Nov 9, 2008

William Lescaze House, 211 East 48th St

While reading Sidewalk Critic: Lewis Mumford’s Writings on New York recently, I came across a 1934 article by Mumford on William Lescaze’s Manhattan home. Lescaze House is in midtown, specifically, 211 East 48th St between 2nd and 3rd Aves. Last year, a colleague mentioned Lescaze House to me after a lecture I gave at Pratt on Russel Wright’s nearby house and studio (the connection will become clear in a future blog entry). So I sought out the house, took a few photographs and always meant to find out more about it. Finally, last week, I discovered a reference to an article and photographs of Lescaze House in a 1936 issue of Decorative Art, the Annual Issue of the Studio Yearbook, which I knew our library would have. So, to accompany my photograph (below), I have included some initial research on Lescaze House along with photographs scanned from the 1936 issue of Decorative Art, as well as an earlier Lescaze project I found in a 1934 issue of the same journal. My interest here is both early modernist architecture in New York City, but also in the figure of Lescaze, a modernist pioneer on the East Coast whose work (and biography) seems comparable to the better known West Coast modernists of the 1920s and 30s such as Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler.

Born in Onex, near Geneva, Switzerland, in 1896, Lescaze studied architecture at Zurich’s Eidgenössische Technische Hoschscule. As a student there between 1915 and 1919, he was mentored by the progressive architect Karl Moser, who would later become a founder of CIAM (an organization which Lescaze was also involved in). Lescaze’s student years in Zurich were marked by his exposure to early European modernism – from Dada and Futurism to calls for a new architecture by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut and Erich Mendelsohn. After graduation, Lescaze spent a brief time working with pioneer modernist Henri Sauvage in Paris before emigrating to the United States in 1920. His early interests included large scale public housing and urban planning, and he hoped there might be more work of this kind in America than there was in postwar Europe.

Lescaze initially found work as a draftsman in Cleveland, where he lived for several years with little hope of fulfilling his modernist ideas. However, he befriended the poet Hart Crane and became known for his radical expressionist, cubist-inspired paintings. In 1923 he moved to New York and survived for several years designing interiors for restaurants and nightclubs before settling into a more austere modernist vein in the late 1920s for office, retail and apartment interiors. In these, Lescaze was dedicated to interiors in which furniture and interior spaces were integrated into a unified whole, characterised by a rational, geometric aesthetic without decorative detail. His design of a studio apartment for the conductor Leopold Stokowski on E71st St in 1928-29 was uncompromisingly modern – an open space multipurpose sitting room/dining room/library featuring built-in bookshelves of finely crafted wood and modern tubular metal furniture – the emphasis was on functionality, simplicity, economy and comfort. Similar ideas about designing for efficient yet comfortable modern lifestyles were emerging in the late 1920s in California, the most notable example being Neutra’s Lovell Health House, but I suspect Lescaze's lack of recognition in many histories is related to the fact that his 1920s work was entirely interiors.

In 1929, Lescaze began a partnership with George Howe and began working soon afterwards on their first major commission, the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society (PSFS) building in Philadelphia (above). Completed in 1932, the PSFS building is widely cited as the first International Style, or Functionalist, skyscraper in the United States. With its inclusion in Philip Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock’s MoMA exhibition on The International Style in the same year, the PSFS building became Lescaze and Howe’s best known project. Featuring a unified exterior and interior design scheme, with an emphasis on transparency (rare for a bank), tubular steel furniture throughout, and technological innovations such as central air-conditioning and aluminum-framed windows, the PSFS building’s fine detailing and meticulous design was made possible by a pre-Depression budget which then bought materials (such as marble for the walls and exotic woods for furniture) and labor at Depression-era prices.

The Howe and Lescaze partnership was never close and dissolved in 1933 (though officially a year later). In the few years they were together, they completed some innovative modernist projects in both the US and in England, including the Fredrick Vanderbilt Field House in Connecticut in 1930-31 (see photos above and below). Ideas developed by Le Corbusier and De Stijl were successfully integrated on the East Coast for the first time in a project such as this freestanding house: the flat roof, the unadorned geometric forms and large windows, the free flowing interior spaces, the rooftop garden, and technological devices such as central heating and air conditioning. The Field House was described in the 1934 edition of Decorative Art these photos came from as “The Machine for Living”.

