At The Frick Pittsburgh, people can learn about European and Renaissance art, spend an hour touring the mansion of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, see antique cars and carriages, walk through a thriving greenhouse, dine at a cafe or shop for books, cards and gifts. But first-time visitors often couldn‘t decide which to do first.
“They’d walk into the courtyard and not quite understand where to go,” said Jonathan Traficonte, an architect from Schwartz/Silver of Boston.
Those decisions should become easier when a new orientation center opens this weekend at the 5.5-acre compound in Point Breeze. The 3,000-square foot building is just beyond the parking lot and through a set of wrought-iron gates. Trimmed in golden Pennsylvania sandstone, it has so much glass that you still feel as if you are outside even though you are indoors. Mr. Traficonte, who worked closely with the local architectural firm of Loysen + Kreuthmeier on the project, will be at the orientation center with Karen Loysen to answer questions this weekend. Also this weekend there will be free tours of Clayton, the Frick family‘s mansion.
A skylight creates the building’s spine and divides the structure into two parts. The roofline varies in height from 12 to 18 feet, creating the effect of an arbor. The first thing visitors see is the L-shaped admissions desk. To the left is the learning lounge, which has sofas and chairs with seating for 15-20 people and built-in shelves filled with books. A large glass wall allows natural light into the space while providing a clear view of the nearby car and carriage museum and a new grassy courtyard.
Above the admissions desk are three 55-inch digital screens displaying information about daily events, tours and levels of membership. A large, double-sided site map with a touch screen shows visitors what each building offers. Touch the building and a red line pops up and shows the path to take. One side of this touch screen is accessible to people with disabilities. Traditionalists can still get a paper map of the campus.
The learning lounge is interactive, too. Large touch screens are designed to whet visitors‘ interest in the Gilded Age, members of the Frick family, the people who worked for them, their neighbors and the key role steel played in Pittsburgh’s growth. While waiting for your tour to start, you can learn how Henry Clay Frick became the king of coal and coke or about the Homestead steel strike of 1892, the work of artist Jean Francois Millet or the history of the Stanley Motor Carriage Co.
In this lounge, visitors also can get a preview of The Frick‘s collections. Touching the collection view screen brings up 114 high-resolution images of artwork, clothes, cars and other personal effects that made up the Fricks’ daily lives. Curator Sarah Hall said families will be able to stand around the large screens while delving into this electronic scrapbook. They will be able to pass the images back and forth, a function that the designers hope will make this a social experience as well as an educational one.
“It‘s mostly about the pleasure of looking,” Ms. Hall said.
The electronic scrapbook features a variety of categories, including “Kids‘ Picks,” that allow the staff to highlight objects not always on view and show more quotidian examples of daily life such as tarot cards, the Fricks‘ toothbrush holders and a Minton’s wash set that was used in the kitchen. A bank of four I-pads loaded with relevant information will be available, too.
Belle & Wissell, a Seattle-based firm that designed the programs for the electronic touch screens, looked carefully at the materials and textures of Clayton and examined typefaces, colors and building materials so that the interactive content is visually consistent.
“We didn’t want it to be fussy. We wanted it to be fresh, new and contemporary,” said art director Thomas Ryun.
The building‘s other 1,500 square feet hold a museum store with 15 free-standing displays, including activity kits for children and jewelry made by local artists. This space includes a sun-washed book nook with chairs for people to sit and read. Readers will have a good view of the cafe and Haller House, a stone Arts & Crafts-style structure used as administrative offices.
The new visitors center is a “green” building and on target to be certified as LEED silver. The structure uses highly transparent walls made of low-iron glass, which does not have the greenish cast that sometimes clouds views. Cherrywood slats in the ceiling, known as a brise soleil, shade the building, keep it cool and reduce glare. The tile floor, laid in a herringbone pattern, echoes the hardwood floors at Clayton. Marble tiles on the restroom walls were laid in a pattern similar to bathrooms at Clayton.
The new building is part of a $15 million campaign to improve visitors‘ experience. Earlier this summer, cars and carriages were removed from the two-story white brick building where they are exhibited so that structure could be renovated and expanded on the Homewood Avenue side. The car and carriage museum’s second floor will become offices for the education staff and also hold two classrooms. The ground floor will have 3,000 square feet of climate-controlled storage for collections. When the car and carriage museum reopens, vehicles will be displayed in a circular gallery. A new elevator will make moving them easier.
A new community center will be erected beside the car and carriage museum. This structure will offer 1,000 square feet of gathering space and a 700-square-foot catering kitchen. Visitors arriving in groups can sit and eat box lunches here. The space also will be available for rental for corporate meetings, birthday celebrations and cocktail parties. Three doors will open onto a new lawn. A covered porch that will be added to the back of the car and carriage museum also will be available for rentals.