places

Russell Page Garden
The Frick Collection, New York City

Detail, 70th Street side garden at The Frick. Photograph by ET calls home.

Detail, 70th Street side garden at The Frick. Photo by ET calls home / Creative Commons.

”I like gardens with good bones and an affirmed underlying structure. I like well-made and well-marked paths, well-built walls, well-defined changes in level. I like pools and canals, paved sitting places and a good garden in which to picnic or take a nap.”—Russell Page, The Education of a Gardener (1983)

The garden created in 1977 by the eminent British landscape architect Russell Page (1906–1985) at the Frick Collection, an art museum on Manhattan’s East Side, contains no canals, paved sitting places, nor paths, but it does offer the affirmed underlying structure, a jewel of a pool, and, as it turns out, thousands of admirers from all over the world. Appreciators of the Frick Collection garden and buildings have organized Unite to Save the Frick, a campaign to protect the garden as well as the museum’s overall experience of human-scaled intimacy. Supporters include preservationists, Frick museum members, architects and landscape architects, artists, and experts in museum design, education, and administration from around the world.

Garden Lake window

Garden Lake window. Photo by Michael Bodycomb / Creative Commons.

Page’s design intent for this intimate space was the subject of “The Shaping of a Garden,” a 1977 article in House & Garden written by Page. “Imagine a small plot of ground behind high iron railings that enclose it from the street on the south. On the west side is the new Frick pavilion with a classical façade on the lines of a 17th-century orangery. Elaborate 18th-century-style stone walls 20 feet high complete the northern and eastern sides. Beyond are the rather sleazy backs of high buildings. The whole faces south, so there is light and air. . . .

“I first set a planter 60 feet long, 5 wide, and 4 ½ deep, on a steel framework behind the top of the north wall. Planted thickly with trees, this suggests a neighboring garden at a higher level. The buildings beyond cease to dominate.

Garden corner

Garden corner. Photo by Henk van der Eick.

“To give spaciousness, I decided to make it mainly lawn with low plantings concentrated in narrow beds at the foot of the north and east walls. Even this central lawn would not give me the sense of distance I thought was needed, so, set axially on the great central French windows of the new wing, I made a rectangular pool as large as I dared (it takes up a third of the lawn area). This pool with a narrow flat stone rim is dead level with the grass. Water between buildings helps to cheat on distance.  . . . At the Frick garden, a visitor looking from the street sees a narrow strip of water, which seems to make the back wall recede. Seen from inside the building, the rectangle becomes square—so already I have two quite different spatial compositions in a very small area.

“But we are still dealing with the bottom of a box, which, if unrelieved, would remain in a blaze of light with hard angular shadows from the surrounding constructions. Only trees would help. They would give broken light and shade, and the pattern of their branches in winter and their summer volume of foliage would modify the impact of the high neighboring buildings. Besides, the whole garden is 2 feet 6 inches above street level so one could look through the branches.

”So formal and symmetrical a setting would suggest straight lines, like pleached (clipped) lindens—historically correct but one would ‘read’ them at a glance. I needed to hold the spectator’s attention, to tempt the eye to explore and linger. . . .

“I decided to use trees of different forms and habits, placing them asymmetrically so that their trunks would give illusory depths to a very shallow garden. . . . [I]t’s a lot of trees for a small space, but they are set so that from the street and from inside the building the eye may wander under a canopy of leaves and flowers through the airy space defined by their trunks.” Page continues to describe his floral scheme for the garden beds, “for there must be flowers in one of the city’s rare gardens.”

In conclusion, Page offers up his overall intention for this garden: “If, as a garden designer, I were asked what I was aiming for in this small garden, I would answer ‘tranquility,’ because that is what I feel inside the Frick Collection, and that is the quality shown by the greatest gardens I have known.”

—Jane Roy Brown


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