Mott Schmidt Biography

Country Houses
by Mark Alan Hewitt

Although Mott Schmidt's most familiar works are no doubt his townhouses, the building type which increasingly sustained his practice during and after the 1930s was the country house. Between 1923 and 1970 Schmidt built over 50 large houses, mostly in the New York area. His work is prominent in such fashionable country enclaves as Far Hills, New Jersey; Greenwich, Connecticut; the northern reaches of Westchester County, New York; and on the shores of Long Island. Though only remnants of the "country" places of the Gatsby era remain today, these areas were once the bucolic leisure grounds of the New York society figures. Often a city patron would acquire a ten- to one-hundred-acre tract adjoining a country club, hunt club, or picturesque harbor. It would be carefully planted, groomed by one of the talented landscape architects of the eclectic school, and need only a smart Georgian house to provide the perfect setting for country life in the English mode; Mott Schmidt was one New York architect who could design such a house.

Schmidt helped to transform the American country house type from the grandiose and ostentatious stately homes associated with Newport or Long Island during the Gilded Age into a smaller and more comfortable domicile. Rich Americans of the post-war years wanted to live more simply than their parents, and seemed to have less need for the opulent trappings of the robber baron generation. In contrast to the sprawling, additive quality of picturesque houses of the 1880s and 1890s, or the grand symmetries and vast enfilades of Beaux Arts houses from the years before World War I, the new country houses were more compact and densely planned. As a formal type, they were apt to comprise sets of gabled boxes flanked by one or two service wings or porches. This greater simplicity and efficiency was realized in the Spanish Colonial style on the West Coast, English Cottage style in Philadelphia, and Dutch Colonial near New York, as well as in the streamlined Georgian houses which Schmidt favored. Changes in room use and plan arrangement included the introduction of garages, modern kitchens, streamlined service quarters, the powder room, and the consolidation of various drawing rooms into a single living room and library. Models could be found in compendiums like Architectural Forum's country house issue of 1928, which contains not only plans and technical data, but construction costs. With a scarcity of domestic servants and a steep increase in the cost of building a home (construction costs doubled between 1914 and 1920), Americans of means were more or less forced to accept smaller and more efficient country houses. Mott Schmidt, who had developed compact service wings for his townhouses, was well prepared to design analogous accom­modations in the country.

Architectural journalists during the 1920s remarked on these typological changes in the country house and praised the increased refinement of taste in clients, especially their desire for a degree of restraint. As G. H. Edgell noted, "Romanticism in architecture began to disappear, or rather ... came to be associated with our own Colonial style. The result was a purification of the work and an in­crease of simplicity and chastity in American taste." At the same time, a polarization occurred in the arts in the United States between this chastening in taste among the more conservative population and those advocating Modernism. The gentry tended to be of the former group. They wanted to preserve their legacy (in the face of massive southern and eastern European immigration) and hired architects to design classical or medieval houses which reminded them of their Anglo-Saxon ancestry. Houses such as Delano's Oak Spring (1940) in Upperville, Virginia, and Schmidt's Douglas Dillon house in Far Hills (1936) were meant to evoke the modest and steadfast spirit of Colonial America, rather than the grandeur of Europe or the unknown territories of Modernism (Figure 22). No longer was "free imitation" the watchword among eclectic architects. The search for cultural authenticity caused architects and patrons to turn with ever-greater academic interest toward their own past.

FIGURE 22. William Adams Delano, Oak Spring, Upperville, Virginia
Mark Alan Hewitt