14. Frick Constructed His House on the Rubble of an Architectural Landmark
The Richard Morris Hunt Memorial funded by the Art Society (now the Municipal Art Society), on the eastern edge of Central Park, faces the Frick Mansion.
Even in 1906, Henry Clay Frick’s real estate transaction was extraordinary: He bought the only full block front on Fifth Avenue, a lot 200 feet wide by 175 feet deep, and slightly raised over the rest of the neighborhood. He intended that his new house would best his rivals, including Carnegie and Vanderbilt, but to do so he first had to destroy a landmark. Not a problem.
Built in 1877 and demolished by Frick in 1912, the Lenox Library was both an architectural landmark and an intellectual one. Funded by wealthy philanthropist James Lenox, it was one of the first libraries in New York to be open to the public. Lenox hired eminent architect Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895) to build his Neo-Gothic palace of rare prints, maps, manuscripts, and books, including a Gutenberg Bible. Ironically, Lenox’s taste was similar to Frick’s and his library housed paintings much like those later prized by Frick. Lenox bought, for example, the first two J. M. W. Turner paintings in the United States. His estate, which fell into financial disarray after his death, sold both Turners. Frick went on to buy Turners of his own, including the Harbor of Dieppe of 1825 and Cologne, The Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening of 1826.
Meanwhile, as New York’s most famous architect, Hunt had been honored in 1898 with a Fifth Avenue memorial designed by Bruce Price with sculptures by Daniel Chester French, sited directly across from where the Lenox Library once stood. If the Hunt memorial serves as a perpetual reprimand for the annihilation of a lost masterpiece, Henry Clay Frick apparently didn’t care.