- 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
He himself thought particularly well of the “quiet and massive” qualities of the Allegheny County buildings in Pittsburgh, which occupied his firm from 1884 until two years after his own death. The buildings in question are a combination of courthouse and jail. Charm would no doubt be out of place in a complex of this kind, and Richardson ruled out one aspect of charm by choosing a grayish Milford granite instead of the warmer and more varied kinds of stone that he used with such dexterity elsewhere. His jail is one of the more sinister constructions of its kind. One would have to be very sure of the infallibility of justice not to shiver at the evident relish with which Richardson, that kindest of men, made quite sure that the men and women who were sentenced in his courthouse would be committed forthwith to a living tomb. His mastery of mass and his sense of the spectacular are here mustered in the interests of one thing only: the punishment of men by other men, and their banishment from the sight of all other human beings.
It would be difficult, and perhaps pointless, to define any one style as “late Richardson.” Richardson in the 1880’s spread himself very thin, and, like every other architect with a large office, he sometimes took work to keep the office busy. But there is here and there a sovereign plainness that could have come from no other hand but his. The arklike Emmanuel Church of 1885-86 in Pittsburgh is a particularly cogent example. So is the use, in the Stoughton House in Cambridge and elsewhere, of unornamented shingle as an exterior covering. The severe but hospitable spaces of the Boston and Albany Railroad station at Chestnut Hill could also be adduced as an example of a purified and slimmed-down “late Richardson” idiom.
But no sooner would that be said than contradictory evidence would come to mind. Richardson in his last years was a master of the custom-built one-family house. As if still in reaction against the angelic but predictable rectangular living spaces that had been put about by Andrew Jackson Downing and others in the 1840’s and 1850’s, Richardson in the Paine House in Waltham,the Hay House in Washington, and others devised huge baronial halls with staircases wide enough for swordplay and decoration that shamed the Oriental rugs on the floor. Forgotten was the slablike form of the Field store; banished, the holy stillness of the Emmanuel Church. Here, as elsewhere, Richardson defies definition. “Like a legendary hero”—I quote again from Henry-Russell Hitchcock—“he lived for new problems, dreaming of ice-houses and river boats to conquer while the smooth machine of his office turned out the late buildings to which his name was signed.”
He was, of course, mortally ill. Had he not died, and had he retained the radiant good health on which people remarked in his youth, he could have lived through World War I. What we hesitate to define as “late Richardson” might by then have seemed like a transitional phase in more than fifty years’ activity. As it is, the career of Henry Hobson Richardson is one of the great unfinished poems of American cultural history, and Richardson himself is one of America’s lost leaders: a man who almost singlehandedly brought architecture from its position as hardly more than a subdepartment of contracting to the very front rank of the professions. Let us hope that somewhere in the Elysian fields Richardson is dining today, as he so often dined in life, off a magnum of champagne and an untold quantity of very good cheese.