Growing up Modern with Edward Durell Stone


Hicks Stone


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I am a son of Edward Durell Stone. Father was a prominent American architect in the twentieth century. He is most well-known for his work in the 1950s and 1960s, projects like the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India or the U.S. Pavilion at the 1958 world’s fair in Brussels, Belgium. But he was also one of the earliest American architects to embrace European modernism in the 1930s.


After working as the architect-in-charge of Radio City Music Hall and the Roxy Theater in New York City, both part of the Rockefeller Center complex, he was eager to experiment with modernist design that he had seen on his grand tour of Europe in the late 1920s. His 1933 home for department store heir, Richard Mandel, was one of the earliest modern homes in the eastern United States. The acclaim from the Mandel commission and Father’s close friendship with architect Wallace Harrison led to his most significant early commission, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which he designed in 1937. Seemingly his career was on a meteoric trajectory, but there were complications. Father was an alcoholic, a dilemma that his first wife, Orlean Vandiver, and his two children from that marriage, Edward and Robert, had to continually confront. But Father’s charming manner, sheer talent and easy sense of humor gave people a reason to overlook his problems with alcohol.

Over the years, there were five children from three different marriages. That last phrase conveys in dispassionate terms events that were scarring for all of us. I am the eldest child from Father’s second marriage to Maria Elena Torch, a woman widely viewed as the person who was most responsible for resurrecting Father’s career and providing the foundation for his remarkable success in the late 1950s and 1960s.


 Until he met my mother on a transatlantic flight in 1953, Father continued to struggle with alcohol. His drinking exploits were legendary. Noting simultaneously his luminous drafting skills and his utter lack of sobriety, one person noted that, “Edward Stone could draw everything but a sober breath.” During their courtship, my mother presented him with an ultimatum. She said that he had “to choose between the bottle and me” and remain sober for six months. He did — for the rest of his life. They married in 1954. I was born in 1955.

In 1956, Father purchased and redesigned a grimy derelict townhouse at 130 East 64th Street in New York City between Park and Lexington Avenues. Close to the Third Avenue elevated railway, the neighborhood did not yet have the genteel and precious character that it has today. Transformed by Father’s vision from a dreary brownstone with a dark interior, the house to this day remains a startling and controversial presence on East 64th Street. This was the home that I grew up in.


One of the benefits of growing up in a home with a strong and distinctive architectural character is that it almost inevitably imparts an innate sense of design and spatial awareness to the people who live there. My father never really sat me on his knee and spoke about architecture when I was a child, but living in this environment infused me with an instinctive understanding of architecture. Moreover, our travels to places he favored for their classical and neo-classical architecture, like Paris, Venice, Rome, London and the ancient Greek temples of Sicily, instilled a deeper understanding of architectural vocabulary in me.

With offices in New York and California, and projects in countries as distant as Pakistan, Father traveled a great deal. Traveling across the country in the 1950s was a demanding and time-consuming exercise; it was nothing like it is today. He was not an omnipresent and kindly presence in the fashion of the 1960s television sitcom. There were family dinners, often attended by favored draftsmen from his office, but at any other time, he would likely be moving from drafting table to drafting table at his office, sketching, offering criticisms and refining designs. This is where he really wanted to be. If one awakened early in the morning, you might see him pacing back and forth in the long marble-lined gallery of our home, cigarette and coffee cup in hand, gesturing and talking to himself. This was not a man at peace with himself. My relative unfamiliarity with Father led me to write his biography for Rizzoli. My book, Edward Durell Stone: A Son’s Untold Story of a Legendary Architect, was published in 2011.

My informal architectural and aesthetic education extended to the people whom Father surrounded us with. Father had known Frank Lloyd Wright since 1940. Wright had a substantial influence on Father’s work. As a child, I would often go to Taliesin West in Arizona. I was too young to remember Frank Lloyd Wright, but I was friendly with Wes Peters, who had a great big Irish wolfhound, which adoringly etched itself in a young boy’s mind, and I remembered Olgivanna Wright vividly but somewhat less fondly. I used to mop the kitchen floors in Taliesin West. All of the residents were required to work there.


The gruff and unsmiling Gordon Bunshaft, who had first worked in Father’s office in 1936, and would later be the principal designer and partner at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and design such important buildings as Lever House in New York City and the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University, would often visit us at East 64th Street. Artists like Alexander Calder, who at cocktails one evening loudly and angrily demanded that our demure and proper maid bring him not just a single glass of bourbon, but the entire bottle, were also a memorable presence. Calder and Father had been friends in Paris during the late 1920s and a number of Calder’s mobiles hung from the ceilings in our home.

Unfortunately, Father’s restiveness extended to his marriage and family. After ten years of marriage he became dissatisfied with my mother. She was glamorous but aloof. He began to have surreptitious affairs. Mother too was dissatisfied. Father was twenty-three years her senior and held a traditional view of a woman’s role in a marriage. The relationship was too confining for her. Ultimately, their mutual infidelities destroyed the relationship, and an ugly and very public divorce ensued, replete with garish front-page headlines in the New York Daily News. My sister Francesca and I were caught in the midst of a vindictive tug-of-war between two antagonistic and irrational parents. To this day, the divorce ranks as the central formative event in my life. Their graceless split served as a vivid demonstration of exactly how not to divorce.


But there were positive elements as well. Most influentially, my parents instilled in me the importance of achievement, particularly in the artistic realm. Moreover, they diminished the importance of wealth and its accumulation. Father would often remark that the postman made more money than the architect. Of course in his case, for the man described by Business Week as having one billion dollars of work on his drafting boards in 1968, this was not entirely true. But the primacy of aesthetic achievement over financial success was indelibly ingrained in me.


Because of this ancestral predisposition, shortly after Father’s death in 1978, I entered Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design as a Master’s candidate in architecture. I have been a practicing architect ever since. At Father’s memorial service his first wife, Orlean, who had suffered through Father’s alcoholism and depression-era financial misfortune, cautioned me, “Don’t think that it will be so easy.” Of course she was right. Success in architecture requires talent, hard work, good fortune, salesmanship, perseverance and mental toughness. To have done anything else would have been to deny my native skills, knowledge and legacy.


Almost inevitably, I find myself drawn to architectural solutions that Father would have favored. Both of us seek to make complex projects seem simple, with a clarity of circulation, an orderly and uplifting sequence of spaces, an appearance of stability and rationality and a balanced exterior composition. Father was known as a formalist, and I too describe my work in that fashion. Much like the ancient temples that Father sketched as a young man and sought to recapture later in his career, we both believe that architecture should be a transcendent refuge from the vicissitudes and chaos of contemporary life.


About the Author


Hicks Stone is a New York City area architect and principal of Stone Architecture, LLC. He founded his firm in 1991 after working as a senior designer in the office of Philip Johnson and John Burgee Architects. Stone received his Master’s of Architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He has a national practice with projects from Maine to Florida and the Bahamas to California. His work has been published in Interior Design, House & Garden, Palm Beach Cottages & Gardens, Maine Home + Design and This Old House Magazine. His firm’s principal focus is on the design of luxury residences, retail boutiques and cultural facilities. He has written a biography of his father, Edward Durell Stone, for Rizzoli International Publications. His book, Edward Durell Stone: A Son’s Untold Story of a Legendary Architect, was published in 2011. He has given lectures on his father’s life and work to audiences all over the country.