection, New York.

70th Street Garden, The Frick Collection, New York, New York, USA

1976 to 1977

Archive of Garden Design Ref: RP/1/14/15

Small, boxed in by surrounding buildings, and intended to be viewed mainly from the street, the garden at the Frick presented Page with a variety of design difficulties. Using spatial illusions and clever planting – including his favourite Iceberg roses – he dealt with all of these challenges to create a serene and balanced space, full of interesting details; an oasis in the city.

According to Gabriella van Zuylen, it was Mrs Paul Mellon, a member of The Frick Collection board of trustees, who suggested that Russell Page design the garden for the museum. She was acting on the advice of her own gardener who, apparently, had said that Page would ‘look over the situation, make a drawing on the back of an envelope and be the right man for the job’ (van Zuylen and Schinz, 223). It is likely that Rachel ‘Bunny’ Mellon, herself a keen horticulturist, would have been aware of Page. A friend of the Kennedys, she and her husband the philanthropist Paul Mellon moved in circles which included Page clients such as Marella and Gianni Agnelli and William and Babe Paley. However he came to be appointed, Page likely began working on the garden at the Frick around 1975, at the same time that a new one-story reception hall, designed by Harry van Dyke, John Barrington Bayley and G. Frederick Poehler, was constructed next to the museum’s main building. The earliest date on Page’s plans for the garden is April 1976, and most appear to have been drawn up between then and August 1976.

The building project was not without its critics. The Frick Collection, situated on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 70th Street, had opened to the public in December 1935. Housed in the former home of the industrialist Henry Clay Frick and his wife Adelaide, the museum’s trustees were aware that more room might be needed in the future and soon began to acquire nearby properties. In the 1940s they bought Nos. 7 and 9 East 70th Street. In 1972, George D. Widener, owner of the house next door to the Frick at No. 5 East 70th Street, died. The trustees acquired the building, hopeful that they could finally build a much-needed extension that would provide the visitor facilities necessary to accommodate the huge increase in the museum’s attendance in the years since it had opened. Although the New York Department of Buildings initially approved the demolition of the Widener mansion to make way for the new annexe, the application was revoked by the Buildings Commissioner (Knight 54). This decision allowed New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to press their claims that the Frick’s plan to remove the mansion would damage the historic architectural character of the area. In July 1973, the Landmarks Commission only approved the demolition of the building on the understanding that a temporary formal garden be installed across plots 5, 7 and 9, which could be replaced by a new wing at a future date (Horsley 41). In the event, the high estimates for the temporary garden made it impracticable and the Frick decided instead to build a small one-storey pavilion and a permanent garden (Frick press release).

This new garden was not large and was hemmed in by buildings on three sides, ‘the bottom of a box’ as Page described it (Page, “The Shaping of a Garden” 34). To add to the challenge, it would not be open to museum visitors in the usual way but was to be viewed mainly from the vantage point of East 70th Street through a set of iron gates (the original Frick mansion gates repurposed).

Unusually, in addition to the surviving garden plans, there are three texts written by Page which elaborate on the design. Two of these, both of which remained in his archive, deal with the practicalities of constructing the garden: ‘(Draft) Frick Collection Notes on Garden Construction’ (RP/1/14/15/14 (4-9 of 9)) and ‘Frick Collection Points on Garden April 5 1977’ (RP/3/1/1C). The former is likely to have been written early on in the design process, while the latter appears to have been drawn up by Page when he was leaving the site, and provides his thoughts and guidance on how the project should be finished. The third text, an article written for House & Garden magazine and thus for a different reader, afforded Page the opportunity to describe the process of designing the garden as relatively seamless. Initially, it appears, he considered having a central fountain surrounded by a formal box-edged parterre; a rough sketch in the archive (RP/1/14/15/14(2 of 9)) presumably relates to this idea. This approach was soon abandoned as Page felt it would have been impossible to create a central motif that fitted the varying architectural scales of the surrounding buildings. He minimised the impact of the high buildings to the north by setting a planter atop the wall, filled with trees that both screened off the buildings behind and provided the illusion of greater depth by suggesting another garden at a higher level (see RP/1/14/15/2). To give the small plot a sense of spaciousness at ground level, Page deployed a device that he knew from other gardens to be effective; he set a pool of water flush with a lawn to disrupt the viewer’s judgement of the actual space:

‘Water between buildings helps to cheat on distance. […] At the Frick garden, a visitor looking from the street sees a narrow strip of water, which seems to make the back wall recede. Seen from inside the building, the rectangle becomes square — so already I have two quite different spatial compositions in this very small area.’ (Page, “The Shaping of a Garden” 34)

Page used his choice and placement of trees to further reinforce the feeling of spaciousness:

