- 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
But the “new beauties” may have resided as much in the practice of architecture itself, and specifically in the Beaux-Arts atelier system. The office of a major French architect in the 1860’s was likely to be a combination of workshop, club, commune, and guild. The members of the atelier were a fraternity--almost a priesthood --rather than a gang of superior day-laborers. The atelier was an ideal society in miniature, in which men found fulfillment in an atmosphere of selfless endeavor.
Richardson undoubtedly fell short of the complete Parisian experience in the early 1860’s in that, like Hunt before him, he was not interested at all in the new materials that were getting to be more and more important in the evolution of architecture. He was already what he was to be throughout his life: a masonry man, as opposed to an iron-and-glass man. Victor Baltard’s Halles Centrales were under way throughout his years in Paris, but there is no indication that he ever thought about them. That buildings should be built as lightly as umbrellas would not have seemed to him desirable. The very openness and candor of iron and glass, their impersonality and virtual anonymity—all these would have been uncongenial to Richardson. Architecture, for him, was a stylish and evocative way of separating outdoors from indoors.
Besides, there was the possibility that radical change in architecture would be the forerunner of radical change in life. Had not Plato said that when the laws of art change, the laws of the state change with them? And Richardson didn’t want the laws of the state to change.
He was a convinced and practicing conservative. He liked to work with established institutions, established fortunes, and established individuals. This was a practical preference, as well as a matter of principle. In his concern for “a rich, bold, living architecture,” he liked to revise and improve as he went along. (“Architects should not be made the convenience of contractors,” he wrote in the margin of a pencil sketch in 1870.) Where possible, he refused to be pinned down to finished preliminary drawings, preferring to work with the growing building as a sculptor works with clay.
This called for steady nerves, a cool head, an understanding builder-engineer, and a client who would not jib at the bills. In Orlando Whitney Norcross (1839-1920) Richardson had an associate who suited his nature ideally. He was, says the critic James F. O’Gorman, “an inventive self-trained engineer” to whom no problem of construction was insoluble. With one or another of the quarries and millworks that he had at his disposal, he could supply a range of materials that satisfied even Richardson.
But before Norcross could exercise his talents, there had to be both a client and a commission. At the outset of Richardson’s career in the United States, both of these were in very short supply. Established in a small way in New York, Richardson found that work was hard to come by. He had to sell the general library that he had bought at Harvard and before long he was down almost to his last dollar, though still conspicuous for his English suits, his English shoes, his well-chosen cravats, and his strong and still-slender build. Somewhere, somehow, he had to make an impressive beginning as his own master.
As has already been said, Richardson was not the man to spend his time with nonentities. Even when he spent the night in a Paris police station after taking part in a demonstration against the appointment of the architect and writer Violletle-Duc to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, it turned out that he shared a cell with Théophile Gautier—poet, novelist, and critic of art—and for that reason was released by the intercession of the Minister for Fine Arts. And when he got his first American commission in November, 1866, it was in part because a classmate of his had married well and was in a position to intercede on his behalf. When told of his success, Richardson burst into tears and said, “That is all I wanted— a chance .”
But it is one thing to have a chance and quite another to make full use of it. Richardson never faltered in a situation of that sort, and in building his Unitarian church at Springfield, Massachusetts, he did as he always did. Deploying the powers of persuasion, which, as one of his friends said, “could charm a bird out of a bush,” he invented and reinvented his design several times over. With hindsight we can detect already both the asymmetrical cunning with which he would continue to order his internal spaces and a delight—never to be lost—in the monumental properties of rough-cut American stone. The general impact of the work seems to have been that of a young man with a future. With his first solo work, and in his thirtieth year, Richardson was on the move.