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What the Frick

You couldn’t help noticing the three prep school kids lounging outside the entrance to the Frick Museum at Fifth Avenue and 71st Street. It was a white-knuckle cold day, not yet spring, and they were wearing nothing but tweed jackets, khakis, and long mufflers. I was on my way for a behind-the-scenes tour of the upstairs rooms of the Frick, including the private family quarters—terra incognita to museum-goers, since the second floor is always roped off for staff only—so I slowed down when I heard them talking about the people who once had lived inside.

“You know, this guy Henry Clay Frick was a real bastard,” one said, taking a drag on a cigarette. “He had all this money, but he got it off the backs of his workers. He was really mean to labor. So this was all built with tainted money.”

At first, nobody replied to that, but as I passed them to walk up the little granite stairs and they stood to follow me in, I heard another kid say, “Well, if it’s great art, what the frick?”

Henry Clay Frick would have been pleased by that remark. Labor erects few monuments in America, but capitalists sow them like teeth wherever they live; and few of capital’s monuments are more eloquent or more imposing than the sprawling granite mansion built here in 1913, for 4 million pre-inflation dollars, by the victor in the famous Homestead steel lockout.

Today it houses the Frick Collection and library, but it was built as a home. And like most of the palaces of America’s plutocracy, its architecture is stamped with the class assumptions of its occupants—down to details like the polished mahogany veneer on doors facing the Frick family quarters, and the knotty pine on the side facing the servants’.

Well, the etiquette of live-in service is lost on most of us now, but clearly there are still powerful ghosts to be exorcised around the Frick name. To take the full measure of the Fifth Avenue palace, you need to know something about Frick’s Pittsburgh mansion, Clayton, a massive turreted affair on the corner of Penn and Homewood Avenues along what used to be called Millionaires’ Row. The two Frick houses tell a story not only of the evolution of one man’s taste but of capital itself, from purely local influence to global barony—an evolution that was accelerated by the crushing defeat Frick imposed on the nascent union movement at Homestead in the summer of 1892.

The Homestead battle is famous not just because it was such a devastating defeat—ending as it did all hope for unionization of the steel industry for more than 40 years—but because it marked a turning point in the relationship between labor and capital, just like Ronald Reagan’s dismissal of PATCO, the air traffic controllers’ union, in 1981. Homestead forever associated Frick’s name with both the use of immigrant laborers as scabs and mortal violence.

Homestead was a model mill in the vast metalworking complex surrounding Pittsburgh, most of which was owned 100 years ago by Carnegie Steel. Frick, the dour scion of a landowning family of Pennsylvania Mennonites, held a monopoly on the supply of coke, a byproduct of partially burned coal that was essential in the making of steel. Through his control of the coke fields along the Youghigheny River he had risen to be leading partner and executive director of Carnegie Steel, thereby taking charge of Homestead.

Sooty enough to turn the ground around them ash black for miles (somebody had written in the margin of my library copy of Samuel Schreiner’s biography of Frick, “There’s a reason they call it Pittsburgh”), the mills were dangerous caldrons of white-hot metal and sulphurous fumes. Even the social Darwinist Herbert Spencer said that a week in the Pittsburgh mills would be enough to make “a sane man commit suicide.”

The industrialists of the 1870s and Eighties had achieved a kind of labor peace in this hell by buying off the skilled trade unions, and at the Homestead plant in particular, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers had won not only some control of working conditions in the plant but a hand in promotion decisions. What’s more, the Amalgamated all but controlled the politics of the town of Homestead, electing a mayor who spoke with pride of labor’s role in creating the most efficient steel mill in the world. So persuasive was the American myth of hard work’s ultimate value that the union truly believed that it, too, had some claim of ownership in the mill.

Henry Clay Frick didn’t see it that way. A proponent of the theory that modern industrial combines must expand their control in all areas of their activities through the latest in scientific advances, Frick championed new processes that would reduce costs by eliminating skilled labor. The cheapest way to go about the change, he figured, would be to provoke a strike, shut down the mill for a few months, and then bring in Hungarian and Polish immigrants to replace the union. In 1892, he built a palisade topped with barbed wire all around the mill, and prepared to do just that.

After a bizarre battle involving boatloads of Pinkerton hired-guns had left 10 dead and 60 wounded—and after the state militia had intervened to save Frick’s ass—the union was smashed, and the families that had thrown in their lot with it lost not just their jobs but their homes.

