Industrialist and art patron, Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), was born in West Overton, Pennsylvania, a rural village settled by Mennonites about 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Pa. His grandfather, Abraham Overholt, owner of the Overholt farm and distillery, was a respected figure in his small village. Frick’s future economic gains would be tied in-part to the location of his family’s homestead. The Overholt farm was situated in the middle of the Pittsburgh Coal seam in the coal rich Connellsville region of Fayette County, Pa. At the age of 21, Frick realized the potential of the local bituminous coal and borrowed money to form a partnership, Frick & Company, a coal and coke-producing firm. The newly-formed business used beehive ovens and blast furnaces to turn coal into coke, a fuel product that was in great demand by the growing steel industry in Pittsburgh. This was a highly successful venture and Frick soon controlled eighty percent of the coke output of Pennsylvania. During a financial panic in 1873, Frick seized the opportunity to buy out competitors, ally himself with the powerful Andrew Carnegie, and ensured a steady business by supplying his many steel companies. By 1879 at the age of thirty, Frick had made himself a millionaire.
Eventually, Carnegie brought Frick into Carnegie Brothers & Company, making him chairman. This created a reciprocal partnership: Carnegie supplied Frick with regular business and Frick provided a consistent supply of coke for Carnegie’s mills. As Chairman, Frick quickly reorganized all of Carnegie’s industrial firms and created the world's largest coke and steel company under the name Carnegie Steel Company. Although business was booming, tension began to grow between the two industrialists and came to a breaking point with the labor strike at the Homestead Works, part of Carnegie Steel Company. Although it was always Carnegie's intention to eliminate the unions in his mills, despite his union friendly persona, it was Henry Clay Frick who took the first action against the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers union. Although Carnegie fully supported Frick’s decision and manner in which to break the strike, he quickly distanced himself from the now infamous and violent altercation that occurred at the Homestead mill in 1892. Frick was criticized for causing the death and carnage that arose from the strike which directly lead to an assassination attempt on his life by Alexander Berkman and Berkman’s companion, Emma Goldman. Frick survived the attack, making a full-recovery, but as the years went-on, he continued to have countless disputes with Carnegie which eventually resulted in Frick's resignation in 1899. Despite his resignation, Frick remained an active board member and continued to make decisions for the Carnegie Steel Company even assisting in the planning that eventually led to the formation of the United States Steel Corporation in late 1899.
In the early 1900s, Frick expanded his interests and built a large coke and steel plant in Clairton, Pa., called St. Clair Steel Company, while simultaneously investing in mining firms in West Virginia, Colorado, Wyoming, and in central Peru. Frick also made several major real estate investments in downtown Pittsburgh, financing building projects which included the Frick Building, Frick Annex, William Penn Hotel, and Union Arcade. During these pursuits, the Frick family experienced major personal tragedy with the death of his second daughter, Martha, and youngest son, Henry Clay, Jr., within a year of each other in late 1892. By 1905, Frick’s business and social interests had shifted from Pittsburgh to New York City. Frick moved his family including wife Adelaide and two other children, Childs and Helen Clay, to New York, where they spent the first ten years living in a Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue. Frick constructed his New York City mansion between 1913 and 1914, located at Seventieth Street and Fifth Avenue where he lived until his death in 1919. Frick left a fortune of nearly $50,000,000 with more than eighty percent of the amount being donated to charitable organizations.
In Frick’s later life, he made many charitable contributions to both New York City and Pittsburgh. Frick and his daughter, Helen Clay, were avid patrons of the arts and over the years amassed a famed collection of early-Renaissance and eighteenth-century French paintings and furniture, as well as some nineteenth and twentieth century English pieces. The main portion of the Frick art collection is housed at The Frick Collection in his former New York mansion, converted into a museum since 1935. However, a small portion of his art collection is on display at the Frick Art & Historical Center at Clayton, Frick’s Pittsburgh estate, also turned into a museum in late 1990.
Frick was a strong believer in the arts and education, so much so that he commissioned a fund to supplement educational opportunities for public school teachers in Pittsburgh. The fund was made permanent in 1916, and known as the Henry Clay Frick Educational Commission. In addition Frick would also provide many individual grants for special training to prospective teachers. The special grants were combined with the commission and eventually became known as the Henry Clay Frick Training School for Teachers.
After her father’s death, Helen continued his stated civic mission of “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts and of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects,” and developed the University of Pittsburgh’s Henry Clay Frick Fine Arts Department in 1928. Later in 1965, she funded the Frick Fine Arts Building to house the department of fine arts and Frick Fine Arts Library, as well as the University of Pittsburgh teaching collection. Prior to that in November 1921, with aid from the Mellon family and the Frick Trust, the University of Pittsburgh acquired a 14 acre plot of land known as “Frick Acres” in the Oakland district of Pittsburgh for the site of the Cathedral of Learning, the tallest educational building erected in the United States. Helen’s other charitable contributions included the creation of a vacation home for young female textile workers at Eagle Rock, Frick’s vacation home in Pride's Crossing, Massachusetts; Frick Park in Pittsburgh; and transformation of Henry’s childhood home into a museum known as West Overton Village, a pre-American Civil War historic Mennonite village.
In 2001, the Helen Clay Frick Foundation Archives was entrusted to the
Frick Art Reference Library in New York City and the University of Pittsburgh's
Archive Service Center. The Helen Clay Frick Foundation divided the collection and placed the personal papers and photographs of the Frick family on deposit at
The Frick Collection in New York City and deposited Henry Clay’s business records at the University of Pittsburgh. The archives were originally established in an effort to preserve, organize, and make accessible the records of Henry Clay Frick, his businesses, and family.