William Edmond Lescaze’s design for his own house and office was the first attempt to apply the principles of the Modernist movement to the New York town house type. It was completed in 1934, a mere two years after Hitchcock and Johnson’s International Style exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. That exhibit had featured Lescaze’s PSFS Building, designed while still in partnership with George Howe. Following so quickly on the heels of the MoMA exhibition, Lescaze’s house was quickly lauded in the architectural press as the first example of an “International Style” town house in Manhattan. Nevertheless, Lescaze himself balked at the concept of style, preferring to describe modern architecture as a “philosophy of life” that celebrated the “mechanized tools of our civilization.” In this, Lescaze hoped to link the aesthetics of the modern movement to a frank display of new technologies. In his town house, the new technologies primarily consisted of load-bearing glass brick on the exterior and air conditioning on the interior. At the same time, these new technologies were integrated into a building that retained key features of the historic building type.
211 East 48th Street began its life as an 1865 brownstone town house, a material that had fallen out of favor as ubiquitous, cheap, and old-fashioned by the 1920s. The result was a steady stream of town house renovation projects, including in 1922 the design of Turtle Bay Gardens on the same block as Lescaze’s later 1934 renovation. Turtle Bay Gardens, by Dean and Bottomley, transformed the facades of several brownstones into a unified stuccoed front that resembles the work of Robert Adam at the Adelphi. On the interior of the block, the small, private, brick utility yards were unified as a single communal garden.
In August 1933, Lescaze applied to New York City’s building department to renovate 211 East 48th Street as a residence for himself and Mary Connick Hughes, whom he married a month later. He was also in the midst of an acrimonious breakup with George Howe and in search of office space for the establishment of his own firm. Lescaze’s renovation was meant to be a radical departure from both Turtle Bay Gardens and the remaining brownstones on the block. While Lescaze left the basic floor divisions of the original brownstone intact, as well as basic town house features like the high stoop, he projected the building’s front facade to the edge of the lot to gain more interior space. This new facade presents the house as a stark white box, whose floor divisions are marked on the second and third stories by floor-to-ceiling walls of load-bearing glass brick. The entrance is highlighted by a cantilevered concrete slab on a single blue piloti. The slab’s curve is picked up in the curved ribbon windows of the first floor, which itself cantilevers out over the glass brick wall of Lescaze’s architectural office on the ground floor.
These features, particularly the load-bearing glass brick, are meant to visually connote European Modernist ideals that associated modern domestic life with hygiene, light, and fresh air. At the same time, they are used to highlight the traditional floor divisions of the New York town house and to distinguish a hierarchy of spaces. Glass brick is employed on the floors featuring family and guest spaces, while the ribbon windows on the first floor denote the maid and kitchen spaces.
On the interior, Lescaze rearranged the traditional layout of the brownstone to maximize space and natural light, all around a central circulation core. On the first floor, Lescaze flipped the traditional town house layout by pushing servant spaces to the front, allowing him to create one single dining room on the rear facade with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open to a rear patio. This patio, Lescaze’s version of Le Corbusier’s rooftop garden, takes advantage of the roof of the architectural offices below, which extend all the way to the rear property line. The second floor is divided by the service core into a front-facing guest room and rear-facing master bedroom whose ribbon window subtly curves to face the morning sun. The third floor is transformed into a single, continuous living room that flows from the front glass brick to the rear facade. This decision defied traditional town house planning, which placed communal spaces on the ground floor, reserving upper levels for more private functions. However, it allowed Lescaze to maximize the functional use of the space, which he also optimized by building furniture into alcoves. It also allowed him to maximize the use of natural light by complementing the glass wall and rear ribbon window with a skylight.
The modernist innovations in terms of space and material were complemented by the introduction of modern services like air conditioning. Air conditioning allowed glass to become a structural element, because windows no longer had to be opened to circulate air. This allowed the glass blocks to light an otherwise sealed environment. The venting system was paired with a cantilevered fireplace, pairing the old, vestigial means of climate control with the new, modern form. Because of its infrequent use, the guest room on the second floor was not air conditioned, requiring Lescaze to insert two windows of metal sash into the glass brick facade to provide ventilation. Thus, the features of the exterior facade were determined by internal considerations. Other modernist gadgets, including a dumbwaiter and inter-room telephone system were included, in part because the house was showpiece for potential new clients.
The result was a house that received glowing press coverage, from reviews in House and Garden, Architectural Forum, and Architectural Record, as well as Lewis Mumford’s “Skyline” column in The New Yorker. A. B. Cutts summarized the effect of the building in the Architectural Review in 1937: “Day and night it stands out from the dingy row of Victorian brown-stone fronts like a ray of sunshine in a cellar.” In the years since, the building has remained largely intact, having been landmarked by New York City in 1976 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Interior finishing and mechanical services were upgraded over the years, but few changes have been made to the facade or to the interior arrangements.
Cutts, A.B. “Residence of William Lescaze, New York.” Architectural Record 77 (April 1935): 171-174.
Hubert, Christian, and Lindsay Stamm Shapiro. William Lescaze. New York: Rizzoli, 1982.
Jordy, William. “William Lescaze, Reconsidered.” In “Symbolic Essence” and Other Writings on Modern Architecture and American Culture, edited by Mardges Bacon, 85-96. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
Lanmon, Lorraine. William Lescaze, Architect. Philadelphia: Art Alliance Press, 1987.
Lescaze, William. “The Classic of Tomorrow,” American Architect 147 (December 1935): 11-14.
Lescaze, William. On Being an Architect. New York: Putnam, 1942.
Stern, Robert A.M., Gregory Gilmartin, and Thomas Mellins. New York 1930: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars. New York: Rizzoli, 1987.