at home with: Henry Clay Frick
Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick was a complex man. His actions in the Homestead Strike of 1892 led to one of the darkest points in the history of U.S. labor relations, but at the same time, he was a dedicated family man who made significant charitable contributions to the region.
As Samuel Schreiner notes in his book, Henry Clay Frick: The Gospel of Greed, Frick once donated $170,000 of his own money to replace the savings of hundreds of Pittsburgh children that had been lost in the failure of the Pittsburgh Bank for Savings.
“He was sort of a quiet philanthropist,” says Amanda Gillen, assistant curator of education and collections at Clayton for the Frick Art and Historical Center, located in Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze neighborhood. “I think those kinds of stories surprise people who know him more from the Homestead Strike.”
A hard-nosed businessman who vowed to become a millionaire by age 30, Frick gained his wealth by building his own empire based on coke, a raw material necessary for steel manufacturing. After selling that venture to steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, the Westmoreland County native rose to the role of chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company. Frick represented the company in the 1892 contract negotiations with the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, which represented laborers at Carnegie’s Homestead mill. Their existing contract was set to expire June 30 of that year.
Carnegie, who was away on a Scottish holiday at the time, had instructed his second-in-command to take a tough stance against the union. After the negotiations collapsed and workers went on strike, Frick was determined to keep the mill operating at all costs. So, he hired non-union workers and retained the services of Pinkerton security guards to protect them as they entered the mill. That decision resulted in the bloody Battle of Homestead on July 6, in which three Pinkertons and between six and ten strikers were killed.
Just weeks after the strike, Frick himself would have a near-death experience as the target of an assassination attempt by a Russian-born anarchist, Alexander Berkman.
Frick faced personal challenges in the early 1890s, as well. He lost his young daughter Martha to illness in 1891. His son Henry Jr., born two days after the Homestead incident, would die in his infancy the following year, as Frick’s wife, Adelaide, was still recovering physically from the boy’s birth.
Much of what is known about Frick and his family comes from his business and personal correspondence and the writings of his daughter, Helen, in addition to contemporary records of the time, such as newspaper reports. Frick’s mansion, Clayton, also offers a glimpse into his life, as well as that of his family. From receipts of household purchases to the extensive collection of photographs taken by Louis Stephany at the beginning of the 20th century, Clayton tells the story of an American upper-class family thriving in the riches of the Gilded Age. “That’s just a huge wealth of information,” Gillen says.
Frick married the former Adelaide Childs in 1881, and the couple moved to Clayton a year-and-a-half later, shortly before their first son, Childs, was born. Located in the Point Breeze neighborhood of the city, Clayton was far enough from the pollution of Pittsburgh but easily accessible so that Frick could get to work easily. The Fricks lived in the home until 1905, when they relocated to New York.
The home was surrounded by the highest class of neighbors. Frick’s good friend Andrew Mellon lived nearby, as did fellow industrialist George Westinghouse and food innovator H.J. Heinz.
Clayton, a two-story, 11-room Italianate-style home, was relatively modest in comparison to its counterparts on Millionaires Row. However, after the birth of two daughters, the family found it was outgrowing its space. Furthermore, the home did not accurately reflect the higher status that Frick had attained professionally.
In 1891, the Fricks decided that a renovation was in order for Clayton. They selected architect Frederick Osterling, a Dravosburg native, for the task, and he added two stories to the home and more than doubled the number of rooms to 23. Inspired by European buildings with extravagant ornamentation, Osterling proposed a French Renaissance chateau-style mansion.
In fact, Osterling actually intended to make Clayton even bigger, but the Fricks asked him to scale back. “It definitely wasn’t as big as it could have been,” Gillen says. “It wasn’t as large as the other Pittsburgh mansions at the time.” That restraint was characteristic of the Fricks’ philosophy of showcasing their wealth in a tasteful way. “We tend to talk about them as being conservative in terms of display,” says Gillen. “They weren’t particularly flashy.”