Frick was a punctilious man with a trim, spade-like beard, always impeccably dressed. Throughout the violence, he continued to commute from Clayton to his second-floor office downtown, keeping to his routine like clockwork. Today, Clayton has been restored as a museum dedicated to a wealthy family’s private way of life in the high Nineties, complete with children’s games laid out on tables and a landscape by a local Pennsylvania artist, George Hetzel, which was the first acquisition in the Frick Collection. The building is a hodgepodge of ambitious styles, each element grasping for grandeur in some unconnected way. The facade is a poor copy of a French chateau; here rises a round turret; there a square one. The interior is similarly incoherent, a Peter Pan riot of Tiffany glass, dark woodwork, hideaway staircases, patterned parquet, and small, dark rooms rambling here and there.

One Saturday afternoon in July, after the Pennsylvania militia had restored order in the mills, Frick had come in from Clayton to his office when a Russian anarchist named Alexander Berkman burst in and shot him twice in the neck. In the ensuing struggle, Berkman stabbed Frick in the back and both legs before he was subdued.

Several doctors appeared and Frick, bleeding profusely and without benefit of anesthetic, allowed himself to be probed, even helping to guide the doctors’ instruments to the lodged bullets with his own hands. He dictated cables while they fussed with the bandages, and stayed at work until seven in the evening, completing an important loan instrument, before heading back to Clayton.

He became a hero to the upper classes forever after that, and you would have thought the general American public might have at least given him credit for grit. But another brutal incident prevented that favorite American delusion from getting off the ground. On hearing the news that Frick had been shot, one of the soldiers guarding the mill at Homestead shouted “Hurrah for the man who shot him!”, whereupon an officer had the offending private hung from a tent pole by his thumbs until his heartbeat grew so faint a surgeon ordered him taken down. The soldier never apologized, so he was given a dishonorable discharge, his head was half-shaved, and he was kicked out of camp in rags.

The soldier’s treatment was such an obvious and immediate symbol of the new relationship between the classes in the United States that the popular press never really got around to giving Frick any laurels for his courage—if that’s what refusing to leave your job with two bullets in your neck really is. For the next 20 years, Carnegie Steel reaped enormous profits from its ever-expanding, union-free mills, and the value of Frick’s holdings skyrocketed. Slowly he switched from the mundane and local business of coke and steel to the ethereal, pure capitalism of banking and speculation, just like his protegé and fellow Pennsylvanian, Andrew Mellon. After a few years as a financier, he felt he should leave Pittsburgh for the city of financiers.

In an era when a million dollars was worth a million dollars, Frick controlled hundreds of millions. The $4 million cost of the mansion he built on Fifth Avenue in New York is easily worth twice the $40 million-plus Bill Gates is shelling out for his convention center of a house on Lake Washington in Seattle. Frick imported teams of Italian workmen to cut the stone, carve the moldings, and lay the hardwood floors. The public rooms in the Frick are hung with silks and lined with paintings, among them Rembrandts, Holbeins, Bellinis, Van Dykes, Vermeers—all housed on a scale reminiscent of the Tuscan villas and palaces Frick and Mellon toured in the summers. The architect who designed the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., also did occasional additions to the Frick home.

You can still detect signs of family use downstairs, notably in the little mother-of-pearl buttons along the wainscoting labelled “kitchen” or “maid” or “butler.” There is a unique self-playing organ in one wall, and press accounts of the period liked to picture Frick sitting alone under a Renaissance baldachin in one of his enormous galleries, listening to the automatic organ play.

Maybe it happened that way, but the private rooms suggest it did not. There was magnificence here, too—a cedarlined closet that is big enough to be a bedroom, and a Titanic-era pool table, elaborately carved, standing next to a private, teak-lined bowling alley with leather pads for backstops (unfortunately, this was a game Frick could not play without servants to set the pins and roll back the balls). Walls are covered with heavy damask, and mantels are hung with fruit and birds cut in dense relief from oak. The windows are too small and deep-cut to be really bright. The ceilings are no more than eleven feet high (you feel like ducking after the airiness downstairs) and no room would seem out of scale for a decent middle-class home today. The family furniture that remains is dark and sturdy-looking but not jaw-dropping. There are no columns or rooftop gardens, just solid, rectangular, Protestant rooms that look out onto Central Park.

The servants’ quarters, though, are like dorm rooms in a community college, and some, downstairs by the kitchen, have walls lined with white tile—an antiseptic innovation of which Frick was quite proud, but which no doubt made the chauffeurs and cooks feel like they were sleeping in a bedpan.

Compared to his manse in Pittsburgh, though, the Frick house in New York is a revelation, a tableau of the newly global power of American capital in the years before World War I. Here the European references were executed by actual Europeans, imported from Italy, Britain, and France for the task. The older building’s haphazard feel and provincial pretensions give way to coherence and genuine sophistication; its almost desperate social aspirations to a confident invocation of Europe, where the classes knew their places and stayed put. This building is about power, global, rational, and remorseless. It also feels a little like a mausoleum. But the only thing that’s buried here is Frick’s reputation, which all the oil paints of Europe can’t seem to beautify.