Apr 29, 2010
Of all the entries on this blog over the past three years, the one that has sparked the most interest in terms of emails and queries is this one on architect William Lescaze’s 1934 New York townhouse. Curiously, I have received a few emails over the past couple of years that have addressed me as some kind of expert on Lescaze’s work. While I am, in fact, far from an expert, a basic Google search suggests otherwise. Which not only proves that you shouldn’t believe all that Google says, but more importantly, that there is very little information about Lescaze available online. In fact, even written information on Lescaze’s work is mostly out of print and/or difficult to access (and available only in college libraries). So, in the public interest (and in an effort to maintain the illusion of my expert status), I thought I would add to my previous post and begin to compile more information about Lescaze. I have been especially inspired by the recent comment by Laura Day, a designer who bought Lescaze’s New York townhouse, the Kramer House (1935) in 2006 and revived it back to its original state. Beyond this brief introduction is an incomplete and ongoing bibliography, so please contact me with any additional material you may have or know of and I will add it to the listings below.
The first and perhaps most interesting question to address is: whatever happened to William Lescaze? Or more precisely, how is it that, in the 1930s, he was widely considered, along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, as a leader of modernist architecture in the United States (see Lanmon 1987: 10), but today his work has been almost forgotten. After World War Two, it seems, his career and contribution to American modernism was overshadowed by Bauhaus émigrés and their students, and since his death in 1969 has drifted into such obscurity that today, the only monograph devoted to Lescaze’s work, Lorraine Welling Lanmon’s William Lescaze, Architect (Philadelphia: The Art Alliance Press, 1987), is out of print. Compared to the voluminous material on Wright and Neutra available both online and in print, the dearth of available Lescaze material confirms the idea that his career has indeed sunk into obscurity. Mention of Lescaze in general histories of American architecture now is restricted to Lescaze and Howe’s PSFS building in Philadelphia, often claimed to be the first International Style skyscraper in the US. Beyond that, there is precious little material around.
Reviewing his prewar career, it seems remarkable that Lescaze’s career has been so neglected. After all, Lescaze was the sole American at the 1928 CIAM conference in Switzerland, was one of only a handful of American architects included in MoMA’s influential International Style exhibition of 1932, and not only designed modernist buildings and industrial objects, but also wrote articles promoting modern architecture during a time when there was little support for modernism in the US.
William H. Jordy, in a 1984 article “William Lescaze Reconsidered”, (reprinted in ‘Symbolic Essence’ and Other Writings on Modern Architecture and American Culture) considered the highpoint of Lescaze’s career to be the PSFS building (1929-32), and includes the decade 1929-39 as his most interesting period, while Lescaze’s post-war work was described by Jordy as “dull”. Even in his prewar work, however, Jordy argued that Lescaze had “the pragmatic attitude of one who had absorbed the look of modernism more than its message” (Jordy 2005: 175) and adopted the visual effects of one “who receives a cosmopolitan style secondhand” (Jordy 2005: 179).
However, such a reading seems outrageous when one considers Lescaze’s biography, documented in Lanmon’s monograph: while studying with progressive architect Karl Moser at Zurich’s Eidgenössische Technische Hoschscule between 1915 and 1919, Lescaze knew of Dada firsthand, as well as Futurism, De Stijl, Constructivism and Le Corbusier’s work through publications. After graduation, Lescaze went to Paris to work (albeit briefly) for Henri Sauvage, a pioneer of prefabrication and devotee of modern ideas on collective housing. Even after emigrating to the US in 1920, Lescaze frequently travelled to Europe in the 1920s, particularly to Berlin, Paris (to visit the 1925 International Exposition and in 1927 specifically to visit Le Corbusier). It is safe to say that Lescaze had significant firsthand experience with the latest currents of European modernism. How is it then that he has come to be seen as a kind of pseudo-modernist?
My initial idea was that once the “real” modernists arrived from the US (particularly Gropius, Mies, and Breuer), earlier exponents of modernism were relegated into the background. Design historian Dennis Doordan replied to my query “Whatever Happened to William Lescaze” via email this week and confirmed this idea, suggesting that Lescaze lacked the academic credibility of the later émigrés. But he also added that Lescaze’s work was not supported by the influential MoMA (beyond the 1932 exhibition), and his small office could not compete for large commissions in the new postwar corporate climate. Although he continued working until the late 1960s, Lescaze’s postwar work remains completely obscure, and even Lanmon’s book has relatively little to say about his postwar career.
What seems to me at this stage to be significant about Lescaze’s career, beyond his PSFS tower and New York townhouses, are:
- his early modernist interiors of the 1920s (I'm still tracking down more images of these).
- other private houses of the 1930s, particularly the Field House (short article in DOCOMOMO, Summer 2006), the Loomis House (see images below), and the Roy Spreter Studio.
- a nursery building for the Oak Lane Country Day School, 1929, which, along with Neutra’s Corona Avenue School in California, was an early progressive educational building (see Weisser article below).
