Henry Hobson Richardson

From Academic Kids

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The Trinity Church in Boston is one of Richardson's most famous works.

Henry Hobson Richardson (September 29, 18381886) was the outstanding American architect of his day, one of a half-dozen most influential American architects. He was born at Priestly Plantation in St. James Parish, Louisiana.

Richardson worked both around Boston and in Chicago and left an imprint in both cities.

A southerner from Louisiana who went to Harvard College, he was packed off to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1860, but didn't finish, as family backing failed during the U.S. Civil War. He returned to the U.S. in 1865, already steeped in the lore of John Ruskin and William Morris.

Richardson developed a powerful personal style, improvising upon the Romanesque of southern France. The term "Richardsonian Romanesque" has sometimes misled people to assess it somehow as one of the Victorian revival styles, but Richardson worked on the whole without detailed historical references. Richardson's work is outstanding for his boldly articulated, clear and simple but picturesque massing and roofline profiles, his mastery of rustication, his somber polychromy. When you see an 1880s building with massive rusticated, round arches over tight clusters of windows in massive walls, semi-circular arches supported on clusters of squat columns, you are seeing Richardsonian Romanesque.

If a single work of Richardson's had to be selected over others it would have to be Trinity Church in Copley Square, Boston (1872-1877), part of one of the outstanding American urban complexes, across from the Boston Public Library by Charles Follen McKim, Richardson's former draftsman, confronted by the Hancock Place office tower by I. M. Pei.

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Richardson's work can be seen in many areas around Boston, such as this library in North Easton.

A series of small public libraries donated by patrons for the improvement of New England towns makes a small coherent corpus that defines Richardson's style: libraries in Woburn, North Easton (illustration, left), Quincy, and Malden, Massachusetts seem resolutely anti-modern, with the aura of an Episcopalian vicarage, dimly lit for solemnity rather than reading on site. They are preserves of culture that did not especially embrace the contemporary flood of newcomers to New England. Yet they offer clearly defined spaces, easy and natural circulation, and they are visually memorable. Richardson's libraries found many imitators in the "Richardsonian Romanesque" movement.

Richardson had a frequent collaborator in Frederick Law Olmsted who devised the landscaping schemes for half a dozen of his projects.

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New York State Asylum, Buffalo NY

Other works that may be familiar:

  • Sever Hall, Harvard University (1880), brickwork, with molded brick string courseswith turrets embedded in the walls, strips of windows, under a huge hipped roof
  • the Allegheny County Courthouse, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, (1883 - 1888) connected by a bridge to its jail across the narrow street: cyclopean masonry and a tall tower
  • Marshall Field warehouse, Chicago, Illinois (1887) -[demolished 1930], graded variations in rusticated stonework, vast windowed arcading spanning three floors, with not a historical detail in sight

Richardson's work was contemporary with the residential Queen Anne style, with which his work had little affinity, except for the species known as the "Shingle Style," which evidenced his sense of massing and picturesque composition.

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Glessner House, Chicago, IL

Richardson's legacy is less in the styles of Stanford White and Charles Follen McKim, who each worked in his office as young men, but moved into a different, historicist Beaux-Arts mode, as it is in Louis Sullivan, who developed highly personal non-historic surface decoration and passed on to his student, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richardsonian lessons of texture, massing, and the expressive language of stone walling. Unexpectedly, H. H. Richardson found sympathetic reception among young Scandinavian architects of the following generation, the one known best in the English-speaking world being Eliel Saarinen.

Following Richardson's early death in 1886 at age 48, the style that he had pioneered was picked up by a variety of other architects whose works are grouped under the name of Richardsonian Romanesque. The stlye was applied to various types of buildings, churches, public buildings such as city halls, county buildings, court houses, train stations and libraries, as well as residences. The style died out in the first decade of the Twentieth Century.

H. H. Richardson was not the father of modernism. But he was the grandfather of modernism.

In a remarkable instance of continuity, the successors of Richardson carry on today as outstanding innovative exponents of International Modernism and Brutalism, with recent emphasis in corporate structures, campus master planning, healthcare facility planning and work for secondary schools [1] (http://www.sbra.com/html/125th/125th_phase5.html).



  • Breisch, Kenneth A,. Henry Hobson Richardson and the Small Public Library in America: A Study in Typology. MIT Press, 1997 ISBN 96043752
  • Kvaran, Einar Einarsson, Pilgrimage: The Search for H.H. Richardson, unpublished manuscript
  • Larson, Paul C., Editor, with Susan Brown, The Spirit of H.H. Richardson on the Midland Prairies: Regional Transformations of an Architectural Style, University At Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneopolis and Iowa State University Press, Ames 1988 ISBN 87031091
  • Ochsner, Jeffrey Karl, H.H. Richardson: Complete Architectural Works, MIT Press, Cambridge MA 1984 ISBN 82006603
  • Roth, Leland M.,A Concise History of American Architecture, Harper & Row publishers, NY, NY 1979 ISBN 78002169
  • Shand-Tucci, Douglas, Built in Boston: City and Suburb, 1800 - 1950, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA 1988 ISBN 78007072
  • Van Rensselaer, Mariana Griswold, Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works, Dover Publications, Inc. NY 1959 (Reprint of 1888 edition) ISBN 68012915
  • Richardson's successor firms, to Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott (http://www.sbra.com/html/125th/125th_phase5.html)

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