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Gracious Symmetry

By Ruth J. Katz
Photography by Tim Lee

Callout Photo

Looking out across the back trace and pond of a Georgian Revival house in Greenwich, Connecticut. The house, built in 1934 and designed by architect Mott Schmidt, was recently renovated by Allan Greenberg, Architect, LLC. Note the simple fanlight above the door.

Schmidt (1889–1977) was the masterly designer of stately homes for the boldface names of mid-twentieth-century American society—Vanderbilts, Morgans, Astors, Rockefellers. And, in late 1964, at the age of 75, he was tapped to create an addition—the Susan B. Wagner Wing—to the New York City mayor’s residence, Gracie Mansion. But Schmidt eschewed the spotlight so assiduously that even among architects he is not well known. In fact, in his introduction to Mark Alan Hewitt’s scholarly volume The Architecture of Mott B. Schmidt (Rizzoli, 1991), Stern himself acknowledged that when he was a fledgling professional in New York City he had not even heard of Schmidt. (He ended that preface with the laudatory passage quoted above.)

 

From the time he was 9, Schmidt boasted that he would become an architect, Hewitt’s book notes. He graduated with a certificate in architecture from the Pratt Institute of Technology at 17, in 1906; toured Europe; worked for a few years in an architectural firm; and in 1912 struck out on his own. As luck would have it, one of his early commissions was the renovation of a home belonging to a prominently social (as in Social Register) attorney, Grenville T. Emmet, whose wife, Pauline, belonged to the prestigious Colony Club, the preeminent ladies’ social organization of its time. Pauline Emmet may well have been instrumental in connecting Schmidt with a member of the group, the legendary Elsie de Wolfe (in her pre–Lady Mendl days).

Soon Schmidt was designing homes and de Wolfe was decorating them for a sorority of American royalty that included Ann Morgan and Anne Vanderbilt, who had both made a pioneering move to a “marginal” neighborhood soon to be dubbed Sutton Place. Through these commissions Schmidt explored and articulated the powerful lexicon of American Georgian classicism that was to become his trademark. As Sutton Place grew in stature, so did the reputation of the young architect, who designed additional houses along the block and ultimately some 50 country homes as well.  (It is worth noting that Schmidt also designed several apartment buildings in Manhattan—most notably, 1088 Park Avenue and 19 East 72nd Street, the latter with the acclaimed Rosario Candela; he also designed the legendary Rockefeller duplex at 740 Park Avenue, the ne plus ultra of addresses.)

 

Numbers 1 (Vanderbilt) and 3 (Morgan) Sutton Place were works of art in their simplicity; today, 80-plus years later, they are still regarded as masterpieces. Allan Greenberg, the eminent contemporary architect who is himself a serious practitioner of classicism, declares, “Schmidt designed several of the most beautiful townhouses, notably the Morgan and the Vanderbilt, that are just sublimely exquisite buildings.”

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