Preserving an Era: Celebrating Thirty Years of Clayton

Preserving an Era: Celebrating Thirty Years of Clayton
June 4, 2020 By: Dawn Reid Brean, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts

Preserving an Era: Celebrating Thirty Years of Clayton

The year 2020 is a momentous anniversary for Clayton—thirty years since the historic house museum opened to the public. In celebration of that anniversary, we are planning a series of blog posts that will cover the monumental efforts by the team of architects, structural engineers, historians, curators, craftspeople, and contractors who restored the home, inside and out.

Though the Frick family had moved to New York in 1905, they maintained Clayton and returned to Pittsburgh frequently. Helen Clay Frick in particular remained devoted to her childhood home and Pittsburgh. When she died in 1984 at age 96, she bequeathed Clayton to her eponymous foundation, with funds to provide for its restoration as a historic house museum so that “future generations may better understand the kind of life that was lived within its walls.”1

Clayton, 1984

Although the house had been maintained by the Fricks over the years, there was an immense amount of work to be completed before the house could open to the public. Efforts began almost immediately, led by DeCourcy “Dick” McIntosh (president of the Helen Clay Frick Foundation), Ellen Rosenthal (curator), and Joanne Moore (project administrator and archivist). Illuminating their research was a rich trove of archival evidence, including historic photographs, invoices, vouchers, and correspondence documenting the construction, decoration, and various renovations, as well as daily life, at Clayton over the previous century. (These records are now housed in the Frick Family Archives at the Frick Art Reference Library and continue to be a valuable resource for curatorial staff.)

Beginning in 1985, conservators, curators, and architects visited Clayton to assist in a careful analysis of the house, the interior, and its collections. At a glance, Clayton appeared to be an untouched Victorian estate, but it had seen several changes since its initial construction between 1866 and 1870, an interior renovation in 1882/1883 after Frick’s purchase, a major renovation completed by Frederick J. Osterling between 1890 and 1892, and a handful of minor changes in the twentieth century. An important initial step was an architectural analysis, completed by John Milner Associates of Philadelphia. This document outlined the structural changes made at Clayton throughout the previous 100 years. Coupled with a thorough research report drafted by local architectural historian Lu Donnelly, foundation staff could proceed more confidently with a thorough understanding of the home’s structural history. This careful analysis informed restoration decisions and processes.

Donald Miller, “Out of past: Getting house in order to open the Frick estate to the public,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 25, 1985.

In April 1987, The Helen Clay Frick Foundation announced that it had awarded New York-Paris based architect Thierry W. Despont the design contract to convert Clayton into a historic house museum. Despont’s firm had recently completed the high profile centennial restoration of the Statue of Liberty and was highly sought after by public and private clients alike. Despont was excited by the challenge and inspired by the domestic feel of the house. In a New York Times article, he stated “There’s tremendous character and cohesion to the house; it has the feeling of bringing up a family…I want to put back as much as possible—the smells, the sounds, the flowers. I want the telephone to ring.”2

Despont’s guiding principle for the restoration was parva sed apta, “simple but appropriate.” As stated in an internal report from Despont, “In order to preserve the greatest amount of the original structure, an historic period for the house has been selected that capitalizes on existing resources and allows a conservative approach to restoration and reconstruction.” Original materials were preserved whenever possible and lost or deteriorated details were to be thoughtfully and carefully restored.

Cover page and north elevation from blueprints produced by The Office of Thierry W. Despont and Urban Design Associates during the 1989 restoration of Clayton.

The Office of Thierry W. Despont (OTD) developed the initial planning documents and was the supervising architectural firm. With Urban Design Associates (UDA) of Pittsburgh, the local associate architect, OTD produced a set of blueprints and two enormous volumes detailing architectural and engineering specifications to guide the restoration (these documents are still important resources for curatorial staff making preservation decisions at Clayton today). Peters Building Company served as the general contractor, coordinating the work of more than two dozen specialty subcontractors, many of whom were Pittsburgh-based, who worked on the roofing, painting, plastering, carpentry, and masonry restoration.

Patricia Lowry, “Clayton face lift under way,” The Pittsburgh Press, April 18, 1989.

The major structural work and exterior restoration finally began in February 1989 and completed before the end of the year. Pittsburgh newspapers documented the progress, showing images of the house clad in scaffolding on all sides. Particular care was taken to ensure that Clayton was structurally sound and watertight. The foundation was assessed and modern steel beams reinforced the original beams below the front porch. Sapp Roofing replaced the original red slate roof, using salvaged shingles where possible. They also repaired the flat-seamed metal roofing, flashing, and gutters. Ornamental metalwork elements were repaired and replaced where necessary. Deteriorating wood trim was restored and a wooden railing on the eastern façade was recreated by skilled craftsmen to match the original.