Lescaze’s own house and studio in Manhattan which he designed and built 1933-34, may be the first modernist house in New York City. It sat among a row of 19th century brownstones, its white concrete and glass bricks proudly proclaiming its difference. This 1938 Beatrice Abbott photograph clearly shows the contrast between Lescaze House and its 19th century neighbor. Continuing in an uncompromising modernist vein, Lescaze’s exterior facade features a white concrete rectangle punctuated with rectangles comprised of glass bricks, no applied ornamentation, no historical references and little aesthetic consolation to its context apart from the scale and floor divisions. Glass bricks were almost unknown in the US at this time but had been used in Europe, by Le Corbusier for one, but most notably in Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet’s “Maison de Verre” of 1927-32. In Lescaze House, the glass bricks create “window-walls” that are impervious to the human gaze but let light penetrate, both from outside in during the day, and from inside out at night, to spectacular effect (see below photograph of the house at night).

Lewis Mumford was particularly excited about the clearly visible number on the house’s facade: “plain numbers and visible signs,” he wrote, “ are one of the real contributions of modern architecture. Howe & Lescaze set an excellent precedent in their Philadelphia bank.” (Sidewalk Critic, p.116) I couldn't see the number so can only assume it's gone. Mumford was also excited about the use of airconditioning and Lescaze’s maximization of light in a city where bringing natural light into 19th century brownstones was proving challenging for modernist architects.

The house follows a basic brownstone footprint with a narrow street frontage, but this particular site extends back an unusually long way. It comprises four stories: the right-hand stairs go down to the ground floor studio and office space for Lescaze’s architectural practice; the left-hand stoop goes up to the first floor, comprising kitchen, dining room and library; the second floor contains bedrooms; and the third floor a living room. The interior follows the logic of the exterior – absence of applied ornamentation in favor of austere geometric forms, an emphasis on spare, functional furnishings and technological innovation. With the exception of the piano and a couple of Aalto bentwood chairs, all of the furniture was designed by Lescaze.

The third storey living room (above) was described in Decorative Art as follows: two walls were painted “chrome yellow” with the wall facing the street comprised entirely of glass bricks and the rear wall almost entirely windows. Built in furniture was made from walnut, and the carpet, upholstry and fabrics were described as “chocolate-colored”. While the emphasis was on natural light, artificial lighting in the house was mainly concealed in alcoves behind built-in units. Technological innovations included a central radio with speaker extensions in every room, telephone extensions in every room and “heating and ventilation by air-conditioning”, unheard of in domestic interiors at this time.

The dining room, overlooking the rear terrace (which sat atop the ground floor studio), featured walls painted a light, neutral color, grey rubber floor tiles and chromium-plated furniture upholstered in corduroy. Lescaze House is an exercise in design for a modern lifestyle: Lescaze was interested in efficiency and simplicity in housekeeping, economy in materials and labor, as well as maximizing the health-giving properties of natural light both in the interiors and through the rear terrace (the floor of which was partially made of glass bricks, to allow light to penetrate the studio below). Lescaze developed his modernist ideas further with a series of projects for the broadcaster CBS in the late 1930s and finally, in a fulfilment of his earlier ambition to build large-scale modernist housing, through his work on the Williamsburg Housing Development in Brooklyn (1935-38).

Color photographs of Lescaze House and PSFS Building by D.J. Huppatz


Albrecht, Donald, and Thomas Mellins, “Going Gershwin”, Interior Design, March 2007 (article on Lescaze and Howe’s PSFS Building).
Landmarks Preservation Commission of New York, proposal to designate the Lescaze House as a Landmark, January 27, 1976.
Lanmon, Lorraine Welling, William Lescaze, Architect, Philadelphia: The Art Alliance Press, 1987.
Wojtowicz, Robert, ed., Sidewalk Critic: Lewis Mumford’s Writings on New York, New York: Princeton University Press, 1998.