Lewis Mumford

View of 130 West 65th Street from north.  Courtesy NYC Municipal Archive.

Lewis Mumford

by Sarah Bean Apmann

Called by Malcolm Cowley “the last of the great humanists,” Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) referred to himself as a writer and his writings were internationally renowned in the areas of architecture, cities, technology, literature and modern life. Some of the early experiences that would influence this 20th century transformative thinker came from none other than the area of San Juan Hill. At the beginning of his life, he made his home at 130 West 65th Street.

Mumford was born in 1895 in Queens. He was raised by his mother Elvina in New York City, and said in his autobiography that he was “a child of the city.” The 1900 Federal Census identifies Elvina as the head of the household at 130 West 65th Street and no occupation was listed for her. Also living there was obviously Lewis, along with Lewis’ grandfather Charles Grassel, another member of the family named Charles Baron, several boarders and a servant. In his autobiography, Mumford had this to say of the area:

But my earliest clear picture is at three – that of the backyard behind a four-story brownstone front on West Sixty-fifth Street, where my mother, in spring, would thrust a few pansy plants into the ground, not because she wanted a garden, but because she loved pansies.  That was before the High School of Commerce was built across the way and long before the Lincoln Arcade-which later became a refuge for penurious artists – was razed to make way for Lincoln Center.  Until the new subway tore up Boss Tweed’s tree-lined Boulevard (‘Bullavard’ is what my young ears heard), as Broadway above Fifty-ninth Street was called, this was a quite respectable street and gave no hint of becoming the sordid red-light area it later turned into. 

He went on to say that like most New Yorkers, the family moved frequently during the beginning of his life until he was twelve years old when they settled in an apartment house at the southwest corner of Columbus Avenue and Ninety-fourth Street. He attended Stuyvesant High School and the City College of New York although he never finished his degree. Referred to by one writer as “a student of the city,” he became a writer and following his service in the Navy during World War I, he joined the staff of The Dial, a magazine focused on literature, philosophy and politics which was published between 1840 and 1929. 

He would go on to publish numerous books on a variety of subjects including history, architecture, culture and technology and he was the architectural critic for The New Yorker magazine for thirty years. During the 1920s he joined planners such as Clarence Stein and Bentonn McKaye in the formation of the Regional Planning Association of America. This group was responsible for planning some of America’s first Garden Cities including Sunnyside Gardens in Queens. In his later years, his contributions to urban and cultural history and criticism were recognized and honored. He was the recipient of the National Medal for Literature in 1972, an honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire in 1975, the French Prix Mondial del Duca for lifetime contribution to letters in 1976, and the National Medal of Arts in 1986.

Lewis Mumford

Image Courtesy Wikipedia, ca. undated.


Halton, Eugene. “A Brief Biography of Lewis Mumford (1895-1900).” https://www3.nd.edu/~ehalton/mumfordbio.html – accessed 05/08/2022.

Hines, Thomas S. “Nine and a Half Decades: The Achievement of Lewis Mumford.” Reviews in American History. Vol. 18, No. 4 (Dec.,1990). Pp. 536-541.

Mumford, Lewis. Sketches from Life, The Autobiography of Lewis Mumford The Early Years. New York: The Dial Press. 1982.

New York City Directories. 

Sarah Bean Apmann is an architectural historian and principal of Sarah Bean Apmann Consulting, Inc.

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