Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Residence of Alexander Stewart Walker, New York City

Text and photos from a article written by John Taylor Boyd Jr.(New York critic) in 1919.

Personality is an essential quality in the architecture of houses. There is some basis for the claim of those who decry originality in the monumental architecture of public buildings on the argument that its character has been crystallized by the experience of ages. But surely our homes should not all be alike. We cannot, in their case, make a fetish of standardization or of current fashions and, at the same time, hope to attain any real atmosphere of art, which is the aim of every good designer.

It is the declared purpose of modern housework to avoid both stereotyped arrangements and ephemeral fashions. But the performance too often fails. Formula and unreasoned imitation are everywhere too apparent. As good design spreads out more and more through the people, which it has been doing for a generation, quality will tend to lower unless it is stimulated by good example. 

The development of the American home is now well defined; we understand high standards and seek them in building houses and in furnishing them, and we have an ample technique at command. What we need to fight now is mediocrity.

The artistic progress that I have alluded to is the work of people of character and personality among both designers and their clientele. Now, however, that the world as a whole becomes interested and takes part in the procession, the highway is crowded more and more with good faithful workers, the solid, the imitative, the technically skillful who follow the crowd rather than lead it. The danger increases that design may become more of a business and less of an art.

This encroachment of the humdrum is evident in house architecture today, particularly in regard to interiors. Yet interiors are the most personal of the architectural surroundings of our lives; in fact, they are nothing less than the world-old lore and art of the hearthstone, that is common to all mankind. While such household art should be community art in order to attain its highest purpose, it should also express our individual selves. In other words, while our homes should follow a certain accepted taste and excellence, they need not be exactly like every other man's house from New York to Los Angeles, except for a different hanging or the turn of a molding.

We are in danger of making the American home a business product. To mention merely the words "living room," "dining room," hallway," "bedroom," "library," is to cause most designers to think of an established formula for each, rather than to inspire them to imagine a picture. Usually nowadays the dining room means light paint, strip panels, formality, furniture just so, placed just so, with a bit of tapestry; silverware and plate ware and glassware no longer show-windowed behind glass doors, but most discreetly indicated by a candlestick or two en axe, as on a chapel altar; a forbidding portrait or two overlooking the scene. Entrance hallways are cold formal things, adequate frames for the ceremony of receiving the visitors' cards; no wonder the host no longer appears there, as he did in times of less sophisticated manners. A library is usually a paneled or bookcased room, light or dark, according to some half a dozen schemes concerning different arrangements of cupboards, shelves or cornices, all meaning about the same thing. Living rooms are more informal, but can you not recall examples where the pictures are exactly spotted, balanced carefully examples that universal formula of the contemporary decorator - with the current magazines carefully flattened out on the table like a hand at cards, the best sellers piled about geometrically? How one longs for a bold designer who will dare get a roaring fireplace in the dining room and introduce a gleam of rich carving and color and gold and dark wood; who will take the wicker furniture out of the glassed lounging room, put color into the living room, get along without chintzes; even make the entrance hall hospitable. He would be a true adventurer.

Of course, there are designers aplenty who are able to think for themselves and for their clients. Architects have done the highest work in interiors - White, McKim, Platt, Hastings, Eyre, Bigelow, Pope, to mention only a few men long ago well known.

Among young leaders Walker & Gillette have accomplished fine results in houses in work noted for its personality. Characteristic indeed is the result gained by Mr. A. Stewart Walker of this firm in his own home in New York City, illustrated in these pages. It is a refreshing contrast to the average house design. This house of Mr. Walker's is an alteration, but nevertheless he has treated the plan more freely than does many a designer on a new project where there are no walls or floors existing to hamper him. Like most good schemes, it is extremely simple. The lot is a twenty-foot width, on the southeast corner of a principal street. The maximum of light and air was desired; hence the stairway was placed on the inside against the party wall, and consists of one straight flight up from the basement entrance hall to the living quarters, and a winding stair hall thence up to the bedroom floors. This attractive, compact arrangement eliminates the usual too-prominent stair hall, eating up priceless space, destroying the charm of a city house with its dreary stairwell. 
Another skillful point is the entrance at the rear, on the cross street, from the little square garden en-framed by iron fence and gate and lattice decoration against the neighbors' party walls: a most distinctive and charming, yet unobtrusive effect. The kitchen is placed on the corner, on the front of the main street—a happy idea, in view of the recent enthronement of the domestic worker. This placing of the kitchen results in the square dining room on the corner on the main floor above, with the living room opening off it and occupying the south exposure on the cross street, the light streaming in through its two bay windows. 

The floors above are given over to bedrooms. One could hardly find a more practical plan. It makes the greatest possible use of space and light, while affording those unexpected contrasts of light, arrangement and little vistas that so inspire the designer to do his best.

