Henry Clay Frick, a contemporary of the financial titans Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan, was an impressive figure in his own right. His initial successes as a coke manufacturer enabled him to play a major role in the formation of the steel industry, earning him a seat at Andrew Carnegie’s side during the construction boom of the Gilded Age. At his death in 1919, his fortune was valued at over $145 million and included several grand homes and an extensive art collection, which he eventually donated to the public along with a host of other items.
The grandson of a whiskey distiller, Henry Frick was not a child of privilege or success. His father was a poor business man, and Frick himself dropped out of college after only a year. Despite his less-than ideal beginnings, he set out to become an entrepreneur—determined to become a millionaire by the age of 30.
With a few friends, he built a beehive oven and used it to turn coal into coke, an essential ingredient in steel manufacturing. The company quickly grew, and in less than 10 years, H. C. Frick & Company was responsible for 80 percent of Pennsylvania’s coal output. His achievements propelled him into partnership with steel magnate Andrew Carnegie (who nicknamed him “The Man”) and established Frick’s reputation for frank, ruthless decision making.
His decisions led to some disturbing incidents, including an assassination attempt, a missed trip on the ill-fated Titanic, and public outrage over many of his business dealings. Despite his many failings, though, he proved to be a generous benefactor.
In his will, Frick donated 150 acres of land to establish Frick Park, which is now the largest public park in Pittsburgh. He also earmarked an additional $2 million trust fund to assist in the development and upkeep of the park. Because of this legacy, this unspoiled piece of nature now encompasses 600 acres and is home to an environmental center, nature trails, and an innovative water catchment system that offers respite to the city’s residents—both human and animal. Frick’s son, Childs Frick, who went on to become a renowned paleontologist, is said to have developed his love of nature and animals in the wilds of the park’s grounds.
The Frick Collection
One of Frick’s earliest passions was art collecting. As with his other goals, he was wildly successful in this endeavor and began collecting art in earnest as soon as he could afford to do so. He even built his home (The Frick Mansion) with the intention of using it as a backdrop to display his collection, a purpose it fulfills to this day. After his death, the Frick Collection remained private until the death of his wife in 1931. The museum has added to its extensive holdings over time, but an impressive two-thirds of its artwork was accumulated by its benefactor.
Deeply interested in education, Frick stipulated in his will that $15 million of his estate be left to various educational facilities. Among the lucky recipients of his philanthropy were the Educational Commission of Pittsburgh, MIT, and Harvard. His interests in promoting education are often attributed to his own failings in this regard. Although he never finished his degree, he still wanted his own children and grandchildren to have the benefits of a higher education.
In addition to his interests in art and education, Frick supported the development of medical centers in multiple locations. He left a large donation to Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh in appreciation for its efforts in saving his life many years earlier. Additional beneficiaries of his wealth were hospitals in the Pennsylvania towns where he established coke facilities, including Connellsville, Mount Pleasant, Braddock and others.
Routinely publicly disparaged, Frick gravitated toward a lifestyle that was reserved and private, unlike many of those with whom he associated. “The Man,” despite the nefarious label often applied to his business practices, was in fact unashamedly generous with his riches, donating over 80 percent of his considerable wealth to public endeavors. Because of this, his name remains a testimony to the value of hard work and determination.