Building of the Day: 40-42 Monroe Place

1914 photo from Architecture Magazine, via mottschmidt.com

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Double duplex townhouses
Address: 40-42 Monroe Place
Cross Streets: Pierrepont and Clark Streets
Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights
Year Built: 1913
Architectural Style: Neo-Georgian
Architect: Mott B. Schmidt
Other Buildings by Architect: Much of Sutton Place, Manhattan, other townhouses and apt. buildings on Upper East Side, many country homes in Westchester, Connecticut, Long Island, for members of the Rockefeller and Astor families, and other wealthy patrons. Also Susan B. Wagner wing of Gracie Mansion.
Landmarked: Yes, part of Brooklyn Heights Historic District (1965)

The story: Two family double duplex houses came into their own in Brooklyn in what was at the time, the St. Marks District; the neighborhood today known as Crown Heights North. They were built in the first two decades of the 20th century to fill a need for a “proper home” for a new class of homeowners who no longer had live-in servants, wanted a smaller, more manageable house, and also wanted to have some income coming in from a rental unit. The double duplex; two separate two-story apartments, with separate entrances and stairways, were a perfect solution for an urban environment.

The double duplex idea spread from Mann & MacNeille’s “Kinko” houses to similar houses by other architects in Crown Heights North and other neighborhoods. They were very elegant designs, and I’m surprised more were not built in Brownstone Brooklyn. Of course, they represent the very last of the row house building boom in Brooklyn. Most of Brownstone Brooklyn was “full.” Brooklyn Heights, as the borough’s oldest neighborhood, was very much built up by 1913.

As a wealthy and popular neighborhood, the closest to Manhattan, the Heights was undergoing a lot of transition during this time. Apartment buildings were replacing single family homes here, as lifestyles changed with the new century. Many of the brownstone row houses built from the 1850s on were being “improved” and modernized, with new facades in the styles of the day, the most popular being the Colonial Revival style. But unlike some of those, these two houses were completely new construction. They were designed by an architect named Mott B. Schmidt.

I had never come across Mott Schmidt’s name before, but that’s because most of his work is in Manhattan and in the wealthy suburban and country communities outside of the city, where he built country homes for some of New York’s wealthiest people. He was the architect of the Neo-Georgian townhouses that make up Sutton Place in Manhattan.

Mott Brooshovft Schmidt was born in Brooklyn in 1889, into a German-Irish family of doctors. His father was one of the few non-medical sons in the family. His great- grandfather and grandfather had been pioneers in medicine in New York City. Young Mott was named after Valentine Mott, one of the innovative pioneers of modern vascular surgery and a close family friend.

Growing up, the Schmidt family lived at 671 Park Place, between Franklin and Bedford Avenues. He attended public school, then followed his childhood dream to become an architect, and attended Pratt Institute, graduating with a Certificate of Architecture at only 17. He went on his Grand Tour of Europe next, like many fledgling architects, and studied the great buildings of Europe for two years before returning to New York. He then spent four years at a New York firm, learning the technical and business side of the business. He then went out on his own.

Schmidt would make his name on Neo-Georgian houses like this. He had a deft hand with this style, and knew how to proportion the fenestration and entryways. They are simple houses, without a lot of ornament, but are extremely elegant. The double entryways give homeowner and tenant beautiful portals to their homes, and it does not surprise one to know that they were immediately snapped up.

I do not know if the two houses were built for the Kings and Westchester Land Company, the company that built the original Kinko houses, but the brand name became the generic name for all duplex houses of this type. Brooklyn Life, an early 20th century high society magazine, refers to 40-42 Monroe as Kinko houses when noting that prominent residents of Pierrepont Street, Mr. Adolphe E. Smiley and his wife, were going to rent the upper duplex at number 40 as soon as the building was completed. Other prominent families soon joined them in the other three apartments in the two houses.

Both houses are large, but 40 Monroe is enormous, stretching back with several extensions through the entire lot. The entire building has 7,259 square feet of living space, making each duplex around 3,630 square feet. Not bad for a city home. Both homes were the residences of prominent Brooklyn Heights folk for the rest of the century. Their names were all on the social register, and their charitable and social goings-on were dutifully chronicled in the papers.

Meanwhile, Mott Schmidt went on to a stellar career. His Monroe townhouses led to an association with wealthy Manhattan patrons which led to his design of the Sutton Place townhouses on the Upper East Side. These houses were built for female members of the Vanderbilt and J.P Morgan families, among others. The houses, built in 1921-1924, set up his career for life. He married an interior designer in Elsie DeWolfe’s office, Elena Bachman, and spent the rest of his career designing townhouses, apartment buildings and country homes for their very wealthy clients. He designed over 50 of these country homes in northern Westchester, Connecticut, New Jersey and on Long Island for the Rockefellers, Astors and other members of Manhattan’s wealthy elite.

Retirement was put off in the 1960s, when he received the call to design a new wing for Gracie Mansion, the official home of New York City’s mayors. Of course, messing with this historic landmark would be controversial, but Schmidt was not a groundbreaker, he was a practical traditionalist. His design for the Susan B. Wagner Wing was completed in 1966, debuting with far less criticism than the initial project had elicited. Famed architectural critic Ada Louis Huxtable wanted something a little more daring, but conceded that “Gracie’s
unpretentiousness might well have resisted a radical contemporary solution.” Mott Schmidt designed three more houses and finally retired for good. He died at the age of 88, in 1977, at his home in Katonah, NY.

All of my biographical information, as well as some of the photographs for this piece come from a website celebrating the life and many works of Mott B. Schmidt. The biography was compiled and written by Mark Allen Hewitt, who has written a book about the architect and his works. I’m glad I found this valuable resource, and I thank Mr. Hewitt and the originators of the site, The Architecture of Mott B. Schmidt, for their hard work and scholarship.

(Photograph:Google Maps)

GMAP

1914 photo from Architecture Magazine, via mottschmidt.com

1914 photo from Architecture Magazine, via mottschmidt.com

Photo: Mottschmidt.com

Photo: Mottschmidt.com

Photo: Mottschmidt.com

Photo: Mottschmidt.com

Photo: Nicholas Strini for Property Shark

Photo: Nicholas Strini for Property Shark

Photo: Nicholas Strini for Property Shark

Photo: Nicholas Strini for Property Shark

Interior stairway. Photo: Mottschmidt.com

Interior stairway. Photo: Mottschmidt.com

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