Summoning the servants in the Frick mansion

Today, the former Henry Clay Frick mansion on Fifth Avenue and 70th Street is a spectacular art museum featuring Frick’s extensive collection of Old Masters paintings and 19th century decorative arts, among other treasures.

Frick always intended his mansion to become a museum after both he and his wife (bottom right) died—and as he planned, the museum opened to the public in 1935. (Frick died in 1919; his wife, Adelaide Childs Frick, in 1931.)

Since then, the second-floor family rooms where Frick lived with his wife and daughter, Helen (with her father at left in 1910) have been off-limits to the public, and just about all remnants of the family life of this titan of industry have vanished.

But there is one reminder of the private life of the Frick family, and it’s hiding in plain sight in the museum’s West Gallery.

In the middle of the hall, under Turner’s “The Arrival of a Packet-Boat, Evening,” are five small white buttons built into the wood molding of the wall. (Above, center)

The Fricks pressed these buttons to discreetly summon one of the dozens of servants who resided in the home with them. (The servant quarters were on the third floor.) Each button calls a specific servant or part of the house: butler, housekeeper, secretary, valet, and pantry.

Having buttons like these in every main room was probably totally normal among the extraordinarily rich the late 19th or early 20th century.

A typical wealthy household would employ a small army of servants—including a chef, cook, governess, gardener, driver, laundress, an all-purpose “useful man,” and a team of maids all taking care of different parts of the residence.

Next time you’re browsing the Frick, consider the servant buttons a ghostly reminder of the family that made their incredible art collection public. It’s also an emblem of a way of life that vanished when most rich New Yorkers abandoned single-family mansions for apartment house living by the 1920s.

[Top image: portrait by Edmund Charles Tarbell; second photo: courtesy of Caitlin Henningsen and the Frick Collection; fourth image: MCNY 1919 X2010.28.828]

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9 Responses to “Summoning the servants in the Frick mansion”

  1. boxwoodbooks Says:

    Many apartments of the early 20th c had buzzer systems built in them. Each room would have a button to push which would ring in the kitchen. There were always ‘maid’s rooms’, too, off the kitchen.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yes, and what’s great about the Frick is that the buttons are still here…I imagine most early apartments in NYC have had their maid and butler buttons removed.

  3. petey Says:

    what’s going on in the bottom left quarter of the last photo? it isn’t snow and ti isn’t i think a reviewing stand.

  4. Mike Ghelardi Says:

    I presume you know that Frick was the CEO of Carnegie Steel when Carnegie decided labor was getting too demanding and threatened his carefully constructed image as a humanitarian. So he hired Frick, a very good executive, to do the dirty work of crushing the unions and took a trip to Europe until Frick could put our the labor turmoil at Homestead Steel plant. Carnegie owned land around 91st and 5th Avenue. He built his mansion on the southeast corner at 91st & 5th, and sold the northeast corner to Otto Kahn, the banker immortalized as part of the Monopoly game characters with the high black hat. Both Frick and Kahn built more aesthetically pleasing mansions than Carnegie’s, but maybe Carnegie didn’t need to show off, as he was the richest man in the world at the time. Frick and Khan’s homes are magnificent in every way. These guys had good taste!  We even admire them today. Mike G, NYC

  5. madmonq Says:

    The Frick Museum also serves as the real world address for the comic book Avengers Mansion, now tower.

    • Kenny Says:

      Avengers Mansion is supposed to be the Cooper Hewitt. Note Avengers original series issue 102 where the Scarlet Witch crosses 5th Ave to walk around Central Park.
      The Frick, a few blocks south, was built with bloodier money.

  6. thebookcollective Says:

    You would love Clayton House, the Frick home in Pittsburgh – I’ve toured it twice. It’s frozen in time, feels like you’re in a time machine when you step inside.

  7. M.F.M. Says:

    I’ve always regretted that Alexander Berkman’s aim was so poor.

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