Henry Hobson Richardson - Encyclopedia

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HENRY HOBSON RICHARDSON (1838-1886), American architect, was born in the parish of St James, Louisiana, on the 29th of September 1838, of a rich family, his mother being a granddaughter of the famous Dr Priestley, the English dissenting refugee and man of science. He was graduated from Harvard University in 1859, and going immediately to Paris to study architecture, entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The Civil War, which broke out in the United States while he was in the school, prevented his return to Louisiana, and stripped his family of their possessions, so that Richardson provided for his own support by working in the offices of practising architects in Paris, till the fall of 1865. Coming back, he established himself in New York, where he soon made his way into practice as an architect. In 1878 he moved to Boston, where he passed the remaining years of his life, designing there most of the work that made his reputation. He had married in 1867 Miss Julia Gorham Hayden of Boston; he died on the 27th of April 1886, not yet forty-eight years old.

Richardson's career was short, and the number of his works was small indeed compared with the attention they attracted and the influence he left behind him. The most important and characteristic are: Trinity church and the so-called Brattle Square church, in Boston; the alterations in the State Capitol at Albany; the county buildings at Pittsburg; town halls at Albany, Springfield and North Easton; town libraries at Woburn, North Easton, Quincy, Burlington and Malden; Sever Hall and Austin Hall at Harvard University; the Chamber of Commerce at Cincinnati. Trinity church, the Pittsburg buildings and the Capitol at Albany were works of great importance, which have had a strong influence on melt who followed him and brought him wide acknowledgment. It is notable that American architects who have studied in Europe, especially in Paris, are apt to drift either into a pathless eclecticism or into the English current. Richardson did neither. The Romanesque that he saw in Europe, especially in the middle and south of France, appealed so strongly to his sense for mass and broad picturesqueness that he soon followed its leading, away from the style he had learned in Paris. His earliest work was modern French in style; his first church, in Springfield, a startlingly independent version of English Gothic. Yet half a dozen buildings made the transition to that derivative of Romanesque to which afterwards in all his buildings he steadfastly adhered. In Trinity church, his first monumental work, perhaps his finest, he broke away absolutely from the prevailing English Gothic fashion. Instead of the long Latin cross with aisles and transepts, he made a wide cross almost Greek in plan, with short arms fifty feet broad and aisles that are only passages, a narthex flanked by two western towers, a nave of one double bay, an eastern arm prolonged into a great apse of the full width of the crossing, over which sits a massive square tower. The arms of the church are barrel-vaulted in wood; under the great tower is a flat coffered ceiling a hundred feet above the floor. The style, though mixed, shows his surrender to the attraction of the churches in Auvergne, which have furnished the material for the design of the apse. The central tower is a reminiscence of the noble lantern of the old cathedral of Salamanca, but the square outline is insisted on instead of the polygonal, and the forms are in other ways much changed. The alteration of the Capitol at Albany, half a dozen years later, shared with Leopold Eidlitz, was a compromise in style, and so lacks the sure handling of his best work, except in that part of the interior in which he was untrammelled, the Senate Chamber and the great staircase. In the buildings at Pittsburg, on the other hand, he was free from interference, and these satisfied him more than any other of his buildings. His great design for the new cathedral at Albany, an adaptation of the Romanesque forms of Auvergne to a large modern problem, would have displayed his mature manner, and been perhaps his greatest work; but the plan did not lend itself to the tradition or the ritual of the Anglican Church, and it was rejected, to his great disappointment.

At first the breadth of his compositions was offset by a richness of ornament which he afterwards called flamboyant, but there was a continual growth in simplicity. Some of his imitators have abused his example, running into mere baldness and brutality, but his own work never lost the fineness of quality with which he began, nor the adequacy of its detail.

Richardson's uncommon personality so embodied itself in his works that it cannot be overlooked. He had an inexhaustible energy of body and mind, an enthusiasm more genial than combative, but so abounding and at times vehement that few men and few bodies of men could resist him.

Abounding energy he had, but not health. A serious bodily injury, and later a chronic malady, made his last years a constant struggle with suffering and infirmity, borne with indomitable cheerfulness, but at last fatal.

It is likely that the small number of his designs enhanced their quality. He put twice the labour into his work that the average architect would have given to it, and often twice the time, but the result was apt to be twice as good. He found American architecture restless, incoherent and exuberant; his example did much to turn it back to simplicity and repose. He came as near to establishing a style as it is given to any one man to come; but the tendency of the time was too strong, and the classic styles, reasserting themselves, once more drove out the medieval.

The best known book about Richardson is Mrs Schuyler van Rensselaer's H. H. Richardson and his Works (Boston, 1888). (W. P. P. L.)

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