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William Lescaze’s 1934 townhouse was a first; now it’s on the market

May 26, 2018

The hard-to-miss townhouse at 211 East 48th Street was designed by William Lescaze (1896–1969) as his home and architecture office and completed in 1934. It is one of three townhouses Lescaze designed in Manhattan, including the Kramer House (32 E. 74th Street, 1934–1935) and the Norman House (124 E. 70th Street, 1940–1941). The 48th Street townhouse is considered the first Modern movement residence built in New York City.

William Lescaze arrived with the first wave of European modernists who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s. An unwavering adherent of the tenets of Modern architecture when he arrived in 1924 at the age of 24, Lescaze found it difficult to secure work or commissions. His first few years were primarily spent designing interiors, showrooms, restaurants and exhibits. An accomplished artist, he often executed painted murals as part of interior commissions. He also designed numerous apartments for himself and artist friends excited by the ideas of Modernism. It was friends who introduced Lescaze to George Howe, launching the four-year partnership that propelled Modernism to the commercial mainstream with the 1932 PSFS Building in Philadelphia—the first International Style skyscraper in the U.S.

211 E. 48th was Lescaze’s first project in official private practice. He and George Howe had dissolved their partnership shortly after PSFS; thereafter Lescaze had little difficulty securing commissions. Many of the design features he incorporated in this house for his family and architecture practice became signature moves in his townhouses: The upper three floors extended out from the street façade plane to create a cantilevered entry and at the rear the third floor was popped out in a curved wall to catch light and sun. Structural glass block was used for large areas of the street façade—which threw NYC’s building code officials into a tizzy—and full walls of steel-framed windows were used on the rear, garden façade. On the interior Lescaze used a complicated palette of paint colors to articulate spaces and a large central skylight to further lighten up the interior. The architect designed built-in storage and custom furniture crafted in rare, vividly grained woods, the latter complemented by highly textured fabrics. Think chenille and corduroy. These elements, along with the custom fireplaces, were most often asymmetrical and curvilinear with integrated lighting.

Lescaze was influential in the prewar and postwar phases of the International Style in the U.S. He was a prolific writer on the topic of architecture and actively publicized his work before it was common practice to do so. He was a relentless early crusader for Modernism—a go bold or don’t go kind of guy. His townhouse on a block of 19th-century townhouses was a bold stroke that surely provoked some heated criticism in 1934. The usual objections were of minor concern to Lescaze, who wrote of critics of Modern architecture in On Being an Architect, “They deplore the transient excitement of mere adventure…”

All this to say, the excitement and adventure of early Modernism can be yours. Albeit dampened by the loss of significant detail in recent renovations. CurbedNY reports that the Lescaze townhouse on 48th Street is on the market—the first time since Lescaze’s death in 1969. Currently listed at $4.95 million.

© Samantha Marsden