That isn’t to say, however, that the Fricks did not allow for extravagances, such as hand-painted, hand-stenciled wall coverings and a separate two-story playhouse structure that was home to a bowling alley. Clayton also featured a whopping seven bathrooms at a time when most of the workers in Carnegie’s mills were still relegated to outdoor facilities.
The home incorporated the latest technological advances of its era as well. Thanks in part to Frick’s friendship with his neighbor Westinghouse, Clayton was wired for electricity before the White House was. A telephone was installed in Clayton in 1883, and the renovation featured a unique wall treatment composed of aluminum, a Pittsburgh breakthrough. Frick also bought his first car – a Mercedes – in 1898. “Back then, Clayton was really cutting edge,” Gillen says.
Clayton provided the setting for many social events, such as dinners and parties, hosted by the Fricks, including a 1902 luncheon for President Teddy Roosevelt. The eight-course affair was attended by an a total of 21 men, and the domestic staff also had to cater to the needs of the Sheridan Troop, a 55-man military unit from the Spanish-American War that was chosen to guard Roosevelt during his trip to Pittsburgh. The staff spent a full month preparing for the event.
The domestic staff was essential in Clayton’s daily operations. The live-in staff consisted of a nurse, Adelaide’s lady’s maid, Helen’s governess, other maids, a chauffeur, and baby nurses, when they were needed. Personnel who lived off-site included the chef, the coachman, Frick’s butler, stablemen, gardeners, and a laundress. That group of employees was responsible for tasks ranging from meal preparation to maintenance of the carriages and horses.
Their efforts underscore the fact that Clayton was, first and foremost, a home. “Clayton is a great domestic space,” Gillen says.
The rooms used for more informal purposes demonstrate the importance of family to Frick. The breakfast room furniture, for example, included a high chair, emphasizing the role of children in the home. Numerous family photos were on display in Frick’s and Adelaide’s bedrooms, which were separate—a common occurrence among upper-class families in the era.
That welcoming setting is part of what Helen Clay Frick found so appealing about her family’s home. She once wrote in her journal: “If all the children had such a pretty room as mine, there would not be any of them sad or unhappy.”
Helen’s affinity for her childhood home would endure throughout her life. Although the family moved to New York in 1905, Helen chose to have her 1908 debutante party at Clayton. “She enjoyed Clayton, her social life, and all the things that would make any girl fond of her childhood home,” says Greg Langel, the Frick’s media and marketing manager.
After her father’s death, Helen paid for the home’s upkeep, including staff salaries and utilities. She returned to live at Clayton full-time in 1981 until her death three years later.
Helen Frick’s ultimate display of affection for her hometown came in the form of the endowment that financed Clayton’s $5.8 million restoration in 1986, following her death. That gift allows modern-day Pittsburghers to continue to enjoy the Frick Art and Historical Center, which, in addition to Clayton, includes the Frick greenhouse and the Car and Carriage Museum that houses a number of antique vehicles, including a Model-T Ford. The playhouse was converted into The Frick’s visitor center. The property is also home to the Frick Art Museum, which Helen established in 1970 to house her personal art collection.
Today, Clayton looks nearly the same as it did during Helen’s childhood, and much of the furniture, decorations and household items are from the family’s collection. “Over 90 percent of what you see in the house now is original to Clayton,” Gillen says.
Clayton’s authenticity is an important part of its educational purpose, according to Gillen. “It’s one thing to read this kind of Gilded Age-era history of Pittsburgh, but we can physically show people things. I think that’s really valuable,” she explains. The Frick is home to a variety of events and special collections. “We’re trying to branch out and talk about more than just Frick,” says Gillen.
A collection of works by artists employed by the New Deal’s Public Works of Art program is the current exhibit at the Frick Art Museum, and an exhibit called “Small But Sublime: Intimate Views by Durand, Bierstadt and Inness” will run from May 15 until August 25. The First Fridays at the Frick concert series is held each summer, and a variety of educational tours covering topics from domestic servants to Victorian courtship rituals are also available.