Mott Schmidt Biography

Townhouses and Apartments
by Mark Alan Hewitt

Schmidt's success in the twenties brought in several commis­sions for urban multi-family housing. The same forces which shaped his townhouse designs can be seen in the three large apartment buildings he completed between 1924 and 1937. Again, these follow­ed models created by McKim, Mead & White (Figure 16) and Charles Platt, and apartment houses developed by specialists such as J. E. R. Carpenter during the 1920s. Schmidt's first essay in this building type is at 53 East 66th Street (1924-25) (Figure 17). It is easy to imagine him conceiving of this nine-story, Georgian apartment house as if it were simply a large townhouse. The basic components are the same: a brick superstructure on a limestone base, a cornice and a slightly projecting center mass. The major decorative elements are limited to the three flat string courses dividing the building into horizontal layers of two-floor increments; rustication defining the projecting center mass; and two modest entrances, one of which has a split pediment. The strong suggestion of a central focus made by the projecting mass is effectively countered by the off-center entrance. With the bold string courses, the white keystones which highlight the full extent of the facade, and the monochrome brick wall, one can feel Schmidt striving to reduce the design to the fewest possible elements in order to balance the mass and detail. Considering the uniformity of the facade, the interior is surprisingly diverse, with apartments ranging from four to ten rooms. The interlocking apartments arranged around a light court look very much like the plan of a Schmidt townhouse.

In 1925 Schmidt designed the finest of his apartment houses, located at 1088 Park Avenue between East 88th and 89th Streets (Figure 18). This building was one of New York's first co­operative apartment buildings, and it contains a particularly delightful garden courtyard. The facade and overall plan come directly from Charles Platt's influential Astor Court (1914-15), across town at Broadway and 89th Street. However, whereas Platt's U-shaped, palazzo-type building occupied half a city block, Schmidt's site was limited to a single corner, thereby producing an L-shaped plan. This interior arrangement follows a common model for upper-class apartment configurations, including servant accom­modations and a suite of formal rooms off a double-loaded corridor. Each floor contains five ample apartments. Of particular note are the spacious vaulted lobbies and vestibule on the ground floor, with large arched glass doors opening onto the courtyard. A garden frames the whimsical Italian Mannerist fountain at the back, a reverse arrangement to Platt's garden the Astor Court. Outside, the characteristically austere building is enlivened by more Mannerist details, such as the "grotesque" keystone above the main entrance, and the giant-scale modillion cornice. To further relieve the large, flat surface, Schmidt followed Platt in subdividing the facade horizontally with four robust string courses. Diverging from the model, he gave the window units an irregular staccato rhythm (based upon the apartment plans within) and framed the entrance with a two-story rusticated arch.

Schmidt's third apartment building was designed with Rosario Candela, one of the most prolific of New York's apartment house architects (he built nineteen apartment houses on Fifth Avenue alone.) Built in 1937 on one of the most prestigious intersections in New York, Madison Avenue and 72nd Street, this limestone clad building is one of the architect's few departures from a traditional classical or Georgian vocabulary (Figure 19). Rising upward in a series of setbacks like the towers of Rockefeller Center, the building betrays a clear Art Deco influence, while also echoing the massing and materials of Charles Platt's 1930-31 Astor Apartment house at 120 East End Avenue. The three-story base is banded by a continuous double-cyma molding which forms the spandrel within which windows of various sizes are placed. A powerful tension results between windows, the upper and lower parts of the base, and the molding. At the two-story entrance, curved stone profiles penetrate the mass on a diagonal and direct one to the front doors, over which floats a relief sculpture by C. P. Jennewein. The flamboyant base and massive superstructure are unified by monochromatic materials, emphasizing the unity of the whole rather than the diversity of the parts.

FIGURE 16. McKim, Mead and White, 998 Fifth Avenue, New York, 1910-11
Monograph, plate 346
FIGURE 17. Apartment House, 53 East 66th Street, 1923-24, Street Facade
Architectural Record, 1926
FIGURE 18. Apartment House, 1088 Park Avenue, New York
Rendering by Schell Lewis, 1924
FIGURE 19. 19 East 72nd Street, 1937, Oblique View
Mark Alan Hewitt