The William Lescaze House: NYC’s first modernist residence

Posted On Wed, July 5, 2017 By

Posted On Wed, July 5, 2017 By In Architecture, Features, Historic Homes, History, Midtown East

The William Lescaze House in 1934 via MCNY

These days, it’s pretty common for historic townhouses to receive glassy additions, but this contemporary touch wasn’t always so common. In fact, it wasn’t until 1936 that New York City got its first modern residence—the William Lescaze House. William Lescaze was a Swiss-born, American architect who’s credited with pioneering modernism in America. Along with his partner, George Howe, he completed the first International Style skyscraper in the country in 1930, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) Building. Unfortunately, his high-profile career didn’t go much further than this, but he did design several uptown townhouses, one of which was his personal home and office and was the first of its kind in NYC.

Lescaze was an outspoken modernist, highly influenced by Le Corbusier. He wrote that the style was “beautiful, economical, and efficient.” Aside from aesthetics, he also felt it contributed to a balanced life, saying, ” The unseen results are greater happiness, better health for a greater number of human beings, the satisfaction of being honest and of being in tune with the life of our own times.” In a 1984 New York Times article, architecture critic Paul Goldberger aptly described Lescaze and his legacy:

William Lescaze is a curious figure in the history of 20th-century architecture–not quite major, hardly minor. A confirmed modernist, he nonetheless was overshadowed by Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. An ardent New Yorker, he was unable to leave the mark on the city that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill or Emery Roth did.

211 East 48th Street, William Lescaze House, first modern house in NYC, International Style
The front and rear of the William Lescaze House in 1934 via MCNY

It wasn’t for a lack of interest that his career didn’t take off further, but rather a series of bad luck that caused many of his projects to never come to fruition. Among his unbuilt projects were a CBS headquarters on Park Avenue (he did complete smaller projects for the station, though) and a tower for MoMA that was made of a series of stacked blocks that could almost be considered a precursor to 56 Leonard. But what he did build were several Upper East Side townhouses, the most famous of which was his own house and office at 211 East 48th Street. Work began on his concrete and glass home in 1934, and when it was completed two years later, it became the first modernist home built in New York City.

211 East 48th Street, William Lescaze House, first modern house in NYC, International StyleThe William Lescaze House living room in 1934 via MCNY

The townhouse was not an entirely new construction, but rather a complete overhaul of and addition to a pre-Civil War brownstone. It employed the first use of glass block in the city. Along with the casement ribbon windows, these balance the heavy gray stucco facade, creating a rhythmic pattern of solids and voids. The facade lacks any ornamentation, letting the geometry and large planar surfaces evoke a feeling of modernity and express the separate functions of living and working. Though this may appear simple in design, it is actually “the result of the sophisticated analysis of proportional relationships–the precise balancing of solids and voids– and the avoidance of any non-functional, superfluous detail,” according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

While glass blocks are as common today as front stoops, Lescaze was a true pioneer in his choice to utilize them. In “The Making of an Architect” he said:

When we built our house in 1934, glass bricks had not yet been used in this country. Unbelievable but true. I had seen a few of them in Europe, and they seemed to be an excellent new material to do a job I was anxious to have done. They add to the amount of daylight without adding to the fuel bill, they let daylight through yet obscured the uninteresting view of the nine-story apartment house across the street, and they deadened street noises. An enterprising manufacturer agreed to make the first American glass blocks for us in his plant in Illinois. But what an epic battle we had with the Code! It lasted at least three months, back and forth. Three months of agony.

211 East 48th Street, William Lescaze House, first modern house in NYC, International Style
211 East 48th Street, William Lescaze House, first modern house in NYC, International StyleInterior photos showing the glass blocks and bricks from a 2011 Douglas Elliman Listing

Lescaze’s hand is demonstrated throughout the interior, too. Its simple, linear form is met with graceful, curved volumes. Glass block skylights in the ground-floor office space, which are set in the backyard’s concrete garden platform, help to brighten up the space. In the rear yard itself, more glass bricks in the ground continue the design. The home was also the first residential building in New York City to have central air conditioning.

211 East 48th Street, William Lescaze House, first modern house in NYC, International Style

The home stayed in the Lescaze family for three generations. In 1976 it was designated an official New York City landmark, and in 1980 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The landmark designation report says:

His goal–the creation of an architecture expressive of the spirit and life of the 20th century and of each client’s’ individual requirements–is fully realized in this house by an harmonious design of deceptive simplicity, determined by a rational, functional plan, and developed through the use of the newest available technology, materials and methods of construction. The sudden appearance on East 48th Street of this startlingly “modern” facade of 1934, set between deteriorating brownstones of the post-Civil War period, had a dramatic impact upon the streetscape and the neighborhood. Ripples of excitement spread far and wide following the immediate publication of the house in the foremost architectural journals of the day.

Interestingly, Lescaze was vocally opposed to the term “International Style,” as he felt it was like a “bag of tricks” that could be applied to any building. He instead felt that an architect’s creativity emerged from designing a building from the inside out to the needs of its occupant.

211 East 48th Street, William Lescaze House, first modern house in NYC, International Style
The facade today via Sage Realty and post-renovation interiors via a 2011 Douglas Elliman listing

The house is currently under the management of Sage Realty, who completed a total restoration of the property prior to 2011, transforming it into both residential and commercial space. According to Sage, “The street façade has been painstakingly renovated as close to its original condition as possible. The stucco finish was patched and repainted to approximately Lescaze’s original specification. After months of research, a five-inch by five-inch glass block was found that matches the original block employed by Lescaze. These handmade blocks maintain the overall compositional balance that Lescaze intended.” Though the LPC doesn’t regulate a building’s interior (unless it’s one of a small number of interior landmarks), Sage also preserved the original feel inside, installing a glass elevator and updated contemporary kitchen.

32 East 74th Street, William Lescaze32 East 74th Street via Corcoran

And to show the value of these modernist treasures, built just one year after his personal home, Lescaze’s 32 East 74th Street sold for $16 million in late 2015. It belonged to Raymond C. Kramer, a textile entrepreneur and U.S. Colonel, who commissioned Lescaze after seeing the 48th Street house. They share the same stucco facade, curved entryway, and ribbon windows.

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Interior photos via 2011 and 2012 listings with Douglas Elliman; Historic photos via Museum of the City of New York

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Neighborhoods : Midtown East,Turtle Bay

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