Dawn of a New Age: The Immigrants Contribution to Arts in America | An Exhibit by the Special Collections Research Center Special Collections Research Center
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John Vassos
William Lescaze
Adolph Bolm
Louis Lozowick
Miklos Rozsa
William Lescaze

William Lescaze (1896–1969) was born and trained in Switzerland but became the American architect best known for introducing the modernist International Style of architecture to the United States. In Zürich, he studied under the architect Karl Moser at the Technische Hochschule, completing his degree in 1919. His dream, however, was to immigrate to America. It was pointed out in a 12 December 1936 profile of Lescaze in the New Yorker that one of the ironies of the post–World War I period was that, while American artists were going to Europe to seek culture and freedom, European artists were looking with longing towards America; they were attracted by the “cult of the machine and adventurousness.”For Lescaze, an aspiring modernist, it “seemed that a country which contained skyscrapers, jazz, grain elevators, and motorcar assembly plants must be the place for him.”

In August 1920, he set sail for America, carrying with him a few letters of introduction and a letter of recommendation from Karl Moser (an architect little known in the United States). His assets included two hundred and fifty dollars and one year’s study of English. At times, he wondered whether he had made the right decision.

He arrived in New York and stayed there for only a week, discouraged by the lack of interest in him and his work. With a recommendation to seek out the friend of a friend, he went to Cleveland where he worked as a draftsman for Hubbell and Benes. His earnings from the Sutton House project in New York gave him the financial freedom to leave Cleveland in 1927 and return to New York to establish himself. His first important commission was for the Oak Lane Country Day School near Philadelphia, a structure notable for its features that were scaled down to child size, such as stairs, and for its use of cork floors to reduce knee injuries. In 1929, he entered a partnership with George Howe that resulted in the landmark Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building (PSFS) built in 1931 and 1932. The PSFS introduced the International Style of architecture to the United States. It is considered one of the best-designed skyscrapers from the era prior to World War II.

In 1935, Lescaze finally set out on his own. He worked on residences—either new or renovations—as well as commercial and office buildings. Whenever he could, he used new materials or repurposed existing ones such as glass blocks, and he designed all the smaller elements associated with these projects such as door knobs, trimming, light fixtures, and furniture.

Lescaze also became involved with large-scale public housing projects such as the 1937 Williamsburg Houses in Brooklyn, which provided housing for sixteen hundred families. Although ten architects contributed to the project, Lescaze was responsible for the general design. This was the first opportunity he had to apply his theories on low-cost housing to a large-scale project. Among the ideas he introduced were angling the housing to the street to maximize exterior windows and to increase lawn space and play areas. These ideas had been developed by his teacher, Moser, and implemented in similar projects abroad. While many public housing projects eventually fell out of favor, Williamsburg was given landmark status. After that project, Lescaze worked primarily in New York. He was a visiting critic at Columbia’s School of Architecture and taught industrial design at Pratt Institute between 1943 and 1945. He received a Certificate of Merit Award from the New York State Association of Architects. In 1945, he established with Henry Dumper the firm of William Lescaze and Associates. Among his important late works were the Borg-Warner Building (Chicago, 1955), the chancery building of the Swiss embassy (Washington, D.C., 1959), and the Church Peace Center Building (New York City, 1962). [View Lescaze Gallery]