Mott Schmidt Biography

Late Works
by Mark Alan Hewitt

The commission which would give Schmidt his greatest exposure, and more than a little taste of controversy, came after fifty years of practice. In 1964, amidst the social and political tumult which was to mark the decade, Mott Schmidt was called upon by a citizens' committee to design a new wing for Gracie Mansion, the celebrated, but less than grand, residence of the mayor of New York.

Gracie Mansion was built as the country retreat for merchant Archibald Gracie by an unknown builder in 1798. The city had owned the house since 1896, and it had served many uses. It was a house museum during the 1920s, an early home for the Museum of the City of New York, a refreshment pavilion for Carl Schurtz Park, and was finally restored by Robert Moses in the late 1930s. In 1942 Gracie Mansion was designated the mayor's official residence, with Fiorello LaGuardia its first tenant.

Though charming, the wood frame former summer house was not designed for intensive administrative or social use, and could not even be considered an outstanding example of its type or period. It was neither adequate as a place of entertainment nor well-fitted as a modern family home. It was simply old - and as of 1960 had begun to show its age. Moreover, Mayor Robert F. Wagner and his wife Susan had allowed the house to be used by various civic groups during their long tenure and had kept it open for public tours (it was visited by approximately 2000 persons a year), accelerating its wear and tear. Located adjacent to a popular public park, it invited unwanted guests; reportedly, Mrs. Wagner used to find strangers wandering around the bedrooms and private portions of the house. It was she who initiated the first campaign for a new wing which would allow the old house to be used solely as a residence.

The first plan for the renovation and addition to the house was presented on October 17, 1964, a design which The New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable described as having "all the charm and suitability of a suburban garage." The plan, by Edward Coe Embury, was shelved. Shortly afterward, Mrs. Wagner was taken ill with cancer and died a year later. In May 1965 the intention to go ahead with the new wing, to be named in her memory, was made public. After the controversy surrounding the first plan, the new Citizens' Committee for Gracie Mansion had joined with public officials to select architects, with the stated intent that the new design should be "totally in harmony" with the architecture of the old house.

The fund-raising group for the new wing included Senator Jacob Javits, Henry Francis DuPont and Mrs. Laurence Rockefeller. It was hoped that a group of such distinguished antiquarians would make a prudent choice of designers. Implicit in their collective taste was the notion that the addition would authentically replicate the eighteenth-century style and details of the house. However, the idea of doing "reproduction architecture" did not please the general architectural community. Resisting pressure to hire a modernist, in late 1964 the committee appointed the 75-year-old Mott Schmidt as chief architect for the project. The design of the wing, under the careful scrutiny of many interested parties, was a team process, with Schmidt supplying the formal scheme and most of the initial design ideas, while furnishings and interior decoration were handled by other specialists.