The separate rooms hold their part in this fine plan admirably. The entrance hall gives a most interesting impression to the visitor, simple, roomy, yet small in scale, and much more homelike than most New York entrances. Proportions are low, but not too low, the furniture is well chosen and placed, rather delicate, in scale with the room, not too stiff and showing well against the yellowish plaster wall. The lighting fixtures are exquisitely designed, as they are throughout the house.

From the entrance hall, one ascends the stair, a single flight enclosed in a well, with simple oak treads and a metal hand rail of corded rope design, to find oneself at the entrance to the living room, looking through to the south bay window. 

And let me add, it is a living room in the true sense of the word—a room where people live at ease. This atmosphere of livableness of the room is permeating and hardly has it made itself felt than another impression of it is formed—one feels its quiet, but rich and beautiful colors. Here again the color is in harmony with the character of the room. It is comfortable, so to say, there is no insistent "keynote"; in fact, it is almost difficult to determine what the colors of the room are. 
There are the soft, rather light nut brown, woodwork and dark green curtains with narrow gold edging over the large bay window at the east end, and the rest of the tones are so quietly blended as hardly to be noticed.
The woodwork of this living room is a delightful study for the architect who appreciates fine wood details of paneling and mouldings. There is probably no better carved English pine cornice in existence, and the chimney piece is old. Most of the rest is pieced out, but so much in the spirit of the original fragments that one could hardly distinguish old work from new. 
The furniture is all of it comfortable, placed about simply, without any suspicion of designer's affectation. There is none of that ridiculous device of assembling pictures and bric-a-brac in painfully balanced grouping alluded to above. 
The large alcove, with shelves from floor to ceiling, fits admirably into the scheme, showing how successful an unsymmetrically shaped room may be. The floor is of oak boards about five inches wide, of dark stain. 
Here, as elsewhere in the house, is found that quaint assortment—not too much of it—of decorations, of pictures, carvings, metal work, miscellaneous nothings that an architect is bound to pick up in his activity and which add so much that is interesting and personal in a home. Of such are the ship model in the dining room and the fine gilt bird hung in the bay window of the living room.
The living room opens into the dining room, and a most charming, intimate sort of room it is in its walls of old English paneling, rather delicate in scale and in its fine old English furniture. 
The ceiling is a low segmental plaster curve. This trim, dainty room offers a charming contrast to the larger, more spacious, more "spread-out" living room. 
Most compact of all is the little Gothic winding stair from the main floor to bedroom floors above, of broad oak treads and odd rail. Its walls are bare and the chief decorations are a number of beautiful small metal hanging lamps on the landings. Upstairs are a series of airy and most cheerful rooms, extremely simple, without formality such as strip panels. Their character has more of the lightness of a summer home than of that heaviness too often found in city houses.

All this design of Mr. Walker's house results in a rare combination of comfort and charm, of colorful decoration, of wit, personality. On the exterior there has been no attempt to modernize the plain front of gray painted brick and brownstone, and the not unpleasing oldfashioned look has been maintained. On the cross-street on either side are a number of unconventional house fronts, very simple, of stuccoed walls and gay painted details that, if developed further, will make this block one of the most interesting in New York City, where, as in most cities, blocks of houses, even if well designed individually, are usually uninspiring as a whole.

The townhouse stood at 823 Lexington Avenue at East 63rd Street, south-east corner.

  The Barbizon Hotel for Women replaced townhouse.  Click HERE to see building on Bing. Wikipedia article.

Walker & Gillette bought 128 East 37th Street in
1911, and maintained offices there until selling the building in 1923. 

They had a office at 168 East 51st Street(demolished) that had been designed by McKim, Mead & White. 
168 EAST 51st STREET, 1942
Walker & Gillette had taken over this  building in 1928, shortly before they designed the Fuller Building at 57th and Madison, and the W. Goadby Loew house at 56 East 93rd. The building had been finished in 1912 for two artists, A. Phimister Proctor and Alden Sampson.

Details of Mr. Sampson’s life are difficult to find, but Mr. Proctor is well known as a sculptor of wildlife especially of the American West. Mr. Proctor’s most familiar work is the horse underneath William Tecumseh Sherman at Grand Army Plaza. He and Mr. Sampson retained McKim, Mead & White in 1911 to design a three-story double studio on 51st Street off Third Avenue. 

Mr. Proctor was working in the studio in 1922 when he completed a model of a statue of Theodore Roosevelt  for Portland, Ore. The two had traveled together in the West. In 1937 tenants included the School of the Isadora Duncan Dance Art. 

Link to above information.


  1. I love that gilded bird hanging from the ceiling in the bay window.

  2. Great post. I've always admired this house, and clever you have found several pictures I'd never seen---taste, proportion, restraint, elegance, and a reasonable scale. Marvelous