- 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
Mrs. Van Rensselaer also knew that Richardson’s was an art of color, texture, scale, and pace. Richardson planned Trinity as what he called “a color church” inside and out. Now that more than a hundred years have had their way with the exterior, it is worth remembering what Mrs. Van Rensselaer had to say about its initial appearance: “The yellowish-grey granite employed throughout for the rock-faced ashlar is soft and warm in tone, having much the effect of a sandstone. The trimmings are of that red Longmeadow sandstone which by its admirable texture and beautiful color has done so much for Boston buildings. The lower roofs are of plain slates, the roof and louvre-boards of the tower of semiglazed red tiles, and the crockets of red terra-cotta. The pronounced yet harmonious effect of color thus produced is one of Trinity’s greatest merits and at the time when it was built seemed the most boldly novel of them all.”
Richardson’s idea of a “color church” necessitated an inner space that would be, in his own words, “unembarrassed by conditions.” To bring this about, he decided that it would be quite wrong to allow the building materials to dictate the decoration in any way. He embarked, therefore, on a campaign of deception and of dissemblement. Furring and plastering were everywhere, encasing the four great granite piers that bore the weight of the tower and covering the huge barrel vault of trefoil section. Where iron rods were carried across on a level with the cusps of the arches, Richardson disguised them with wooden tie beams. The “material of actual construction,” according to Henry Van Brunt, was nowhere visible “to afford a key of color to the decorator.”
Color was to be all in that interior, and it was in that context that Richardson was able to realize what had clearly been a long-standing dream of his: a collaboration between equals in the decoration of a great public building. John La Farge worked on Trinity Church, and to great effect. So did the young Augustus Saint-Gaudens. From England, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were called in. What Richardson wanted was that nothing less than the spirit of the age should take up residence in Trinity Church.
In 1874 he moved his residence and his office to Brookline, where he had as his neighbors an honor roll of distinguished Americans in the fields of medicine, law, economics, engineering, history, politics, connoisseurship, and the study of trees. Richardson did not build himself a splendid new mansion in Brookline—in fact he lived and died as the tenant of a house-cum-office that was none too large for his purposes—but he did undoubtedly see himself as the center of an ideal society. There were his wife and children: loving, eager, well-favored, stable. There were his assistants, including Stanford White, who was with him from 1872 to 1878. There was Frederick Law Olmsted, on whose neighborly judgment he relied very much. There were the neighbors, and the distinguished visitors from out of town, who crowded into the house on Sunday afternoons to hear quartets by Haydn and Beethoven and look at the designs on display.
What Richardson may have re-created in Brookline was the atmosphere of the Parisian ateliers that he had known not so many years before. There was the same atmosphere of hard and selfless work, powered by high spirits, uninhibited social exchange, and ritual feasting. There was the same enclosed world of collective effort. Richardson was all things in one to his assistants: father, teacher, employer, playmate, and god. Nor was it only architecture that they learned from him. In all his dealings with them he was a model of courtesy, though he was content with nothing short of their best. He gave them the run of his library, the benefit of his experience of the world, and the best of food and wine. They could play tennis on his court (though not for more than thirty minutes during any one working day). And if it was found that three of them could get inside one of his vests, he didn’t mind that, either—just once.
He hated to turn young people down. When Charles McKim asked to join his firm in 1870, he said, “My dear fellow, I haven’t a thing in my office for my one and only draftsman to do.” But somehow he found work for McKim. Even when he was mortally ill with Bright’s disease, a professional discussion would bring back color to his cheeks and fire to his eye. He lived for work—but for work done in the company of others and warmed by their enthusiasm.
Paris had taught him to love work of that kind. It may even have brought Richardson consolation of a more secret sort, in that as a very young man he was nominated for West Point, only to be turned down on account of an impediment in his speech. It is never agreeable to be rejected, and to be rejected on that particular ground leaves a lasting mark. Collective acceptance of the kind that Richardson found first in the Parisian ateliers and later in an atelier of his own founding may have been all the more precious to him if it helped to erase the memory of rejection at West Point.