- Historic Sites
Henry Hobson Richardson
“I’ll plan anything a man wants,” he said, “from a cathedral to a chicken coop.” The monumental results transformed American architecture
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
It was common ground among everyone who knew him in the late 1870’s and early 1880’s that Henry Hobson Richardson was one of the great Americans of his day. It was not that he ever talked big—that would have been quite out of character—but that he looked big, thought big, and built big.
Bigness became him, moreover. It stood for things that he had in superabundance: energy, ideas, ambition, assurance. What in another man might have seemed just plain old fat was in the case of Richardson an Olympian amplitude. It was as if he needed to bear down on the American earth with the weight of ten men, knowing full well that the American earth would bounce him back.
In point of fact, his fatness was a pathological condition, his energy was progressively more and more limited, and he knew that he could not count on a long career. But he made the tour, one by one, of the opportunities that could come an architect’s way in the 1870’s and early 1880’s, and to every one of them he brought what seemed to his contemporaries a specifically American vibration.
The opportunities in question were of the kind that the Establishment of the day is always glad to concede to one of its own. By birth, by education, and by conscious choice Henry Hobson Richardson was a member of that Establishment. He went along with it, delightedly; and delightedly it went along with him. By the time he died—at the age of only forty-seven—he had redefined, for the United States, the potential of the public building in one domain after another. To this day, people think of Trinity Church, Boston, when they wish to remind themselves that in this country, as in Europe, a parish church can be as stupendous as many a cathedral. Sever Hall and Austin Hall at Harvard impress the student even today by their stately dedication to the cause of learning. Never were legislators more sumptuously housed than in the State Capitol at Albany. If you were in business, and you felt that business is best carried out in surroundings of the kind that flourished in the ancient mercantile cities of Europe, then once again Richardson was your man, even if his Chamber of Commerce in Cincinnati was not completed until after his death. It was not simply that Richardson was the faithful servant of government, religion, business, education, and the law. It was that he aspired to be—by implication—their leader and their guide.
Richardson’s was above all things an affirmative art. “No” and “I can’t” were noises that he never made when presented with a project that would give the cities and towns of America an ampler, more inventive, and more commanding appearance. It was a part of his general and all-comprehending bigness that within a commitment to society as a whole he kept a close watch on everything that pertained to his individual buildings, to the status of the architect in society, and to the relations between architect and client (and between architect and contractor). Much as Sir Joshua Reynolds a hundred years earlier had redrafted the relationship between painters and society in England, Henry Hobson Richardson had redrafted the working relationship in the United States between architects on the one hand and society in general on the other. A great architect, in his view, came second to no man, and by the time he died in 1886 he had brought a great many people round to his opinion.
There is about Richardson’s childhood and youth an atmosphere of virtually untroubled well-being which makes it pleasant to think about but not easy to describe. All went well for him. He was happy at home, happy in school, and happy in college. Only one small flaw marred the serenity of his youth, as we shall see. He got engaged to be married when he was still at Harvard. (The romance survived an exceptionally long engagement and is reputed to have been without blemish, ending only with his death.) He came of a good family, had enough money to live on, and made friends wherever he went. If he had tantrums, chagrins, reverses, problems of identity, or a run of bad luck, no one has ever brought them to light. Even his ambition evolved slowly and naturally and seems never to have been thwarted. With a combination of Northern energy and Southern good manners, he was regarded by his contemporaries as the ideal young American.
Henry Hobson Richardson was born on September 29, 1838, on the Priestley Plantation in the Parish of Saint James, Louisiana. His great-grandfather was Dr. Joseph Priestley, the polymath (author, it was once calculated, of 141 books) who was a nonconformist minister, a master of many languages both ancient and modern, an experimental educationalist, a pioneer chemist who discovered oxygen, an enthusiast for the French Revolution, and an early supporter of the American colonists in their struggle against the British. Joseph Priestley’s sons were already well established in America when he himself arrived there in 1794. One of them, Richardson’s maternal grandfather, had done very well indeed with sugarcane plantations in Louisiana.