Landmarks Preservation Commission: January 27, 1976
National Register of Historic Places: May 19, 1980
William Lescaze was a European architect who would change the way Americans saw architecture starting in the 1930s and on. Born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1896 he would study under Karl Moser at the Polytechnic School in Zurich. After graduating in 1919, Lescaze went to France, specifically Arras then Paris, where he would work under Henri Sauvage. He would eventually move to the United States as a recommendation by Moser in 1920 and begin his American career at Hubbel and Benes in Cleveland, Ohio. Shortly after his move to America, Lescaze opened up his New York office in 1923 and would begin a brief partnership with George Howe in 1929. Their most noted commissions were the Oak Lane Country Day School and the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) both in Philadelphia.
The project in Philadelphia (PSFS) would be the second skyscraper to have central-air conditioning. It was also a newer style and aesthetic Americans were not accustomed to, termed "International Style." His designs were highly influenced by Le Corbusier who used angular lines, geometric precisions and smooth planar surfaces. Through projects and inspiration, Lescaze would design the first "modern" home in New York City which would double as his living space and office.
Before Lescaze built his home and office, the site was inhabited by a row of pre-Civil war brownstones. In 1933, Lescaze started building his home in the narrow lot between the row houses with the newest technologies, materials and methods of construction. He moved into the house with his wife in summer 1934 and kept the house in the same condition and appearance while living there. Even when the house was designated in 1976, the house had remained the same for over forty years.
Today, Lescaze's home and office remains untouched aesthetically with the world changing around it. The city and street scape have changed since the building was first erected in 1934 with more and more skyscrapers built around it as well as the evolution of architectural styles. The home and office would be the first of its kind inspiring architecture around it. (LPC January 27, 1976)
The home and office is referred to as the “International Style”, however, Lescaze did not approve of this description for his creation. He felt that the words used to describe his architecture endeavor was speaking of it as if it were from “a bag of tricks”. His choice to utilize the most modern technology, materials and methods of construction were the first in New York, inspiring other architects to approach design with a more modernist approach. His contribution to New York City has now been referred to as a “classic” New York City residential building.
The home today sits between two row houses, one with a modern style, and the other with emulates the Neo-Grec style. Surrounding Lescaze's home are skyscrapers piercing the sky at every turn. Behind the home remains an escape from the city with green space to those fortunate enough to be positioned behind it.
The four story building was designed simplistically thus resulting in advanced exploration of proportional relationships with smooth surfaces and deliberate prevention of ornamentation. Lescaze created an open and airy space, confined into a narrow lot, using glass blocks or bricks that not only allowed light but also privacy and structural support. By utilizing the glass bricks, he was able to provide an optimal amount of light for his home and office which was below street level. The major use of cement and stucco on the facade has allowed the building to utilize the curves along with the precise angular lines. (LPC January 27, 1976)
Upon his original request to the Building Department in August 1933 to alter the 1865 brownstone was denied. Lescaze specified in his plans he would extend the facade forward to the building line and extending it two-stories in the rear. The major oposition from the Building Department was pertaining to venitilation and the use of glass blocks. In January 1934, Lescaze added that he would be installing a complete system of mechanical ventilation and air-conditioning. The glass blocks were also noted to be used as windows with proper brick spandrels at the floor. His plans were finally approved in February 1934 and complete in June 1934 when Lescaze and his wife moved in. (LPC January 27, 1976)
211 East 48th Street is located between 2nd and 3rd Avenue in the Midtown East neighborhood. The neighborhood is bounded by North of 38th Street, South of 60th Street, East of 7th Avenue and West of Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive. The area today has continuous high traffic by pedestrians and other various forms of transportation. The styles among buildings varies from large skyscrapers to Neo-Grec rowhouses.
A row of single family 1865 brownstones pre-existed the Lescaze home; built by Elias and Daniel Herbert. The lot was more narrow than the average lot size (25') leaving only 16'-7" in width to build the commercial and residential building. On 48th Street, the home is surrounded by brownstones and brick rowhouses. Flanking the street are skyscrapers, boxing in the small four-story homes. The mix of heights and styles are customary for Midtown East which began after Lescaze built his home in the neighborhood. The home cohesively exists in this neighborhood of variations and evolution.
