Mott Schmidt Biography

by Robert A.M. Stern

In 1966, as a fledgling architect in my first year back in New York from school in New Haven, I reviled Mott Schmidt's Susan Wagner Wing at Gracie Mansion. I did not know who Mott Schmidt was; in fact, at first I only knew of the Wagner Wing from what I read about it in the New York Times, where Ada Louis Huxtable had dismissed a preliminary scheme by other architects for possessing "all the charm and suitability of a suburban garage;" and gone on to praise Schmidt's subsequent redesign "for its scholarly and appropriate good taste"' I reviled it, I now know, on a priori prejudice masquerading as principle, not on the facts of the case, not on its inherent qualities as architecture.

Schmidt's Wagner Wing was opened in September 1966. I continued to revile it, but only until I visited it-saw it in use, saw it for what it was and not for some abstract theory about what it might have been, or worse still, for what it ought to have been. Though physically large, here was no self-important monument to a singular moment, no idiosyncratic personal vision, no self-conscious statement about the "spirit of our times." Here was a well crafted, functionally planned building artistically deferential to the modest mansion it served. Here was something that addressed the needs of the user and the culture of the place, giving pleasure rather than provocation. Amazingly, this modest effort was, for me, in its own way, as challenging as any building on the contemporary scene--more so in many ways. The Wagner Wing, so anomalous in a period when most architects insisted that to serve the present one must break with the past, helped bring my deficiencies as a beginning architect into focus and, as well, called my attention to the deficiencies that were built in to so much I had been taught to believe in architecture school. Looking at what Schmidt could accomplish with such style in a language then deemed "dead" by most architects, I began to see new possibilities. The Wagner Wing was, for me at that moment, something of a revelation. It cautioned me that the architect must think with his eyes and his brains, must sympathize and not merely theorize.

Early in his career, Mott Schmidt found his niche in architecture, mastering the language of American Georgian Classicism. He became an architect catering to a monied crowd who liked what he did because it so perfectly coincided with their own views. A niche, I feel obliged to point out, is not a rut. A niche is a place carved out of a wall in which one can take shelter from the elements yet be among them. An embracing semi-circle of space, a niche not only permits, but practically demands, that its inhabitants be part of the world as they gaze out at its goings on.

From his comfortable niche, Mott Schmidt watched as architectural time passed his world by. He let it. He knew what he could do, and it appears that he was among the lucky ones to survive not only the change of taste from traditionalism to modernism that ripped apart the architectural profession in the 1920s and 1930s, but also to survive the economic depression that left most architects, no matter their stylistic preference, unemployed. Schmidt seemed almost always to find some like-minded patron to let him do what he knew how to do best: lovely, Georgian inspired houses, some in town, but most often after 1930, in the back country of New York's suburban counties.

Maybe Schmidt may not have thought himself completely lucky in his success. He had loyal clients and fine opportunities to build, though he did not have the admiration of the profession as a whole, nor of the artistic cognoscenti, both of whom by the late 1930s found his approach "old hat." But while he may have eventually come to enjoy the status that became his as the "last of the Georgians;" I suspect for a very long time he probably felt neglected, even "out of it," to use a term of our day. One thing is for sure: architectural time has a funny way of sometimes standing still, sometimes run-ning down, even more remarkably, sometimes reversing itself.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, just as the clock of modernism became very still indeed, the post-modernist clock began to tick away, bringing with it a renewed appreciation not only of traditional form but also of the work of the last, lost generation of architects who had stuck by traditionalism through the years of modernism's hegemony. The capacity to see, freshly, something old or passed--by, "used up" or dead, to invent new work out of old themes, is one of the joys of art. Changes in taste and the revivals of methods and styles deemed outmoded are among the most remarkable aspects of creativity. By the late 1970s the work of Schmidt and that of a dozen or so masters of tradition in his generation, including Frank J. Forster (1886-1948), Gordon B. Kaufmann (1888-
1949), Harrie T. Lindeberg (1881?-1959), Wallace Neff (1895-1982), John Staub (1892-1981), and Paul Williams (1894-1980) was being admired, even emulated. Sadly, the revival of traditionalism came just a bit too late for Schmidt and most of his generation to really enjoy. He died in 1977.

Mott Schmidt was every inch an artist and a professional. Neither trail blazer, nor copybook classicist, he took up established architectural language and made buildings with it that were honest to their clients and appropriate to their places. In an era rebounding in self-important monuments to self-important egos, Mott Schmidt's legacy seems more valuable than ever before. The fineness of his craft and the keenness of his eye have left us with gifts of brick and mortar that seem to get better and better with each passing day. I thank him for what he taught me, and commend his work to all who would free themselves from the pressure of artistic prejudice and embrace what they themselves know and feel.