Mott Schmidt Biography

Beginnings and Sutton Place
by Mark Alan Hewitt

Schmidt's major projects on Sutton Place - the Morgan and Vanderbilt townhouses - were distinguished from earlier Georgian Revival houses of eclectic predecessors such as McKim, Mead & White and Delano & Aldrich by their extreme modesty and strict use of English and American precedents. Indeed, Schmidt's simple brick townhouses have often been mistaken for the original 19th-century rowhouses at Sutton Place. Unlike the lavish East Side houses of the prewar years, these buildings were meant to suggest the anonymous, plain-speaking qualities of early New York dwellings.

The corner Vanderbilt house (Figure 5), with its red brick facade modulated only by cornice and windows, is extremely restrained. So as not to interrupt the texture and monochrome quality of the facade, the pilasters and pediment of the front door are of brick. This doorway recalls the frugality of early Virginia houses and churches, which were very sparing in their use of classical ornament; its direct precedent was a doorway from King's Bench Walk, Temple, in London. Using salvage brick left over from the previous rowhouse on the site (that of Effingham Sutton, c. 1875), the house appeared well established even when it was brand new. Stylistically, these houses appealed to their clients on two fronts: authentic-looking American Colonial reminded them of their long standing tenure in this country, and the English touches harkened back to even deeper roots. The Vanderbilt house, nestled against the East River, turns its face toward the flank elevation on 57th Street. In so doing it makes a strong corner for the entire ensemble of townhouses on the block -- a gesture Schmidt could plan since he was the architect for most of its houses.

The Morgan House next door at No. 3 (Figure 6) was inspired by Philadelphia's 1765 Samuel Powel house (Figure 7), and by the Benjamin Wister Morris house nearby on South 8th Street. Schmidt's transformations of the model are subtle but crucial. He increased its height by adding another floor and its width by add­ing a bay. His detail is also more elaborate, with fluting, a fretwork frieze, and a sensuous capital added to the front door. However, the facade is flatter and more abstract than that of the Powel house. The grid formed by the limestone lintels, the voids of windows and doorways, and the horizontal string courses create an insistent framework which reduces the significance of individual detail. The river facade of the house was a bit more lively, using shutters at all three floors and employing a swan's neck pediment over the doorway. According to one critic at the time, "No more valuable or successful examples of the consistent and intelligent use of English architectural precedent in the designing of American houses are to be found than these two houses on Sutton Place."

Schmidt's most original stroke in the design of these two houses is the spatial organization. The circulation is deliberately calculated to mark and enhance the social ritual of entering the building on formal occasions or for the daily business of receiving guests. As in most of the city's twentieth-century townhouses, circulation and services are located at the center of the plan. Schmidt carefully defines the transition from room to room to establish gradations of private space. On the ground floor the Morgan house is divided into a slot of servants' rooms, kitchen and other secondary spaces (with their own entry off the street), and a parallel series of halls and vestibules leading to the dining room, outdoor terrace and garden beyond. Each large room, even the boudoir, has its own distinctly shaped vestibule intended as a caesura in the procession from one room to the next. For instance, a niche turns the visitor from the stairhall toward the gracious rectangular stair. On the second floor a hall leads into either a reception room or the large drawing room which stretches across the entire street front. For the less formal visitor who wishes to proceed directly into the private zone upstairs, there is another grand staircase, this one oval, linking only the second and third floors. Employing two stairs, laterally juxtaposed, was a favorite Schmidt touch, one that he may have borrowed from formal townhouses of the previous century. There is a sense of both stateliness and economy in the circulation of these houses, making them function well for both large formal gatherings and everyday life.

FIGURE 5. Mrs W.K. (Anne) Vanderbilt Townhouse, 1 Sutton Place, New York City, 1921, 57th Street Elevation
Architectural Forum 41, August 1924
FIGURE 6. Anne Morgan Townhouse, 3 Sutton Place, New York City, 1921, Plans and Garden Elevation
Architectural Forum 41, August 1924
FIGURE 7. Samuel Powel House
Avery Architectural Archives