The Frick Family
The Frick Pittsburgh is Helen Clay Frick’s legacy to her hometown. As benefactress, she gave us all a place to experience art, history and nature. It was her vision that the Frick would be a place that encourages and develops the study of fine arts, and of advancing the knowledge of kindred subjects through the exploration of social history of the nineteenth century and choice exhibitions of fine and decorative art.
Helen grew up at Clayton as the third child of Henry Clay Frick and his wife, Adelaide Howard Childs. She retained a fondness for her childhood home throughout her life. The family’s move to New York City in 1905 was not an entirely happy change for Helen. She loved Pittsburgh and considered it to be her home. In fact, much of her personal philanthropy was focused on southwestern Pennsylvania. This included the establishment of the Westmoreland-Fayette Historical Society, to preserve the West Overton homestead where her father was born; the founding of the Henry Clay Frick Fine Arts Department at the University of Pittsburgh; the construction of The Frick Art Museum; and the restoration of Clayton.
She was strongly influenced by her father’s interest in art collecting, and, from an early age, she took an active interest in his collection. As a young woman Helen Clay Frick began assembling her own art collection, increasing her acquisitions in the 1960s in preparation for the opening of The Frick Art Museum in 1970.
Perhaps her greatest achievement, was the development of the Frick Art Reference Library in New York, which she began in the 1920s as a research library and photo archive dedicated to the study of western art. Helen Clay Frick oversaw the operations of the library until the year before her death, and it continues to be one of the top research institutions in the country.
Although Helen Clay Frick never married, she delighted in the company of her nieces and nephews and often hosted family and friends at her farm in Bedford, New York, as well as at her homes Eagle Rock at Prides Crossing, Massachusetts, and Clayton.
Henry Clay Frick’s story began in West Overton, Pennsylvania, a rural village settled by Mennonites 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. His grandfather, Abraham Overholt, owned the Overholt Distillery and was a leading figure in the village. Henry’s rise to prominence and prosperity began close to home, when as a young man, he realized the potential of local bituminous coal. At the age of 21, he borrowed money and formed a partnership, Frick & Co, with two cousins and a friend. The newly formed business used beehive ovens to turn coal into coke, a fuel in great demand by the growing steel industry in Pittsburgh.
Frick prospered at a time when heavy industries and private fortunes were growing to unprecedented sizes. By the late 1870s, Frick bought out his partners. The company, now known as H.C. Frick and Company, had nearly 1,000 employees, and Frick was a millionaire by the time he was 30. Eleven years later her met Adelaide Howard Childs (1859-1931), and they were married December 15, 1881.
While staying in New York City on their wedding trip, the Fricks were guests at a luncheon hosted by Andrew Carnegie. It was then that the partnership between H.C. Frick and Company and Carnegie Steel was officially announced. The union of the two men cemented their dominance over the Pittsburgh steel industry, and led to the eventual formation of United States Steel.
In 1892, a labor dispute between Homestead Steel—the nation’s largest producer of steel, owned by Frick and Carnegie—and the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers—its largest craft union—escalated into a major, violent event.
That summer, with Carnegie out of the country and the dispute still unresolved, Frick closed the mill, locking out 3,800 workers and intending to replace them with non-union employees. The union workers then seized the mill. Frick, in return, arranged for 300 armed Pinkerton detectives to travel by boat down the Ohio River, enter the mill on the river side and reclaim the building.
Almost as soon as the detectives arrived, fighting began between both sides, resulting in loss of life for both steelworkers and Pinkerton detectives. It lasted for 12 hours, and eventually the Pennsylvania National Guard was ordered by the governor to intercede. The mill was secured and Homestead was placed under martial law.
Henry Clay Frick showed an early interest in collecting paintings and drawings. In 1871, he applied for a loan of $10,000 from the bank of T. Mellon & Sons. The agent from the bank who was sent to investigate Frick’s reliability commented that Frick “may be a little too enthusiastic about pictures, but not enough to hurt.”
By 1881 Frick had the resources to begin forming an art collection. His first recorded purchase of a painting was in February of that year. Frick chose a wooded landscape by local artist George Hetzel, who was a member of the Scalp Level School—a group of regional painters who traveled to the countryside to sketch and paint in the manner of the French Barbizon School. Not long after that, Frick purchased other works, including At the Louvre (Une Révélation) by Spanish artist Luis Jiménez y Aranda, a humorous, anecdotal painting of a young woman and her chaperone confronting a classical statue in the Louvre.
Around 1885, after the Frick family was well-settled in Clayton, Frick began collecting in earnest. Much of this early purchasing focuses on French landscape painters of the Barbizon School, including Dessous de Bois (The Forest Floor) by Théodore Rousseau, which hangs in the parlor in Clayton.
The art collection at Clayton generally reflects taste typical of the industrialist-collectors of Gilded Age America, with most works by European artists of the nineteenth century, contemporary to Frick, or from an older generation. His first Old Master purchase has been identified as Still Life with Fruit by Dutch eighteenth-century artist Jan van Os, which now hangs in The Frick Art Museum, alongside other eighteenth-century works collected by both Frick and his daughter, Helen Clay Frick.
Helen took her father’s stated mission of “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts and of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects” to heart, and her own purchases form the core of the collection displayed at The Frick Art Museum, which has particularly outstanding examples of early Renaissance Sienese painting and eighteenth-century French painting, furniture and decorative arts.
The eldest of the Frick family’s four children, the family moved into their Point Breeze home (later called Clayton) shortly before his birth in March 1883. Childs demonstrated an early interest in natural science—identifying, catching, and tagging animals such as rabbits and raccoons, examining rocks with his geology kit, and studying taxidermy. He also experimented with photography.
After attending Princeton University, Childs began the first of many expeditions to Africa and the American West to collect animal specimens and fossils for study, many of which were donated to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.
In 1913 Childs married Frances Dixon and they eventually settled in Roslyn, Long Island. As a gift for his son and daughter-in-law, Henry Clay Frick purchased the former estate of William Cullen Bryant and renovated a Georgian mansion on the property for the young couple. Childs and Frances renamed the house Clayton and made it their home for almost 50 years. They raised four children–Adelaide, Frances, Martha, and Clay. The home is now the Nassau County Museum of Art.
After the family’s interests and investments transferred to New York, much of Childs’ research and collecting efforts were done in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History, where he established the Frick Laboratory of Vertebrate Paleontology. He also was named honorary curator of Late Tertiary and Quaternary Mammals, and served as a trustee from 1921 until his death. During that time, he also served as president of the board of trustees of The Frick Collection, New York.
Adelaide Howard Childs was born in Pittsburgh on December 16, 1859, to Asa P. Childs and his second wife Martha Howard Childs. (She had five siblings from her father’s first marriage.) The Childs family was well established in Pittsburgh as manufacturers and importers of boots and shoes. Adelaide Childs met Henry Clay Frick in the spring of 1881, and they were married December 15 of that year. After her husband’s death in 1919, Adelaide divided her time between their New York home (now The Frick Collection), their summer home Eagle Rock, and their Pittsburgh home, Clayton. Upon her death, October 4, 1931, her daughter Helen inherited the Pittsburgh home and the summer home and its contents.