Frick Park Part 1: The beautiful benefactress. September 29, 2009Posted by krbradford in Other sights.
Part 1 in a series about Frick Park, past and present
I don’t know why history textbooks don’t talk more about the Frick family and their role in American history. The names Andrew Mellon and Andrew Carnegie, who also called Pittsburgh home around the turn of the 20th century, are covered in almost every history of American big business, but the Frick family often is not, despite their important role. Henry Clay Frick, the patron of this important family, was involved in coke (a fuel produced from coal) and steel production. Pittsburgh being the US hub of coal and steel output at that time, Frick and his family settled on Millionaire’s Row in Pittsburgh (present-day Penn Avenue in Point Breeze). H.C. Frick married Adelaide Childs, and together they had four children: Childs, Martha, Helen, and H.C. Jr. Martha died as a young girl, and Childs and H.C. Jr. went on to lead relatively normal lives. Helen, who is represented in the painting above, lived an extraordinary life as a single woman, philanthropist, and eventual Pittsburgh hero.
After the Frick family had firmly established its fortune, they relocated to New York City. By this time, Helen was 17 and firmly rooted in Pittsburgh. She would come back to Pittsburgh for her society debut, always maintained a permanent address in Pittsburgh, and came back to Pittsburgh for the last four years of her life. She loved Pittsburgh and never stopped considering it her home.
It was no secret that Helen was her father’s favorite, and when he died in 1919 when she was 31, Helen inherited $38 million, making her the richest single woman in the US. Helen, who was beautiful but well-known for having a feisty temperament, chose to remain unmarried. Instead, she became Western Pennsylvania’s leading benefactress. She was passionate about art and an avid collector of artwork, so she established the University of Pittsburgh Fine Arts Department, two art history libraries, and acquired numerous major works of art which now comprise the Frick Collection in New York and the Frick Art Museum in Pittsburgh. Her other contributions include: a vacation home for young female textile workers, two wildlife preserves, a public wilderness park in Pittsburgh called Frick Park, and Clayton, the Frick family home in Pittsburgh which now serves as a Victorian-era house museum (which I just toured today…details forthcoming). If you follow my blog, you’ll also be interested to learn that she was instrumental in the donation of land for the Cathedral of Learning.
Pittsburghers love Helen Clay Frick, and it’s not hard to see why. Given the choice between Pittsburgh and glamorous New York City, she always clearly preferred Pittsburgh. She donated much of her time, money, and influence to better the city, and nowadays when people visit Frick Park, the second-largest urban park in America, to escape to the dense green wildness and tree-lined pathways, they can thank Helen.
Helen died in 1984 at the age of 96. At the time of her death, she donated nearly all of her property to posterity, including her family’s Pittsburgh home and furnishings, as well as a priceless art collection. After a multi-million dollar renovation and years of hard work, Clayton has been restored to its original splendor and can be enjoyed by the public. I went on the tour today and look forward to sharing my experience with you in tomorrow’s post. After that, you can look forward to sharing some of my Frick Park experiences.