Mott Schmidt Biography

Townhouses and Apartments
by Mark Alan Hewitt

Schmidt was interested in not only the homespun American classicism of early New York and Philadelphia townhouses, but in the work of English architects such as Robert Adam and William Chambers. He went directly to the English precedents on occasion, as in his splendid design for Vincent Astor on East 80th Street. The Astor house and its neighbor to the right, the Clarence Dillon residence, were clearly designed as a pair. They use identical pro­portions and parts, but are treated in different materials and based on different precedents: the former distinctly English, clad in dressed Roche limestone, the latter, brick American Colonial. Built in 1926, three years before the Dillon house was completed, the Astor house (Figure 13) is closely based on Robert Adam's Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce Building at the Adelphi in London (1772)(Figure 14). Schmidt's adaptation reduces the scale and depth of its model by using pilasters instead of columns, adds an attic floor over the entablature to increase the height-to-width ratio, and transforms the formal, public character of the model into a domestic setting by a drastic simplification of detail. The separation of pediment from frieze and architrave by the insertion of a fourth floor acts to distribute tension over the entire facade. The result is a flat, austere and very powerful composition quite unlike anything else in New York.

As at the Morgan and Vanderbilt houses, Schmidt was presented with various collections of antique furniture, books, mantelpieces, tapestries, and even whole rooms purchased in Europe around which to design a house. Echoing the Trevor house interiors, the dominant style in the Astor house is based on the work of Robert Adam and his American followers in the Federal era. The bluish-green color scheme in the living room was copied from an American room in the Philadelphia Museum, while details such as the mantel and door surrounds were directly inspired by Adam. The stair hall, again painted in trompe l'oeil by Allyn Cox in a nostalgic Roman vein, is paved in three hues of Verona marble. In contrast to the colorful floor, the stair of Belgian black marble is ringed by a sinuous, English-inspired iron balustrade. The house also had its requisite French panelled room, made popular by Elsie de Wolfe, with red and gold Louis XV boiserie painted by Huet and Perrott.

The Dillon house (Figure 15), though proportionately a twin to the Astor house, is a prime example of Schmidt's design methodology of subtly restating formulas established in earlier commissions. In the Dillon house color contrast becomes important because of a change in materials; outer pilasters are transformed into rustication; the attic is replaced by dormers; and the arch recess at the center window becomes an architrave and pediment. The transformation is so profound that one is hardly aware that both buildings derive from the same model. The rich carving of the limestone doorway draws the eye -- its segmental pediment and Corinthian capitals make one of the most compelling of his door designs.

Both the consistency and conservatism demonstrated by Schmidt in his series of New York townhouses were qualities clearly valued by his clients: they knew precisely what they were getting. If his houses lacked a certain spark of originality, so much the better. Schmidt's architecture mirrored his own personal reticence. He was not a publicity seeker, a trait which helped to make him the perfect society architect in the 1920s, when members of New York's top drawer were anxious to maintain their privacy in light of the scandals and society-page stories which had plagued their turn-of-the-century counterparts. It was best if one's architect understood the need for discretion.

FIGURE 13. Vincent Astor Townhouse, 128 East 80th Street, New York City, 1926, Street Facade
Architecture 67, April 1933
FIGURE 14. Robert Adam, Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, the Adelphi
The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam
FIGURE 15. Dillon Townhouse
Avery Architectural Archives