- his Dartington Hall buildings in the UK, 1932-35, also part of Lescaze’s contribution to modernist educational facilities.
- the Williamsburg Houses. Though these get mixed reviews, they do represent Lescaze’s dream of designing modern mass housing. Pommer (below) describes them as “the eclectic and confused reception of European modernist housing”.
- the postwar work, which may be worth another look.
- his writings, which I haven’t a lot of as yet.
- his teaching, which seems to include a brief stint at Pratt Institute, teaching industrial design, and also some kind of connection to Black Mountain.
Again, any help or ideas or comments you have out there, please let me know. I will update these lists as more information comes to hand.
William Lescaze's house for Alfred Loomis in Tuxedo Park, New York, 1937
Lescaze’s own New York townhouse at 211 East 48th Street (1933-34): New York Landmarks Preservation Commission Report (1976).
Lescaze’s Williamsburg Houses (1935-38): New York Landmarks Preservation Commission Report (2003).
Dawn of a New Age: the Immigrant Contribution to the Arts in America, a 2008-09 Syracuse University Library exhibition, featured a Lescaze section and a dozen images.
Lescaze page at MoMA (includes his Salt and Pepper shakers, model of the MoMA tower proposal, and a coat hook!).
An article on Lescaze in French, “William Lescaze, architecte, peintre et designer”, includes a brief interview with his niece.
The William Lescaze Papers at University of Syracuse. Biographical materials, lectures, photographs, drawings, correspondence and writings by and about Lescaze, as well as material related to Lescaze's one-time partner, George Howe.
Lanmon, Lorraine Welling, William Lescaze, Architect, Philadelphia: The Art Alliance Press, 1987 (first publication by Rizzoli, 1982). The most authoritative account of Lescaze’s career to date. This was based on her 1979 doctoral dissertation at University of Delaware.
Writings by Lescaze
Lescaze, William, On Being an Architect, New York: Putnam's Sons, 1942. A rare publication, a copy of which I am yet to track down.
Lescaze also wrote many journal articles, particularly in the 1930s – you may be able to source these through university libraries and some are available as PDFs via the JSTOR database. Here are two major articles I’ve found so far:
Lescaze, William, “The Meaning of Modern Architecture”, The North American Review, Vol. 244, No. 1 (Autumn, 1937): 110-120. This is available via JSTOR but also unformatted here. This is a textbook manifesto of modernist architecture.
Lescaze, William, “A Modern Housing for a Museum”, Parnassus, Vol. 9, No. 6 (Nov. 1937): 12-14. An article that I think is based on Howe and Lescaze’s earlier proposal submitted for the proposed Museum of Modern Art (New York, a commission that went to Goodwin and Stone). An ambitious (visionary?) project comprising nine blocks of cubic exhibition spaces stacked at angles.
A special issue of the University of Syracuse journal Courier 19 (Spring 1984), edited by Dennis Doordan, featured a number of articles on Lescaze.
Book chapters and references
Wojtowicz, Robert, ed., Sidewalk Critic: Lewis Mumford’s Writings on New York, New York: Princeton University Press, 1998. Short section on Lescaze’s 1934 New York townhouse, written by Mumford not long after the building’s completion.
Jordy, William H., “William Lescaze Reconsidered”, in Jordy, William H., ‘Symbolic Essence’ and Other Writings on Modern Architecture and American Culture, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. This is a 1984 article by Jordy, based on his article in the University of Syracuse journal (above).
Albrecht, Donald, and Thomas Mellins, “Going Gershwin”, Interior Design, March 2007. A good article on Lescaze and Howe’s PSFS Building, focusing specifically on the interiors.
Brooks, H. Allen, “PSFS: A Source for Its Design”, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (27: 4 Dec. 1968): 299-302.
Doordan, Dennis P., “Design at CBS,” Design Issues (6:2 Spring, 1990): 4–17. An excellent account of corporate design at CBS including Lescaze’s architecture and interiors of their broadcast facilities in Hollywood (1936-38).
Jordy, William H., “PSFS: Its Development and Its Significance in Modern Architecture”, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (21: 2 May 1962): 47-83.
Pommer, Richard, “The Architecture of Urban Housing in the United States during the Early 1930s”, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (37:4 Dec. 1978): 235-264. Generally critical of the Williamsburg Housing project, designed by Lescaze (and fellow Swiss émigré Albert Frey), Pommer argues that it was a mistranslation of European modernist housing ideas.
Stern, Robert A.M., “PSFS: Beaux-Arts Theory and Rational Expressionism”, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (21: 2 May 1962): 84-102.
Weisser, Amy S., “The Little Red School House, What Now? Two Centuries of American Public School Architecture”, Journal of Planning History (5:3, 2006): 196-217.
Alan Jon Warner, "Stylistic Influences on the Design of The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building", Masters Thesis, Ohio State University, 1983.