Mott Schmidt Biography

Beginnings and Sutton Place
by Mark Alan Hewitt

Unlike many academically trained architects of his time, Mott Schmidt was not interested in an extensive education and appren­ticeship, merely the most expedient path to an architectural career. After his Grand Tour he spent four years working in a New York architecture firm as an apprentice to learn the technical side of the profession. He refused to name the firm, stating only that it was an office known mainly for its business prowess, not for design. "Business has always been one of the most romantic things in the world to me;" he said in an interview with the New York Herald in 1921, "So I went into architecture, where art and business are linked." By 1912 he had learned what he needed to know and struck out on his own.

During his first years in practice he busied himself with remodeling townhouses in Brooklyn and Manhattan, small residential jobs, and some commercial work. Among his earliest projects to be exhibited at the Architectural League of New York in 1915 was a tiny decorating shop (Figure 1) for Miss Alice Swift on East 55th Street which contained a delicate curved stairway. He also designed two groups of townhouses on sites near his family's home. At 40 and 42 Monroe Place (Figure 2) on one of Brooklyn Heights' most elegant streets, Schmidt built two Georgian duplex townhouses for the family of a prominent banker. Using the unusual width of the sites, Schmidt designed each house to accommodate two large apartments - each with a separate door - stacked one above the other. The upper floor was accessed by a stair from one of the front doors. Though the facade composition is clearly the work of a novice architect, the houses are nicely matched in scale and texture to the brownstones along the rest of the street. The young designer had obviously studied both the Victorian houses of the immediate context and some examples of classical, Georgian rowhouses. In these early works Schmidt showed sensitivity to historical details and building types that would become the hallmark of his architecture.

Schmidt's incipient practice was slowed during the war years. He served as a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army during 1917 and 1918, but did not see action in Europe. Instead he used his technical skills to supervise construction on military installations at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland and at Hastings-On-Hudson, New York. He was apparently able to watch over his own architectural practice in Manhattan while in the service, completing a townhouse for Herbert J. Johnson on East 66th Street (Figure 3). Meanwhile, Schmidt finished his first important commission in 1917,the alteration of a 19th-century townhouse at 39 East 63rd Street for Grenville T. Emmet. Its publication two years later in the Architectural Record seems to have brought Schmidt professional recognition and attracted a major patron too.

Schmidt's client, Grenville T. Emmet, was a prominent attorney and a well-known member of New York's Social Register. Emmet's wife, Pauline, was a popular hostess, and it was she who saw Schmidt's published work and decided to hire him. Schmidt's charge from the Emmets, which he inherited after another architect was fired, was to create a trim, modern house out of an outdated brownstone, a common practice on the Upper East Side during those years. The original row of Neo-Grec houses, Nos. 37-49, were built in 1882-4 for William H. Browning, and designed by the firm of Thom & Wilson. Schmidt removed the elaborate ornament at the cornice, door and window surrounds and replaced it with simple, flat bands and abstract mouldings. The doorway and modillion cornice were adapted from Italian Renaissance models, but the effect, as in many Schmidt works, was very planar and crisp. The interiors were smart and urbane -- a conscious simplification which clients were demanding in repudiation of the tastes of the "Brown Decades." The Emmets lived in the house for only two years before moving to East 94th Street where Schmidt remodeled another house for them. In 1919 it was sold to George B. Post's son, an architect. It was a compliment that the son of one of New York's most suc­cessful architects should have chosen to live in a Schmidt house.

FIGURE 1. Show Rooms for Miss Swift, 11 East 55th Street, New York City, 1915
Architecture, 1915
FIGURE 2. Duplex Houses, Monroe Place, Brooklyn, New York, 1913
Architecture, 1915
FIGURE 3. Herbert J. Johnson Townhouse, 46 East 66th Street, New York City, 1919, Street Facade