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Lamb and Rich
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STREETSCAPES/Lamb & Rich; The Architectural
Firm Of Vivid & Ingenious
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
Published: July 11, 2004, Sunday
THE picturesque 1887 Frank Babbott house at 153 Lincoln Place in Park Slope, designed by the architects Lamb & Rich, was in decline for decades, most recently as a hotel that charged $50 for an eight-hour stay.
But work is now under way to rebuild it as 11 condominiums -- and its new owners will each have a part of one of Brooklyn's most distinctive houses.
Its architects, Hugh Lamb and Charles Alonzo Rich, burst onto the New York scene in the 1880's with their own ingenious variations on the urban mansion. In their careers, they contributed some of the most vivid designs ever seen on the New York streetscape.
(They were also one of several Victorian-era architectural partnerships with amusing names: Boring & Tilton, Hill & Stout, Harde & Short.)
Established just after 1880, Lamb & Rich began practice just as the New York area was rousing itself from the chocolate-coated slumber of the brownstone age -- rows and rows of nearly identical houses, a nightmare 19th-century Levittown with stoops and cornices.
Both were born about 1850 -- Lamb was a native of Scotland; Rich was born in Beverly, Mass., and attended Dartmouth.
Little is known of their training, but various sources indicate that Lamb generally handled the firm's business side and Rich was the designer.
One of their earliest standing commissions is Henderson Place, a tight-knit group of two dozen houses built in 1882 at 86th Street and East End Avenue with its own little alley.
It is one of the earliest housing developments to break the brownstone's iron grip, with many nooks and crannies, multipaned windows, and roof profiles as picturesque as the Alps: ''Tiny, zesty Queen Anne row houses that transport unwary romantics to other climes and another era,'' says ''The A.I.A. Guide to New York City'' by Elliot Willensky and Norval White (Crown, 2000).
Lamb & Rich somehow gained the commission for a mansion for the Armour meat-packing family, a red brick house on the southeast corner of 67th Street and Fifth Avenue, built about 1882 and long demolished. From old photographs, it appears perfectly harmless, with elements of the British architect Richard Norman Shaw.
But the critic Montgomery Schuyler, writing in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1883, was incensed at ''the decorative detail fished from the slums of the Rococo.'' He added that ''these are not subjects for architectural criticism; they call for the intervention of an architectural police.''
Nevertheless, the partnership developed a following among families of comfortable means, and by the mid-1880's had projects in hand for the Pratts, Hoaglands, Wheelers and other mansion builders.
Many of these were well beyond the city limits, like the Milbank mansion in Greenwich, Conn., and the craggy clock tower that is still a point of reference for travelers who pass the town green in Sharon, Conn.
And Lamb & Rich's most visited work is certainly Theodore Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill house, finished in 1887 in Oyster Bay, N.Y., with its evocative, smoky interior full of polished mahogany and rich colors.
But of their tightly wound urban work, Babbott's house on Lincoln Place, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, is characteristic.
The craggy frieze of rock-faced blocks of brownstone above the first floor rolls and dives like a wind-tossed ocean. At the roofline, a delicate dormer struggles for place against the faceted turret, which in turn fights against the chimney on the side elevation, as well as a pair of flat arched windows, as taut as clock springs.
A frieze of propeller-like leaves of brownstone flutters across the garden side wall.
Babbott was the president of Packer Collegiate Institute and was related by marriage to the powerful Pratt family, another frequent Lamb & Rich patron. He wrote ''Classic English Odes'' (1902); typical activity in his house included an 1896 talk on ''Modern Japanese Art'' that he gave to a group from Vassar.
Babbott also had Lamb & Rich design his summer house in Glen Cove, on Long Island, where they also designed similar houses for the Pratt family.
The same compressive force was present in the group of row houses that once stood at the southwest corner of 72nd Street and West End Avenue, built around 1888 but demolished decades ago.
In The Real Estate Record & Guide in 1889, the demanding critic Schuyler was this time more tolerant, noting that the houses were ''suggestive of the little confectionary edifices turned out by caterers'' -- the natural rock layers appeared to ooze out like butter-cream icing.
The architects' most startling surviving row in Manhattan is the wildly varied group of eight houses on the west side of West End Avenue from 76th to 77th Streets, an architectural stampede of crockets, bays, gables, balconies, lions and peaked roofs.
Back in Brooklyn, the architects' most memorable single house is the mansion they built in 1891 for George P. Tangeman at 276 Berkeley Place, between Plaza Street and Eighth Avenue.
This Romanesque Revival building spreads out with the ease of a Midwestern lumber baron's mansion, with its competing cross-gables, dormers, chimneys and roof tiles. The finely hammered granite on the ground floor is bank-quality detailing.
At the northeast corner of 74th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, Lamb & Rich not only designed but also developed a chunky clutch of red brick houses with lovely terra cotta and gabled roofs of tile. They are now in ragged condition.
The partnership ended in the late 1890's, as the picturesque was yielding to a calmer, less individualized design, like Lamb's wonderfully peculiar bookend dwellings on West End at 90th and 91st and Rich's educated town house for Charles Towner Root at 309 West 92nd Street, taken over years ago by the West Side Montessori School.
Lamb died in 1903, and Rich in 1943.
The historian Vincent J. Scully Jr. singled out the vitality of their designs in his 1971 book, ''The Shingle Style and the Stick Style: Architectural Theory and Design From Richardson to the Origins of Wright'' (Yale University Press, 1971).
''The wildest energies of their time were expressed in their work,'' he wrote.
More recently, the architectural historian Scott Meacham has developed a prodigious Web monograph on their work: dartmo.com/rich/buildings.pdf.
At the Babbott house, the interior is completely gutted. But the general contractor, Hemant Dwhaj, was able to salvage one sash of stained glass from the old stair hall, filthy but studded with rubylike pieces of glass.
Michael Gadaleta, the redesign architect, says: ''The building really took a beating. Everything was stripped out, but it was well built -- the exterior is in excellent condition.''
The untamed rock-faced brownstone of the facade, top, which was fundamental to the unusual architectural design of Hugh Lamb (above left) and Charles Alonzo Rich.
BUILT -- 1887
ADDRESS -- The Frank Babbott house, 153 Lincoln Place, Park Slope, Brooklyn
HOW TO GET THERE -- No. 2 or 3 subway to Grand Army Plaza station.
Published: 07 - 11 - 2004 , Late Edition - Final , Section 11 , Column 4 , Page 10
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