Clayton during the exterior restoration, 1989.

Workers erecting scaffolding at Clayton during exterior restoration, 1989.

Roofer replacing the slate roof at Clayton, 1989.

Executive Director Dick McIntosh and architects evaluating restored roof ornaments, 1989.

Restoration workers by the new wooden balustrade created to match the historic original, which had been removed at some point in the structure’s history.

Detailed drawings for the wooden balustrade, designed by The Office of Thierry W. Despont and Urban Design Associates.

The exterior masonry was reset and repointed to further protect the house from water infiltration. The decorative stonework was cleaned and the brick and wood surfaces were stripped of old layers of paint. Robert Furhoff, an expert in historic finishes, analyzed hundreds of paint samples taken from inside and outside and found that the exterior of the home had been painted twenty times, consistent with archival evidence and receipts in the family archives. Early paint sequences varied in shades of white, while later layers were a buff grayish color; each layer was separated by a heavy soil line. Based on the assessment, painters from A.J. Vater repainted Clayton with a historically appropriate color scheme custom created by color designer Donald Kaufman.

Exterior of Clayton prepped for painting, 1989.

A worker strips layers of old paint from the porte-cochere, prepping it for repainting, during the 1989 restoration of Clayton.

Due to deteriorated wood, the kitchen porch was partially reconstructed during the 1989 restoration.

A worker fits the reconstructed railing on the restored kitchen porch.

The children’s entrance was slightly modified to accommodate a lift, providing an accessible entrance for visitors with mobility concerns.

Jack Williams, a stonecutter at West Penn Industries in McKeesport, carved the 129 limestone balusters on the second floor porch using pneumatic chisels and contoured carving files based on the original deteriorated examples. Making the task more difficult, there were six different capital designs for the balusters. Williams described his work as “a labor of love.”3 He and an apprentice completed the carving in only six weeks, working tirelessly from morning to night, seven days a week. The care and passion he brought to his role was shared by the hundreds of workers from more than two dozen firms who lent their expertise to Clayton and contributed to the overall impact of the finished product, called a “triumph of restoration” by Susan Mary Alsop in Architectural Digest.4

Jack Williams from West Penn Industries carving one of the 129 limestone balusters above the front porch, 1989.

Detail of baluster designers from design drawings by The Office of Thierry W. Despont and Urban Design Associates.

While exterior work progressed, a herculean task was happening within Clayton to bring the mechanical systems up to modern safety and comfort standards. Tico Electric Company rewired the house without creating any new holes in surfaces. It reportedly took a master electrician and his assistant nine months to snake new wires through the entire house, starting on the fourth floor and working their way down.5 Obsolete furnaces were removed, ductwork cleaned, and a new system installed to maintain proper temperature and humidity that would help preserve the home’s contents.

The major structural work was completed by the fall of 1989, followed by another year of interior restoration and preparation before Clayton opened to the public in September 1990. Curatorial staff catalogued more than 10,000 objects while conservators and contractors cleaned woodwork, refinished parquet floors, polished and replated metalwork, restored ornamental plasterwork and fabric wallcoverings, and treated painted wall canvases, draperies, furniture, and decorative arts. Future blog posts will explore these efforts as well as some surprising details uncovered during the restoration process. We hope that you will follow along as we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Clayton's restoration.

Photographs of Clayton from 1901 guided the architects and curatorial staff during the 1989 restoration. Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

Clayton in 1990.

Donald Miller, “Clayton: Preserving an era,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 20, 1990.

Did you or someone you know work on the restoration of Clayton in the 1980s? Do you have special memories of visiting the home (before or after it was a historic house museum)? We’d love to hear from you! We welcome community voices as we reflect on this momentous anniversary.


1Helen Clay Frick, unpublished memoir, c. 1950. 
2Grace Glueck, “Restoring Baronial Splendor in Pittsburgh,” The New York Times, November 5, 1987, Section C, Page 1. 
3Marva C. Browne, “The Restoration of Clayton,” Dynamic Business, Vol. 45, No. 9 (November 1990): 12.  
4Susan Mary Alsop, “The Frick Family’s Clayton House,” Architectural Digest (December 1990): 140-143.
5Browne, “The Restoration of Clayton,” 11.

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