‘So formal and symmetrical a setting would suggest straight lines, like pleached (clipped) lindens — historically correct but one would “read” them at a glance. I needed to hold the spectator’s attention, to tempt the eye to explore and linger. Breaking the rules (since rules are good servants but not always good masters), I decided to use trees of different forms and habits, placing them asymmetrically so that their trunks would give illusory depths to a very shallow garden. Two conical Cryptomeria japonica (an excellent town tree) break the angles of buildings close to the street. In the northeast corner, a 30-foot Metasequoia repeats the conical (though this time deciduous) form and masks a disagreeable corner at high level. The other trees are all flowerers that bloom after the first spring flush. Near the fence is a Mains hupehensis, latest crabapple to flower. After it comes Cladrastis lutea, a lovely yellow-wood. For still later, there is a flowered Koelreuteria, and latest of all the Japanese Sophora. Yes, it’s a lot of trees for a small space, but they are set so that from the street and from inside the building the eye may wander under a canopy of leaves and flowers through the airy spaces defined by their trunks.’ (Page, “The Shaping of a Garden” 34 and 36)

Page worked closely on the planting with C. Powers Taylor, president of a nursery, Rosedale, located in Westchester, New York. In ‘Frick Collection Points on Garden April 5 1977’ (RP/3/1/1C) written 25 days before the garden needed to be ready, Page laid out some final thoughts for Mr Taylor:

‘(1) The two circular box plants west end of pool: suggest some fine soil mixed with a little peat be divided into the middle of each plant to partially cover lower branches and encourage growth. Plants should be carefully tipped with secateurs so that they come out like inverted saucers.
(2) Box edging once planted should be very lightly tipped and not heavily clipped. If it puts on some growth it can begin to be squared up in July. I should plant it fairly deep as it is a stem-rooter.
(3) Please control that I have not planted to[sic] close in general and please take out any plants you may judge superfluous in the shrub planting.
(4) I am a little worried as to whether the roses will have sufficient hours of sunlight. If we find they don’t we will let them go through this season and transplant them in November to the bed just inside the Fifth Avenue railings and work out a different planting arrangement for the courtyard end (East side).
(5) Galtonias and lilies. We shall not need many.
(6) Ditto campanula lactiflora – if not already bought we might drop these.
(7) Two beds next 70th Street: the shrubs I planted may require that these be shortened by a foot or so.’

Trellises placed inside the niches which punctuated the north and east walls allowed further planting: ‘dark green curtains of espaliered cotoneaster and pyracantha, flowering in spring with Japanese quince’ (see also the plan RP/1/14/15/2). Included in Page’s initial notes on the garden (RP/1/14/15/14(4-9 of 9)), and one of his designs (RP/1/14/15/5) but not mentioned in the 1977 House & Garden article are four fountain jets, one to be fitted in front of each of the niches on the north wall.

Page also carried out work on the Frick’s Fifth Avenue garden, at the front of the museum. Originally landscaped in 1940 by the firm Innocenti and Webel, Page removed a tall privet hedge and cut back the by then overgrown shrubs (see RP/3/1/1C).

Gabriella van Zuylen believed that Page hoped his designs for public gardens would survive, albeit with new variations of planting, in the way that those for private clients rarely would. In 2014, this durability was threatened when the Frick announced it intended to redevelop the garden in order to build a large extension. It is testament to the success of Page’s design that the force of the public outcry led the museum’s board of trustees to rethink, and abandon, these plans.

Literature

The Frick Collection. “Press Release.” 4 February 1977. https://tclf.org/blog/temporary-frick-garden-it-was-created-be-permanent. Accessed 4 April 2019.

Horsley, Carter B. “Widener Mansion is Coming Down.” New York Times, 9 July 1973, p.
41.

Knight, Michael. “Widener Mansion Given a Reprieve.” New York Times, 21 March 1973, p. 54.

Page, Russell. “(draft) Frick Collection Notes on Garden Construction.” Unpublished typescript, undated [1976] (Archive of Garden Design RP/1/14/15/14(4-9 of 9)).

—“Frick Collection Points on Garden April 5 1977.” Unpublished manuscript, 5 April 1977 (Archive of Garden Design: RP/3/1/1C).

—“The Shaping of a Garden.” House & Garden, vol. 149, no. 7, July 1977, pp. 34 and 36.

van Zuylen, Gabriella and Marina Schinz. The Gardens of Russell Page. Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2008.

Related material in the Archive of Garden Design

RP/4/3/36: The Frick Collection, side view (photograph)

Related material elsewhere

There are mounted 35mm colour transparencies of the Frick Garden in the RHS Lindley Library reference collection (PAG 2/3/5).