Henry Hobson Richardson

Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), American architect, helped set the standard for innovative design from which modern American architecture grew.

Henry Hobson Richardson was born in St. James parish, La., on Sept. 29, 1838. He studied engineering at Harvard College (1854-1859). During 1859 he traveled throughout the British Isles, and the following year he entered the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, enrolling in the atelier of Jules Louis André. Later, lacking funds as a result of the blockade of New Orleans during the Civil War, Richardson went to work for Théodore Labrouste and probably worked on the Hospice d'Ivry near Paris, begun in 1862. Richardson was the second American to study at the École. Following the lead of his predecessor, Richard Morris Hunt, he avoided using the architectural idioms of the French Second Empire when he returned to practice in the United States in 1865.

Richardson's early designs were an outgrowth of the High Victorian Gothic style as developed by English architects William Butterfield, Edward Godwin, and William Burges. The High Victorian Gothic influence was spread throughout the United States by the circulation of such English periodicals as the Builder. Godwin's Town Hall in Northampton, England (1861-1864), influenced Richardson's design for the Brookline, Mass., Town Hall (1870). It was also the basis for Richardson's American Merchants' Union Express Company Building, Chicago (1872), which introduced this style to the Midwest. Burges's entry in the competition for the London Law Courts (1866) influenced Richardson's Hampden County Courthouse, Springfield, Mass. (1871-1873). His Gothic style developed further in the Church of Unity, Springfield, Mass. (1866-1869); Grace Church, West Medford, Mass. (1867-1869); and the North Congregational Church, Springfield, Mass. (1868-1873). The English influence is also seen in his Cheney Building, Hartford, Conn. (1875-1876).

In 1870, when he won a design competition for the Brattle Square Church in Boston, Richardson introduced suggestions of a Romanesque revival style. The architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock noted of the Brattle Square Church that Richardson "had now definitely chosen certain lines, no longer French or English, but his own." This originality developed through Trinity Church, Boston, for which he won the design competition in 1872 (built 1873-1877), and culminated in his design for the Marshall Field Wholesale Store, Chicago (1885-1887; demolished).

Trinity Church has the centralized Byzantine Greek-cross plan of St. Mark's in Venice, a church that Richardson considered the "most beautiful … in the world" when he saw it during his European trip in 1882. The silhouette is also Byzantine, but the lantern is influenced by Spain's Salamanca Cathedral. The apse is typical of the Romanesque churches of the French Auvergne, and the western entrance and the porch (which was added in the 1890s) were taken from the Provençal church at Saint-Gilles-du-Gard. In the interior the wooden roof trusses show Burges's influence. Britishers William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were commissioned to design some of the stained-glass windows, and other windows and murals were executed by John La Farge of the United States.

Richardson's domestic architecture, after initial mid-Victorian derivatives, became an American extension of the English Arts and Crafts movement as expounded by the British architect Norman Shaw. The F. W. Andrews House (1872), with its open plan, and the William Watts Sherman House (1874), both in Newport, R.I., have the American "shingle" and "stick" qualities in addition to the Shaw influence. The M. F. Stoughton House at Cambridge, Mass. (1882-1883), goes beyond stylistic associations and is comparable in its simplicity to the Marshall Field Wholesale Store.

Richardson's Marshall Field store, described by architect Louis Sullivan as "massive, dignified, simple … foursquare and brown … a monument to trade," had an arcaded masonry skin over an iron skeleton frame. Richardson's work should be judged by this building, by the stark simplicity of the Allegheny County Jail, Pittsburgh (1884-1886), and by the J. J. Glessner House, Chicago (1885-1887). These were his ultimate architectural expressions at the height of his career. He died in Brookline, Mass., on April 27, 1886.

Richardson's influence spread far and wide. The work of the Burnham and Root architectural firm in the Monadnock Building in Chicago (1890-1891) and the whole span of Louis Sullivan's work captured the spirit of Richardson without copying his stylistic traits. Others who copied the "Richardson Romanesque" style designed buildings throughout the United States. His influence spread to Europe, where a host of architects took up his manner, adding local vernacular and sometimes historical traditions. From this great amalgam emerged modern architecture.


Further Reading on Henry Hobson Richardson

Mariana Van Rensselaer published a personal tribute to Richardson 2 years after his death, Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works (1888). Henry-Russell Hitchcock wrote The Architecture of H. H. Richardson and His Times (1936; rev. ed. 1961) and Richardson as a Victorian Architect (1966). See also Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The Furniture of H. H. Richardson (1962), an exhibition catalog of Richardson's furniture. Lewis Mumford revaluated Richardson in Sticks and Stones (1924; 2d rev. ed. 1955) and The Brown Decades, 1865-1895 (1931; 2d rev. ed. 1955).

Additional Biography Sources

Architect of the new American suburb, H. H. Richardson, Princeton, N.J.: Films for the Humanities, 1978, made 1977.