Most New Yorkers, if they know the name at all,
recognize Mott Schmidt as a master of the urbane, Upper East Side townhouse.
Using motifs and planning principles from the pre Civil War and Victorian
townhouses he had remodeled, his knowledge of early American precedents, and
his successes on Sutton Place, Schmidt built half-a-dozen more townhouses
before the stock market crash of 1929. He was building during a time of intense
development and fertile experimentation with the townhouse type -- really the
final chapter in the history of the New York rowhouse. Buildings on the Upper
East Side by architects such as William Adams Delano, Charles Platt, William
Lawrence Bottomley, Whitney Warren, and Schmidt were based on a shared vision
of the city which subtly transformed the more or less uniform brownstone-lined
streets between 5th and 3rd Avenues to the patchwork of
historically inspired townhouses which exists today.
Schmidt's work must be placed in the context of academic-eclectic house design in New York dating from the mid-1890s, when such firms as McKim, Mead and White introduced the "Georgian" or Colonial Revival townhouse into the canon as a tonic to the "Modern French" or Beaux Arts house. Their H. A. C. Taylor house at 3 East 71st Street (1894), James J. Goodwin house at 9-11 West 54th Street (1896-98) and Charles Dana Gibson house at 127 East 73rd Street (1902-03) established the red brick, white trimmed vocabulary which became recognized as a modern descendent of both English and American eighteenth-century townhouses. Georgian was at this time used as a very loose, generic term to denote nearly any Early American architecture influenced by English precedents. As documentary sources of early American architecture became readily available to architects, and a historical perspective was created, a greater sophistication was achieved in the use of indigenous sources. Working in the 1920s, Schmidt clearly benefited from the experiments of his predecessors.
More important than McKim, Mead and White in the development of the Georgian city house was the successful office of William Adams Delano (1874-1960) and Chester Holmes Aldrich (1871-1940). Delano, whose boyhood home had been in the famous Washington Square Row, extended the definition of Georgian to include the red brick Federal and Greek revival styles of the early Republic, which he established as fresh models for smart new townhouses on the East Side. In the years just prior to the First World War, Delano and Aldrich introduced the streamlined, abstract approach to the Georgian house which was characteristic of Schmidt's early works.
Delano and Aldrich began their series of New York houses with works such as the J. Marshall Dodge house (37 East 68th Street), Howard Gardner Cushing house (121 East 70th Street) and Allen Wardwell house (127 East 80th Street) -- all finished before 1915. Recognizing that the planar qualities of a red brick facade could be played off against a small number of decorative and plastic elements in stone or wood, Delano found a classic formula for his facade compositions.
Like Delano, Schmidt seized upon the generic principles of the Georgian townhouse as a prototype subject to almost endless variation. He would come to know Delano's work rather well, in particular the Wardwell house, across from which he built his Dillon and Astor houses in the mid-1920s. Schmidt's townhouses come from the same source as Delano's, but Schmidt looked more closely at the vernacular aspects of the rowhouse. His designs also emphasized the abstract, proportional rigor of the type. Whereas Delano's work tended toward grand effects, Schmidt always strove for modesty and straightforwardness.