Mott Schmidt Biography

Beginnings and Sutton Place
by Mark Alan Hewitt

New York City had a flourishing architectural culture during Schmidt's second decade in practice. The Armistice had ushered in a new wave of building and society activity in New York, led by, among others, the colorful actress, decorator and tastemaker Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950). DeWolfe's career as a decorator began with the interiors for New York's Colony Club in 1905. Her use of chintz, fresh light colors, English antiques and garden trellises indoors revolutionized the decorative arts of her day; she virtually created the profession of interior design in the United States. She and her powerful women friends at the Colony Club established a network of influential tastemakers in the arts. These included Elizabeth Marbury, the theatrical and literary agent, Anne Tracy Morgan, the youngest daughter of financier J. Pierpont Morgan, and Anne Vanderbilt, second wife of William Kissam Vanderbilt, Jr. Mott Schmidt's career is inextricably linked with this set of New York women. Pauline Emmet was a member of the Colony Club, and undoubtedly brought his name to the attention of de Wolfe. Upon her return from Europe in 1919, de Wolfe and Schmidt collaborated in the creation of what was to become one of the city's most prestigious addresses: Sutton Place (Figure 4) -- the platform upon which Schmidt would build his career.

Following the war, Elizabeth Marbury decided to leave the house which she and Elsie de Wolfe had established for themselves in the late 1890s on Irving Place and 17th Street. She discovered a row of 19th-century brownstone townhouses on an isolated block of what was then known as Avenue A, between 57th and 58th Streets, overlooking the East River. The district was mainly industrial, occupied by breweries, furniture manufacturers, and cigar makers. Marbury decided to remodel one of the houses, at No. 13, using de Wolfe as her decorator. However, she made an unusual choice of architect -- the little-known Mott Schmidt, who prepared drawings for the minor alteration work. In a bold piece of "urban pioneering" she then persuaded several of her friends to buy other parcels along the block. Anne Vanderbilt, who had just concluded the settling of her husband's estate, sold the grand family house on Fifth Avenue and wanted a smaller place. Anne Morgan had been liv­ing with her mother, and wished like Marbury to establish an independent home which could serve her many philanthropic and social activities. Morgan and Vanderbilt bought and cleared the two lots at the 57th Street corner. Again, Mott Schmidt joined with de Wolfe in their design and decoration, but this time the young architect was given a real chance to demonstrate his talent and ideas.

The understated elegance of the Sutton Place houses, with picturesque private gardens on the river front and their spectacular views, recalls somewhat the Cheyne Walk gardens and houses of Chelsea Embankment on the Thames River in London -- just the kind of reference Schmidt's clients wanted. Marbury had helped to foster a wave of Anglophilia in New York through her sponsorship of the English-style P.G. Wodehouse/Guy Bolton/Jerome Kernmusicals at the Princess Theatre in 1919. Before long, Vanderbilt, Marbury and Morgan were joined by Mrs. Stephen Olin (Anne Vanderbilt's sister), Mrs. Lorillard Cammann, Mrs. Francis B. Griswold, and Mrs. Chauncey Olcott (wife of a famous musical hall actor and singer) as residents of the new enclave. Such a mass migration created quite a stir in New York society circles, causing Ralph Waldo Emerson Joyce to quip in the pages of Gossip: "this demonstration of ultra prominent society people banding in one locality (a most unfashionable district of town, at that) is creating an avalan­che of controversy of a racy variety." However titillating, such rumors only hastened the renown of the neighborhood -- within two years the new "Sutton Place" enclave achieved a pedigree, as did young Mott Schmidt, among members of New York's social elite.

At the same time Schmidt also won the affection of a decorator in the deWolfe office, Elena Bachman, further strengthening his ties to the women's network. The daughter of a Swiss businessman, Miss Bachman was raised in Colombia. Her cosmopolitan back­ground complemented Schmidt's New York parochialism and helped him cultivate new clients. They were married in June 1922. As Elena Schmidt she became a success in her own right, designing the decor and furnishings for Rockefeller Center's Rainbow Room in 1934, among other interiors.

FIGURE 4. Sutton Place as it looked in 1936
Museum of the City of New York