Posts Tagged ‘Frick Fifth Avenue’

Summoning the servants in the Frick mansion

April 29, 2019

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]