Thursday, November 13, 2014

Homestead on Fifth Avenue

The Henry Clay Frick of the
Homestead strike is well em-
bodied in his legacy gallery's
scheme to deprive the people
of New York of the meaning and
the ornament of their public
right of landmarks designation.

I cannot be alone in knowing
no New Yorker who hesitates an
instant to name the residence
on Fifth at 70th as his most
cherished and uplifting secular
escape from the street, any
street in town. As everyone
now knows, the plan is to dwarf
and engulf that elegant pavil-
ion in the shadows and hovering
mass of a gross and patently
unresidential warehouse by ab-
sorption from the east.

The excuses, as much as the act,
fill a man with nausea. They all
boil down to the Frick's congen-
ital incapacity to control itself 
as a vortex of acquisition, which
is only to say of pre-emption of
things no one can assert that it
needs. Incontinent degeneracy of
this compulsive kind is usually
endured by the lower orders as a
normal price of protection from
attack, not as a droit de seig-
neur to diminish the commonwealth 
from within.

The landmarks designation needs
to be perceived as the Magna Carta
that it is, of an inviolable public
interest in the protections it con-
fers, including subsidies both di-
rect and indirect, amounting to vir-
tual warranties against hard times.
That the people of New York were
willing to cede this status to this
monster's real property only under-
scored the supremacy of their pre-
science over that of spendthrifts
at its helm. With every passing
building permit, their protection
of this house glows ever more chas-
teningly upon the mauve mistreat-
ments of their urban space.

There's much more to be said,
line by line of blunt rebuttal
of this foundation's faux confes-
sions of public spirit - never
making a showing of the need for
contiguous space for its extra-
vaganza exhibitions, its urgent
educational purposes, its coy
profferings of glimpses of the
the bestial boudoir, its arch
compassion for the pedestrian
idiot, who would no more find
the pretty corner he once en-
tered to swing in Fragonard
tremble to Holbein's More,  
distract Vermeer's young girl, 
simply kiss a new companion
in that warm, bucolic atrium,
or maybe treasure shelter in
Piccirilli's pediment. 

If this ill-gotten sanctuary is 
not the place to draw a line for
playing fair, there can't be one.
Ingenious defenses of the garden
miss the point, and seizing on a
promise to preserve it is only
vulnerable to equitable relief.
The landmarks designation, how-
ever, is an act of homestead. It
doesn't have a price.

Johannes Vermeer

William Serrin
  The Glory and Tragedy
  of an American Steel Town
Times Books
Random House, 1992©

E.P. Thompson
Customs in Common
  Studies in Traditional
  Popular Culture
op. cit.

Denys Sutton
The Frick Collection
  Kenneth Clark, John Pope-Hennessy,
  Alan Burnham, Terence Hodgkinson,
  Edgar Munhall, Graham Reynolds,
  Philippe Verdier, et al.
May, 1971
Apollo Magazine, Ltd., 1971©

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