Lescaze’s design and technology set the precedent for modern architecture by using nontraditional materials like glass and cement as well as the inclusion of central air conditioning. He also included casement windows inside the glass bricks stretching across the upper levels as well as a ribbon of windows used on the basement level for the office. Ribbon windows were continued on the second floor bedroom level, partially cantilevered, creating a fluid curve catching as much eastern morning sun as possible. In addition to the use of glass, the façade was also made of stucco painted an off-white and later gray. (LPC January 27, 1976)
Lescaze was best known for his collaboration with George Howe on the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building. The commission and construction allowed him to become a credible architect designing with more artistic license. His influence came from the angular lines, flat planar surfaces, and geometric precision of Le Corbusier’s Corinthian projects of the 1920s.
Through his explorations, Lescaze was able to influence other architects from his home on East 48th Street thus creating a new urban vernacular design. His use of glass bricks being utilized as structural support was a first in American design contributing to the new built fabric of New York City.
In 1935, architect Morris Sanders, included glass bricks and the use of residential and office space in his buildings located at 212 and 219 East 49th Street. Lescaze would later use the same concepts and designs in the homes of the Kramers and Normans on the Upper East Side. He would also later alter the adjacent house at 209 East 48th to cohesively exist with his modern home. The modernist ideas and concepts would eventually spread quickly through New York City utilizing glass as a way to let the outdoors become part of the interior forming a new enclosed space. The idea was to provide fresh air and sunlight allowing one to live in a cleaner and healthier environment. (LPC January 27, 1976)
The home and office of Lescaze in New York City did not stylistically reflect the norm of its time. It was innovative and the forerunner of modernism. A retrospective of Lescaze's work was held at the National Academy of Design on 5th Avenue in 1984. He received deserve praise for his many commissions and designs that were never finalized. In addition to the PSFS building, he was also noted as Columbia Broadcasting System's lead designer from microphone housing to the headquarters building. William Paley, chairman of CBS, believed Lescaze was the best architect to project his image of "forward-looking". His most important design for the CBS headquarters on Park Avenue was never realized. It was to be a five-story glass box on a solid four-story solid base. The design, completed in 1936, was done before the erection of the Lever House in 1952 allowing it to be just as significant in New York architecture. Although many of his large scale projects were never erected, his buildings that do exist received high praises. His home was deemed to be the finest International Style townhouse in New York City by New York Times writer Paul Goldberger in 1984. Throughout his retrospect, Lescaze was presented as "the kind of man Henry Luce admired and Lewis Mumford wrote about-commercial in outlook yet profound in impact and cultural representation." (Goldberger 1984, 13)
Shortly after completion of his home, Lescaze received positive affirmations for his creation. He built the home and office at the height of his career and convinced others that his modern home was in fact the ideal fashion to design one's home. In 1936, Lescaze was a part of an exhibition describing the process for making art at the Brooklyn Museum. It was there that skeptics of modern architecture were convinced by Lescaze's home that "nowhere else could I be so happily domiciled" said reporter Elisabeth Luther Cary of the New York Times. At this exhibition, Lescaze claimed that when life readjusted competently modern architecture would reach its ideal.
Ringing the bell for modern architects, Lescaze began a movement that would last until the late 1970s when the post-modern AT&T building was erected by Philip Johnson. Lescaze historian Lorraine Lanmon states that his row house was built amidst the height of his career during the PSFS commission and Oak Country Lane Day School. His innovative designs would become vernacular architecture for New York City cementing his place amongst modern architects. (Cary 1936, X10)
The Swiss-American architect William Lescaze was an early pioneer for modern architecture. Educated in Europe, he came to America to contribute new ideals and leave his mark as a renowned architect. Designing the PSFS, commissions for CBS, modern homes, and planning for housing development allowed Lescaze to be a well rounded designer. He believed that modern architecture was the cure to low cost housing. It provided human beings a building geared towards their needs providing light and air while cutting costs on materials. His home was built with the same concepts in mind. Overlooking Turtle Bay Gardens, 211 East 48th Street was an urban oasis, utilizing simple materials like glass and cement. It is evident that others found this home to be significant to the city of New York by designating it not long after the establishment of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The home today sits aesthetically as it did upon completion in 1934 even with prior restorations. Interior landmarks are less frequent, however, the home of Lescaze deserved landmarking internally as well as externally. He put the same effort on the interior as he did on the exterior, designing all the furniture within his home. The building was modern in totality including the rooftop terrace providing more green space for the inhabitants. Interior landmarking could have saved the home from having walls knocked down and possibly becoming a home accessible by the public as if it were a modernist house museum. Fortunately, the house is protected and will continue to inspire designers to create new ideals, providing the most comfortable and unique experience for humans daily lives.
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Goldberger, Paul. "Architecture: A William Lescaze Retrospective." New York Times. August 21, 1984.
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