- 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
Richardson did not have anything like the intellectual curiosity of Joseph Priestley. Nor did he have anything like Priestley’s spontaneous involvement with people who wished to change the nature of society. Neither in his art nor in his life did he look forward to a world transformed. The world as it was was quite good enough for him. Nor did he have that most engaging of Joseph Priestley’s traits: the readiness to follow up a hundred different subjects at one and the same time. From the moment that he settled on his chosen profession he was a man of one subject, one object, and one ambition: to build as well as he could in materials that had been around forever.
Meanwhile, he took his time over that choice of profession. Not only did he not show any precocious vocation, but he showed no particular drive to succeed. He was a very good mathematician in school, but he showed none of that preternatural intellectual activity that is the mark of the mathematician of genius. He was bright enough to be able to play several games of chess at once while blindfolded, but he seems to have regarded chess as no more than an agreeable distraction. He played the flute rather well, and fenced even better. He was more dandified in his dress than was usual at that time. One of his fellow students remembered him as “a slender, companionable Southern lad, full of Creole life and animation.”
It was fundamental to his success in later life that, without being either a toady or a snob, he gravitated by instinct toward young men who were likely to become persons of importance. Initially it was they who sought him out—at Harvard, for instance, he was elected to the Porcellian Club, which admitted only fifteen members at a time—but he took care not to lose sight of them. When he moved his architectural practice to Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1874, it was in large part because Brookline was at that time a kind of game park in which prominent people could rub up against one another. Once again, it was not that he was on the make—no one ever accused him of that—but rather that he had got a taste for the company of men and women of a certain kind and saw no reason not to indulge it.
His fellow Porcellians did not know about his architectural interests and certainly didn’t spot him as a future leader of his profession. It came as a surprise when he decided, at an undisclosed time and for an undisclosed reason, to apply for admission to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. To get into the Ecole was in itself an achievement, since the examination was in French, lasted a month, and was conducted in public. At the first attempt, in the fall of 1859, he failed in descriptive geometry, a subject that he had first looked at only four weeks before. But in November, 1860, he came eighteenth in a field of a hundred and twenty and became the second American (after Richard Morris Hunt) to win admission.
He had not intended to stay long in Paris. Louisiana was still his home, and it was taken for granted that he would eventually return there and set up an architectural practice in New Orleans. But before this could come about, the Civil War wrought a total change in his circumstances. His family lost their money. His income dwindled, arrived irregularly at best, and finally stopped altogether. From being one of the richer young Americans in Paris he became a pauper, obliged to work all day for his living and to study by night. Though buoyed and bolstered by his inborn high spirits, he had a difficult time. But as one of his Parisian roommates said later, “Misfortune gave him maturity of mind.” By 1862 this most gregarious and sought-after of men was writing to his fiancée, Julia Gorham Hayden, that “study and society are incompatible … I hardly have time to take my meals … I intend studying my profession in such a manner as to make my success a surety and not a matter of chance…. Every day I find new beauties in a profession which I already place at the head of all the Fine Arts.”
What were the “new beauties” in question? As to that, surmise is all. Richardson was in Paris at a time of great ebullition for architects and architecture. The Second Empire conceived of architecture as the handmaiden of statecraft. It would have been difficult to be an architectural student in Paris between 1860 and 1865 and not hear talk of the new Opéra, the new Palais de Justice, the new extension of the Louvre, and the new Gare du Nord, the two big new state theaters in the Place du Chatelet, and, not least, the new Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Richardson is not known to have regarded any of the new official buildings in Paris in the light of revelation. But the projects listed above set the scale for his American career, insofar as they were, one and all, projects of weight and moment, by which an entire society was to be given a new tone. In this sense, the “new beauties” of which he spoke could have been a matter of scale, social responsibility, and enduring moral force.