- 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 to be quite some time, even so, before his work took on that full-blown look that we call “Richardsonian.” There is an insufficiency about his work in the 1860’s that has nothing to do with his gifts, or his resources, or his ambition. It was due in part to the fact that the right job in the right place had not yet come along, and in part to the realization, for Richardson, that architecture could only be learned by doing it. There was no substitute. Nor was there any way not to fall below that ideal of excellence whose fulfillment comes only with time. There might be fine individual features, like the tower of the Brattle Square Church in Boston. There might be demonstrations of ease and fluency in the adaptation of styles that owed nothing to America, like the Second Empire offices of the Western Railroad in Springfield, Massachusetts. But neither of these has the fulfilled, the almost predestined, look of the work for which Richardson is best known. There was something not quite centered about them, just as there was something not quite centered about Richardson’s geographical position, with his house on Staten Island, his office in Manhattan, and almost all his major commissions in Massachusetts.
There was a spectacular failure, too: a failure on the grand scale that could not be written off as one can write off a private house that stands behind high walls and can be covered in time with creeper. This was the high school in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was an immensely ambitious building: a building almost insanely out of style with the plain and earnest activity that was to go forward within it. The main tower reaches for the sky like a cry for help. The turrets look as if they had been bought on sale and added for no other reason. The external double staircase is absurd. It is a building that might be anything, anywhere, anytime, where the world was out of joint.
Yet so rich and strong was Richardson’s nature, and so speedy its power of assimilation, that when he was asked in 1870 to design the State Hospital in Buffalo, New York, the result was strong precisely where the Worcester High School had been weak. Sturdy twinned towers rise naturally from a structure that has precisely the amount of jut and thrust that were needed. Corner turrets look spontaneous and not stuck on. Hip-roofed dormers rehearse the forms of the towers and turrets. Lintels and colonnettes between the dormers show a finesse of detailing that is quite new in Richardson’s work.
Through no fault of Richardson’s the Buffalo State Hospital took a long time to build. Meanwhile, in June, 1872, Richardson won the competition for the new Trinity Church in Boston, with which his name was to be made once and for all. The cornerstone was laid on May 20, 1875, and in November, 1876, the work was complete in all essentials. Trinity Church, dedicated in February, 1877, was then and is still the most commanding single building in Boston.
Trinity Church as we see it today is not the church that Richardson saw dedicated. It has been amended and added to, inside and out, and almost always to its detriment. The ciborium covering the altar dates from the 1890’s. John La Farge’s mural paintings have “sunk” to a point at which we cannot judge them fairly. The “French medieval” stainedglass windows are quite out of key with Richardson’s intentions. It should also be said that Trinity Church as it was designed by Richardson speaks for an aesthetic of bricolage , shopping around, that until quite lately was very much out of fashion. To eyes trained by looking at buildings by, say, Mies Van Der Rohe, it seems axiomatic that new buildings should be in one style and speak for one man, one time, and one place. But Richardson in Trinity Church was quite prepared to begin with foliage carved in a style derived from the High Victorian Gothic churches of England and shift to the round arches of French Romanesque as he went along.
Described this way, Trinity Church sounds like something run up by a dealer in architectural old clothes. What kind of a genius is that , people would have asked in the 1920’s, who relies on cross-continental salmagundi when asked for an original design? Even in the late 1880’s, Richardson’s friend and first biographer, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, felt bound to answer that question. After a point-by-point comparison of the tower at Salamanca with the tower in Boston, she concluded that Trinity Church “looks as though the man who built it had been born to build in just this way; it looks like the result of a genuine impulse and not of a lesson learned and then repeated.”