Mott Schmidt Biography

by Mark Alan Hewitt

From the 1880s until the eve of World War II a large group of American architects flourished through the specialized practice of residential design for America's wealthy business and professional leaders. Following principles of academic or creative eclecticism, these architects helped to define the ideal of gracious, elegant living in America by adapting a range of historical house models to accommodate modern urban and country life. Mott B. Schmidt (1889-1977) was one of the last American masters of traditional domestic architecture, practicing in New York from 1912 until the 1970s. His clients included many of the city's society figures and business elite. Yet, because he eschewed publicity throughout his career, Schmidt's excellent architecture has received too little attention. This website is intended to offer a sampling of his work in the form of an architectural monograph of the type prevalent during his own time, as a tribute to a long and distinguished career.

Schmidt's preferred style was a restrained and, one could say, abstract version of American Georgian. One of several "colonial revival" idioms which were used in town and country houses beginning in the 1880s, the red brick and white trimmed Georgian vocabulary attained its greatest popularity during Schmidt's peak creative period. During the 1920s, domestic architecture for the wealthy took a turn toward classic simplicity - clients with money wished to show less, without betraying a lack of taste or desire for elegance. Privacy, restraint and graceful domestic comfort replaced the ostentatiousness associated with turn-of-the-century houses of the plutocracy. The Georgian style, with its emphasis on planarity enlivened by the slightest detail, was a perfect vehicle for this. And, though critics like Russell Whitehead found the style "staid and decorous;' it had a wide appeal among patrons for its associations with the orderly virtues of eighteenth-century Anglo-colonial society. Architects such as Schmidt and his contemporary, William Lawrence Bottomley (1883-1951), made substantial careers out of their ability to design houses which seemed to connect directly with the traditions of American and English classical architecture. Informed by both an increased scholarly knowledge of early American precedents and a familiarity with the groundbreaking Georgian work of such architects as Charles Platt (1861-1933) and John Russell Pope (1874-1937), the 1920s eclectic architect could be more exacting and sophisticated in his use of the idiom. Mott Schmidt was one of the most skilled exponents of the style.

Schmidt's career followed the shifting contours of twentieth century social history and economics, beginning with the Jazz Age and the era of the last tycoons. Most of his clients were drawn from the second and third generations of America's post-Civil War capitalist oligarchy. His patrons in the twenties rode the sophisticated wave of taste that was sustained by the euphoria of a freewheeling market. When the crash came, Schmidt weathered the Depression with a few loyal patrons. His work remained conservative and solid. Rather than embracing Modernism, as some of his contemporaries did, he 'remained committed to classical and traditional principles. After the Second World War he became known as one of the last American traditionalists, and produced work for a smaller group of wealthy clients who continued to favor historical models for their houses. A closer look at the three major phases of his career and the work produced in each demonstrates both his personal integrity as a classical architect and the way in which his patrons came to value his authoritative and subtle handling of the Georgian style.

by Louis M.B. DeMonvel
Museum of the City Of New York