Clayton Estate / Nassau County Museum of Art
Picture this: a three-story Georgian mansion, lush gardens, tennis courts, polo field, swimming pool, ski slope equipped with its own snowmaking machine, monkey house, aviary and bear pit.
The historic 145-acre estate of Childs and Frances Frick once rivaled that of Jay Gatsby. Today, the history lives on through the Nassau County Museum of Art, which is housed in this Gold Coast mansion in Roslyn.
Unlike many other Gold Coast mansions, which were primarily summer homes for wealthy families, the Fricks’ was a real family home for the couple and their four children. In 1900, Lloyd Stephens Bryce commissioned architect Ogden Codman, Jr., to construct the house that is today Nassau County’s art museum. Bryce sold the mansion 19 years later to Henry Clay Frick, cofounder of U.S. Steel Corporation, who bought it for his son Childs Frick. As proprietors, Childs Frick, an avid horticulturist and paleontologist, and his wife, Frances, passionate about gardening, transformed the estate into a vibrant, dynamic home.
On a recent visit to the museum, former Arizona Governor Fife Symington, grandson
of Childs and Frances, reminisced about childhood visits to his grandparents’ home decades ago. Symington’s memories include otters running up the spiral staircase then swimming in the bathtubs, and snakes falling down from the ceiling’s molding.
“So many Gold Coast mansions have been repurposed, but in a way that gives you not a hint of what it used to look like,” the museum’s Public Relations Manager Doris Meadows says. However, at the Nassau County Museum of Art, visitors can have an idea of what it was like to live at that time in a Gold Coast mansion, she says. Back then, the family cared about every detail, even down to their water tower, which was built inside a stately structure made to blend in with the rest of the estate’s style.
“The Nassau County Museum of Art is dedicated to fostering a deeper understanding of art and culture through exhibition and education programs for people of all ages and backgrounds.”
After Childs Frick’s death in 1965, Nassau County bought the estate, transforming the mansion into an art museum in 1969. However, the next two decades showed only minor developments, until 1989 when the museum became a public-private collaboration; the property continued to be publicly owned, while the museum’s maintenance, exhibitions and programs fell under the responsibility of a private board.
Now, the museum allows visitors to take a step back from their everyday lives and travel in time to what life might have been like for the Frick family in the 1920s. The museum offers house and sculpture garden tours, led by a guide well-versed in the history of the estate, and has introduced the Life in a Gold Coast Mansion series. One program in this series transported children to a time before radio, television and mass-produced toys
and showed them how the Frick children entertained themselves in the house and on the grounds.
“You just have to look past the false walls and added lighting to see that it was a family home,” Meadows says as she gazes up at the ceiling’s detailed handiwork of carved lion and ram heads. Walking over to the French doors, Meadows peered out at the green lawn that, a century ago, was the Frick family’s backyard. In the early 2000s, the estate’s formal gardens were restored to replicate the original landscape of the 1920s, making a walk through the grounds even more like a walk through the Frick family’s world.
The art museum produces about four exhibitions each year. Maxfield Parrish’s work was on display through the end of February, but the March 19 to July 10 exhibition on Kenny Scharf focuses on the East Village artist’s graffiti style and large-scale paintings and installations.
(For more about Kenny Scharf, see Dreaming In Cosmic Color.)
The museum also maintains a sculpture garden, so that both visitors and community members can walk through the gardens, appreciating nature and large sculptures. Museum programs include exhibition, mansion and family tours, Sunday family programs and collaboration with local schools.
In addition, the museum partners with the Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center to provide art workshops for people suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Having these people make art and express themselves visually allows them to not think about their disease, museum Director of Education Laura Lynch says. The emotional memory of colors and art stays with people who have Alzheimer’s even after other forms of memory have been lost, Lynch explains.
“The Nassau County Museum of Art is dedicated to fostering a deeper understanding of art and culture through exhibition and education programs for people of all ages and backgrounds,” according to its mission statement. “In practice, the museum pursues the mission by enhancing its permanent collections, sculpture park, historic property and natural setting.”
Rather than commuting all the way into Manhattan to visit a museum of which they would only see a fraction, Merrick residents Susan and Stanley Bloomfield prefer the proximity and focused exhibits of the Nassau County Museum of Art. The two, who are museum members, visit every exhibition, even returning to the same one they’ve already seen if they enjoy it enough. However, the museum’s artwork is not the only aspect that attracts the Bloomfields.
“It’s the building. It represents a style of living that no longer exists on Long Island or anywhere else,” Susan Bloomfield says. “And they’ve kept all the details!”
The Nassau County Museum of Art and its visitors appreciate the history of the estate and value this Gold Coast mansion as a piece of artwork in itself.
The Nassau County Museum of Art is located at One Museum Drive in Roslyn. For more information, visit www.nassaumuseum.org or call 516-484-9338.