- 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
Be that as it may, it is not fanciful to suppose that there was an element as much of thanksgiving as of gluttony in the scale on which Richardson entertained his guests. Something of traditional Southern hospitality may have entered into it, also, as on the occasion when the Wintersnight Club dined at his house. “The wines came from old cellars in New Orleans,” one guest remembered, “the oysters from Baltimore, and the terrapin from Augustin’s famous Philadelphia restaurant, with a chef in attendance all the way.”
Richardson was only thirty-five when he moved to Brookline, a mere eight years since he had designed his church at Springfield, Massachusetts. His was a prodigious ascension, but it did not leave him winded. To get his career in proportion, we must remember that at the time of the dedication of Trinity Church, in 1877, Richardson had a scant nine years to live. As yet in the future were the libraries, the railroad stations, the two buildings for Harvard, the City Hall for Albany, a house in Washington for Henry Adams, the Chamber of Commerce for Cincinnati, the Wholesale Store for Marshall Field in Chicago, a pyramidal monument in Wyoming Territory, and many other, smaller constructions. We almost believe what he said to one prospective client: “I’ll plan anything a man wants, from a cathedral to a chicken coop. That’s the way I make my living.”
There were of course dangers in that universal readiness. Everyone agrees that Richardson in his last years took on more work than he himself could seriously oversee. But he had something to say, he had not long to live, and he had a very good staff. Besides, he did not wish to fall short of the role that had been thrust upon him; that of Mr. Architecture. From being an obscure beginner on Staten Island, he had risen in hardly more than a decade to being the most talked-of architect in America. And he held that place: in 1885 American Architect and Building News took a poll as to what were the ten finest buildings in the country. Five of them were by Richardson, as it turned out, and Trinity Church, Boston, came at the top. Who can blame him if he wanted to redefine the potential of American architecture before he died?
If, in his private homes and commercial buildings, the forms of long ago were mated with the needs of the late nineteenth century, it was in part because Richardson was determined to uphold what he saw as the canons of great art in the face of architectural practices that were shoddy and mindless to an extreme degree. He upheld those canons for all to see, in exterior elevations that were rarely without strength of mass and distinction of detail; but he also upheld them where almost nobody would see the result—in the central light well of the Cheney Building in Hartford, Connecticut, for instance, where the decorative ironwork was like Victorian lace.
There was something paradoxical, even so, in the repeated use of eleventh- and twelfth-century forms in a newly industrialized society. Furthermore, ornamental masonry of the kind that Richardson favored was very expensive. And it served no commercial purpose whatever: who needs balconies, castellations, crocketing, and asymmetrical towers in a department store? There is a point at which practical unfitness overlaps aesthetic unfitness and, by way of that, moral unfitness. Richardson would never have expressed himself in those terms, but for whatever reason, we undeniably detect a certain flight from ornament in his last years—above all in what many people now see as his masterpiece, Marshall Field’s Chicago store.
The Field store represented a particular challenge to Richardson. “There is no public building in Chicago worth seeing,” he wrote to his son late in 1885, thereby omitting his own American Merchant’s Union Express Building- whether from modesty or from a specific distaste it is now impossible to say. Chicago was, therefore, the place of all places in which a blow could be struck for a new architecture. Richardson was still a masonry man: someone who thought of architecture initially in terms of masonry-bearing walls. The Field building had an iron skeleton internally, but in all that could be seen from the street, it was solid stone, with the full thickness of the red Missouri granite walls revealed at second-floor window height.
Today we see the long-vanished Field building with eyes that have over and over again seen plainness in architecture raised to the point of sublimity. But Richardson’s contemporaries had never before seen a comparable plainness in a commercial building that filled a whole city block.
In the Field building Richardson was aiming at what he called “a careful study of the piers and a perfectly quiet and massive treatment of the wall surfaces.” “Quiet and massive” are not the first words that come to mind when we think of Richardson. “Busty and vivacious” might be more apt, indeed, for the swelling masses and the chatterboxy detail with which he liked to keep the eye alert and amazed. But in his last years there was a marked falling-off in his tendency to “throw the book” at us.