City Breaks, Educational Adventures, Featured, Museums, Uncategorized

The Downton Abbey of Pittsburgh: The Frick and Clayton


If you, like me, love all things historic; if you, like me, are obsessed with the BBC series Downton Abbey and if you, like me, live within driving distance of Pittsburgh, you simply must visit The Frick Art and Historical Center and the Clayton House.  In fact, if only one of those things applies to you, you should still visit; Pittsburgh is a city worth flying to and the Frick and Clayton are a must-do when you are in town.

The Frick Center is on the grounds of the Clayton House, the former residence of the industrialist Henry Clay Frick and his family.  They lived here from the early 1880s through the first years of the twentieth century.  Because it remained in the family even after they relocated to New York City, it is perhaps one of the best-preserved examples of Victorian life that remains in the United States.


Upon arriving at the historical center, you’ll likely enter the Frick Gallery first.  This is a good idea, mainly to speak with the extremely helpful woman at the welcoming podium.  I met with a woman named Mary who kindly arranged for a tour of the Clayton House.  I strongly suggest starting out your visit with the house tour, and then returning to explore the museum (and the rest of the grounds) after you’ve been given the proper perspective.  To find your way to the tour, make a left u-turn out of the art museum building, go through the gates, and follow the path to the cottage where the tour begins.

I visited during the holidays, when the grounds were snowy but festive.

I visited during the holidays, when the grounds were snowy but festive.

The Clayton House–and the tour offered there–was a highlight of my entire visit to Pittsburgh.  The amount of information offered was staggering–I took notes the entire time (but, sadly, no photos, as photography is not allowed inside any of the buildings).  What I found most fascinating about the house was that almost everything in it, from the largest work of art to the smallest salt well, was original.  The tour guide wore white gloves, and the only thing we were allowed to touch was the stair railing.

The tour was designed to provide insight on Victorian life in America from a number of perspectives.  You enter as a visitor might, and learn the courtesies and peculiarities of Victorian customs.  And then you move on to learn about the lifestyle of all of the people who called The Clayton House home.

Which brings me to my Downton Abbey tie-in.  You see, I didn’t start watching the show until after my visit to the Clayton House.  But I’ve since been sucked in to the British drama, and I can’t help but think of my recent visit several times per episode.  You see, the tour is rich with information on daily life at the turn of the century–and you are given the perspective of both the upper-class family who lived there as well as a bit on the lives and work of the servants (without whom a house such as this could not have functioned).  You’ll learn about the strict wardrobe customs of upper-class Victorian era families (men had to wear coats and ties at all times and women changed clothing four to five times per day), explore the dining room set for a large dinner party (which appears to have been set by Mr. Carson and his ruler), and tour the kitchen where the cook staff prepared elaborate meals.  There’s even a bell board similar to (but much smaller than) the one used to call the servants in Downton Abbey.

If you are a fan of the show, you just heard the tinkling of the bell in the opening sequence in your head.  Admit it.  You know you did.

The Car and Carriage Museum is housed--appropriately--in the old garage.  It's prettier than it sounds.

The Car and Carriage Museum is housed–appropriately–in the old garage. It’s prettier than it sounds.

And speaking of servants (Downton Abbey spoiler alert), if you liked the love story plot line of Sybil and the chauffeur, you can relive the romance in the Car and Carriage Museum also located on the grounds.  I’m not a car person, but I am a history person (and a huge nerd) so I found the Car and Carriage Museum intriguing.  And I think about it every time Sybil sneaks out to the garage for a stolen moment with Tom (end spoiler).

In short, if you love Downton Abbey, you’ll love the Frick and Clayton.  And conversely, if you loved the Frick and Clayton, you should probably start watching Downton Abbey.

The greenhouse on the grounds of the Frick Art and Historical Center.

The greenhouse on the grounds of the Frick Art and Historical Center.

Of course, The Frick and Clayton have something to offer almost any history nerd, whether they are a fan of the show or not.  Aside from the art museum, the car and carriage museum and the house tour, there’s also a little cafe on property, which requires reservations–and you should make them, as the place was packed even on a snowy Sunday morning.  And you can check out the stunning greenhouse building and, next door, the gift shop located in the cottage.  Plan for at least half of a day here–more if you want to spend some time in the lovely park across the street.

The Frick Art and Historical Center is located in Pittsburgh’s East End; for directions, see their website.  Admission to the museums and grounds is free of charge; a small $12 donation is required for the house tour.  There are often additional exhibits on display at the Frick; when I visited, not only was it decorated for the holidays, it was also showcasing artifacts from the World’s Fair, in conjunction with the exhibit of the same theme at the Carnegie Museum.  



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