Mott Schmidt Biography

Late Works
by Mark Alan Hewitt

The addition was a simple two-story wing (Figures 46 & 47), unobtrusively attached to the main house, with details replicated from the old building, such as the attic balustrade, shutters, and clap­board siding. Grand rooms were inserted in its piano nobile, yet the exterior scale comfortably matched its counterpart. Exterior flourishes included the large, triple-hung windows and the graceful entrance porch, which was flanked by curved stairways and crowned with a canopy supported by composite columns. The design of the porch was adapted from the Lyman House in Waltham, Massachusetts (1793), also the source of inspiration for the great ballroom inside. Other aspects of the portico, including the fanlight above the main door, came from the Tichnor House on Boston's Beacon Hill (1801). But nothing is "copied" These and other distinguished Federal style examples were used as paradigms to be modified and reinterpreted, much as early American builders used examples from pattern books. Like other academic eclectic artists, Schmidt saw himself not as a preservationist or reproduction specialist, but as an architect of original works.

The organization of the wing is straightforward: formal rooms for entertaining are upstairs on the piano nobile, with administrative offices and workrooms in the basement. Both are served by a gracious stairhall, from which all major rooms are accessible. The showpiece of the building, directly on axis with the main stair, is a 50 x 24 foot ballroom. It freely combines Federal and English Adamesque details using the trabeated wall treatment and division of bays of the Lyman ballroom as its starting point. Schmidt's extensive sketches for this room reveal a debt to both McIntire and Adam. His columns are more elongated and refined and the win­dow casings far more elaborate than those at the Lyman House, yet the friezes are closer to the English master's work. The room also feels grander and more spacious than its Federal counterpart.

In September 1966, Gracie Mansion opened with public ap­probation and cautiously positive reviews in the press. Ada Louise Huxtable, who in those years was the nation's most eloquent apologist for progressive design as well as a leading supporter of preservation, was quick to point out that a more farsighted and artistically courageous approach might have been taken. Citing the view that contrast between old and new was the best aesthetic posture and that historical structures "gain by carefully related additions;' she offered Philip Johnson's recently completed wing of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington as a model. At the same time, she was balanced in her assessment of the problem facing the city in building onto a small and modest frame house. She conceded that "Gracie's unpretentiousness might well have resisted a radical contemporary solution."

At Gracie Mansion Mott Schmidt capped off his long career with a modest but distinguished work. A man who preferred to remain out of the limelight, he deftly managed a complex and difficult commission in the midst of considerable public scrutiny.

FIGURE 46. Gracie Mansion, New York City. Elevation sketches (South and West) by Mott B. Schmidt
Avery Architectural Archives
FIGURE 47. Wagner wing, Gracie Mansion, View from the Southwest
Cervin Robinson