Birthday: September 29, 1838
Died At Age: 47
Sun Sign: Libra
Also Known As: H. H. Richardson, H.H. Richardson
Born in: Priestly Plantation, St. James Parish, Louisiana, U.S.
Famous as: Architect
Spouse/Ex-: Julia Gorham Hayden
father: Henry Dickenson Richardson
mother: Catherine Caroline Priestley
Died on: April 27, 1886
place of death: Brookline
U.S. State: Louisiana
education: École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Harvard College, Harvard University, Tulane University
Henry Hobson Richardson was one of the leading American architects of the 19th century. He initiated the Romanesque revival in the US and remained an avant-garde in developing and popularising medieval style of architecture in America, which became famous after his name as ‘Richardsonian Romanesque’. His early works reflect ‘High Victorian Gothic’ style designs, which were mostly applied by English architects like Edward Godwin, William Burges and William Butterfield. Some early works of Richardson that reflect such style include ‘Cheney Building’ in Hartford, Connecticut; ‘Grace Church’ in West Medford; ‘Town Hall’ in Brookline; ‘Hampden County Courthouse’ and ‘North Congregational Church’ in Springfield. His body of work includes commercial structures, community libraries, academic buildings, civic structures and several private residences. His designs were defined with simple contours and horizontal lines and were much inspired from the ‘Byzantine’ or ‘Romanesque’ style that differed distinctly from his contemporaries. Some of his major works are ‘Trinity Church’ in Boston; ‘Thomas Crane Public Library’ in Quincy, Massachusetts; ‘Old Colony Railroad Station’ in North Easton, Massachusetts; ‘Converse Memorial Building/Library’ in Malden, Massachusetts and ‘John J. Glessner House’ in Chicago, Illinois. Many structures designed by other architects later have an uncanny resemblance with some of his designs and style of work. Some such replicas are ‘Wellesley Farms Railroad Station’; railroad station in New York’s ‘Orchard Park’ and the ‘Castle Hill Light’ in Newport, Rhode Island.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born on September 29, 1838 at the Priestley Plantation in St. James Parish, Louisiana, to Henry Dickenson Richardson and Catherine Caroline Priestley.
His father was a cotton merchant. His great grandfather Joseph Priestley was a philosopher and an inventor who is considered to be the discoverer of oxygen.
He was partly raised in Julia Row, New Orleans in a house made of red brick which was designed by Alexander T. Wood, an architect of the ‘United States Custom House’ in New Orleans.
He wished to join West Point but his speech impediment came in the way. He attended the ‘University of Louisiana’ and then in February 1856 he joined ‘Harvard College’. Though he was not an extraordinary student, his friendships and associations that developed there remained lifelong and played an important role in his professional success. He also attended the ‘Tulane University.
Earlier he wanted to pursue civil engineering, but he became more interested in architecture and as there were no schools of architecture in the US prior to the Civil War, he moved to Europe.
His fluency in French language, because of being partly brought up in Louisiana, and his preparations for months led him to be accepted as a student at the prestigious ‘École des Beaux-Arts’, in Paris, in November 1860. He attended the school till 1862, when he had to drop out due to the Civil War in the US that cut off the family support he received.
Thereafter he studied intermittently for a while along with working in the offices of architects J. I. Hittorf and Theodore Labrouste as draftsman.
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In 1865 he returned to the US and in October that year he settled in New York.
In 1867 he began working in a partnership with Charles D. Gambrill, an architect who he got acquainted with in Paris. The partnership lasted for eleven years.
His early works that were considered mediocre include ‘Grace Episcopal Church’ (1867) in Medford, Massachusetts; ‘H. H. Richardson House’ (1868) in Clifton, Staten Island, New York and ‘Alexander Dallas Bache Monument’ (1868) in Washington, DC.
Although he had worked on several projects yet he was not content and looked for more innovative and challenging projects. His yearning led him to develop his own style that reflected more of Gothic style inspired by the likes of John Ruskin and William Morris.
With the ‘Brattle Square Church’ (1869) in Boston (at present ‘First Baptist Church’), he came up with a more refined style, where he initiated recommendations of a Romanesque revival style. It won him a design competition in 1870.
The emergence of his characteristic style that eventually became famous as the ‘Richardsonian Romanesque’ style transpired when he designed the largest project of his career in 1869, the ‘New York State Asylum’ in Buffalo, New York. This project was his first of the many works he did along with Frederick Law Olmsted, who was considered the father of American landscape architecture. The site is presently counted as a ‘National Historic Landmark’ and is restored since 2009.
In 1872 he executed his next major assignment, the ‘Trinity Church’ in Boston, Massachusetts, in collaboration with ‘Norcross Brothers’, an engineering and construction firm with which he remained associated for around thirty projects. The church designed for the famous preacher Phillips Brooks eventually became one of the most significant Episcopal Churches in the US.
In 1874 he purchased a house in Brookline, Massachusetts where he also opened his office and studio. Most of his later stage of life was spent here.
In 1885, the American architects choose ten best buildings according to their designs, and five of these were that of Richardson. These are the ‘Trinity Church (1872) in Boston, Massachusetts; ‘New York State Capitol’ (1875) (collaborated) in Albany, New York; ‘Sever Hall’ (1878) in Cambridge, Massachusetts; ‘Oakes Ames Memorial Town Hall’ (1879) in North Easton, Massachusetts and ‘City Hall’ (1880) in Albany, New York.
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He designed a number of small public libraries that were characterised with more classic and ethnic look with clear spaces, simple and natural ventilation, which later found many imitators. The best among these is the ‘Thomas Crane Public Library’ in Quincy, Massachusetts, again a ‘National Historic Landmark’, that was designed in 1880.
He was inspired by Japanese architecture, which he came to know from Harvard zoologist Edward S. Morse. The rail station buildings that he designed, of which nine were for ‘Boston & Albany Railroad’, reflect incorporation of Japanese architecture, which can be easily manifested from the design of the ‘Old Colony Railroad Station’ (1881) in North Easton, Massachusetts.
Among the family residences he designed, the most noteworthy was the renowned ‘John J. Glessner House’ (1885 – 1887) in Chicago, Illinois, now a ‘National Historic Landmark’.
The ‘Trinity Church’, presently a ‘National Historic Landmark’, cemented his position as a remarkable architect. Even though reflections of Byzantine, Spanish and French Romanesque styles were present, the ‘Richardsonian’ element was more pronounced than ‘Romanesque’. The work fetched him several other major assignments throughout his life. The unique design of the church won him the 1972 design competition.
Personal Life & Legacy
On January 3, 1867, he married Julia Gorham Hayden. The couple had six children.
On April 27, 1886, he died after suffering from a prolonged ‘Bright’s disease’ when he was at the peak of his career with several incomplete assignments in hand.
He delegated these projects to his three assistants on the last day of his life. They in turn formalised the ‘Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge’ architectural firm and continued with his unfinished projects. Two such projects were ‘Marshall Field Wholesale Store’ in Chicago and ‘Allegheny County Courthouse’ in Pittsburg.
Though a notable architect of his time with a handsome income, his negligence of finances saw him in heavy debt, leaving behind very little for his family.
Richardson was interred in Brookline, Massachusetts at the ‘Walnut Hills Cemetery’.