Few architects have a style named after their work. But Henry Hobson Richardson, whose Richardson Romanesque buildings—inspired by 11th and 12th century structures in Southern France, Italy, and Spain—are a cornerstone of American architecture, was like few architects. The noted stylist helped indigenous forms of architecture bloom, and through a varied body of work in the later half of the 19th century, became one of the most important influences in his field, shaping the work of other notable practitioners such as Stanford White, Louis Sullivan, and John Wellborn Root
A gregarious man whose personality seemed a good match for his striking, stately buildings, Richardson was born in 1838 and raised by a family of wealthy planters in Louisiana. An early mathematical prodigy, he began his schooling at Harvard, establishing an early home in the northeast, as well as connections that would help him land impressive commissions for decades. In 1860, Richardson would go then on to be the second American to study at the esteemed École des Beaux Arts in Paris, a great way to learn about the classics while escaping the Civil War. Forced to return before completing his studies—family financial support had waned due to the national conflict—he moved to New York in 1865 and began his career.
He didn’t stand out during his early years, even struggling with money due to lack of work, but by the early 1870s, had complete two commissions, Trinity Church and the Buffalo Insane Asylum, that would make him a national star. Inspired but not devoted to European architecture, these and many other projects saw him establishing his signature style, filled with heavy masonry walls, hipped roofs, curved arches, and sculptural forms. His work was a formative influence on the movement for homegrown American architectural innovation, and helped him build a practice that would would work on a wide array of building types across the country. It was an amazing body of work, especially considering his relatively short working life. Richardson had become a celebrity architect and reached the the apex of a well-respected career when he tragically died from a kidney disorder in 1886, at age 47.
Old Colony Station (North Easton, Massachusetts: 1881)
A small station with an outsized reputation, this single-story building strikes a simple profile with a symmetric layout,a pair of waiting rooms, and an outsized roof. It’s one a series of structures commissioned by the Boston & Albany Railroad which Richardson designed with Japanese architecture in mind. Modeled in part on a temple and courtyard in Nikko, the particular station features a hipped roof that hangs over the gray granite and brownstone walls, as well as a Syrian arch, which would become a trademark. Carved dragons decorate the beams above the windows. Projects such as these, which reference Japanese styles, have been called precursors to Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs.
Trinity Church (Boston, Massachusetts: 1877)
One of Richardson’s masterpieces, this house of worship has become an iconic example of his sturdy, striking style. It portrays a sense of massiveness through sheer size (90 million pounds of stone were used during construction) and by design, with a series of towers and rough stone walls covered in balanced, bold, ornamentation, such as the checkerboard band circling the chapel. The open interior, with murals and stained glass windows, is also a showstopper. By combining elements of Romanesque styling, which symbolized Pastor Philip Brooks's belief in a more honest church, and English Arts and Craft styles, Richardson created an influential template followed by many.
John J. Glessner House (Chicago, Illinois: 1886)
This severe looking, castle-like structure, finished in 1887 for a leading executive of the International Harvester, was Richardson’s final work. Due to its revolutionary layout, it also served as a fitting bookend to his career. A radical reworking of urban homebuilding, the design signified a shift towards more modern, open layouts. Recognizing that construction advances meant thinner, stronger walls and a new relationship between form and function, Richardson pushed exterior walls to the edge of the property and planted a vast private courtyard in the center of the lot, allowing for a private, light-filled urban residence.
Thomas Crane Public Library (Quincy, Massachusetts: 1882)
Richardson considered this library one of his most successful civic projects, with a layout that moves beyond traditional design and ornamentation via a well-considered, comprehensive form. Form truly follows function here, from the tower that conceals a staircase to the window wall that reveals a reading room. The beautiful sense of balance and simplicity is also evident in his choice of materials. The exterior features simple lines of granite and sandstone, while interior includes white pine ceilings, furniture designed by the architect, and stained glass by John La Farge. When it was finished, Harper's magazine dubbed the building "the best Village library in the United States."
New York State Asylum (Buffalo, New York: 1870)
A turning point early in his career, Richardson’s largest project, now known as the Richardson Olmsted Complex, covers more than half a million square feet. Richardson turned to landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, a frequent collaborator, for advice on siting, which led to the institution being oriented to the southeast to maximize daylighting. Consisting of 11 buildings, with a central administration tower and five wards set back on each side, the red sandstone and brick complex, more open and airy than similar structures at the time, pioneered a relatively more humane method of treating mental illness. The asylum stopped housing patients in the ‘70s, and administration offices closed in the ‘90s. Currently, the complex is being restored, with central building being turned into the Hotel Henry Urban Resort and Conference Center as well as the home of the Buffalo Architecture Center.
Sever Hall at Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1884)
Richardson’s design for this noted campus structure, a National Historic Landmark, is a Harvard Yard classic. This work for his alma mater features a facade of more than 1.3 million cut, carved and molded red bricks, which required 60 different types and sizes. Two round bays frame the central, recessed entry, standing like turrets enhancing the fortress-like appearance. The general-purpose academic building is still in use, and was praised by Robert Venturi as "his favorite building in America" for the way it balances an ornamental facade with a functional, flexible interior.
New York State Capitol (Albany, New York: 1899)
This expansive seat of government stands as both an architectural masterpiece as well as a metaphor for government spending and mismanagement. Built over more than three decades, the nascent structure saw numerous administrations and architects come and go before it was finally finished. Richardson’s work on the limestone-clad building, notably the upper floors and roof work, came to dominate the final form of the structure. Inspired by the Hôtel de Ville, the Parisian city hall, Richardson’s design was honored when the building was made a National Historic Landmark in 1979.
Allegheny County Courthouse (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: 1888)
Richardson considered this his magnum opus, a gorgeous, open civic structure that helped form the cornerstone of a larger complex in Pittsburgh. Built around an open courtyard, the structure is open and airy, with a five-story tower facing Grant Street and two smaller towers in the rear. A walkway modeled after the Bridge of Sighs in Venice connects the building to the prison.
Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store (Chicago, Illinois: 1885)
Built for the famed retailer in a style that references Italian palazzos, this seven-story structure in Chicago’s Loop was a commercial landmark. The spacious interior, built to store vast amounts of goods, was an example of "cage construction," with the load bearing exterior walls of red sandstone and granite supporting a skeletal interior of timber and steel. This interior design explains why Richardson’s detailed facade, which featured heavy massing, also boasted four sets of arched windows with iron lintels to let light into the large floorplates. A Loop icon before it was demolished in 1930, the store would influence Louis Sullivan’s design for the Auditorium Theater.
Warder Mansion (Washington, D.C.: 1886)
How do you know a building is loved? In the case of the only remaining Richardson work in the nation’s capital, being physically moved to avoid the wrecking ball is a good sign. A grand mansion built for a farm equipment manufacturer—the architect supposedly designed wide doorways to accommodate his own expansive frame—it was in danger of being destroyed in 1923 after the original owner’s widow passed away, and developers sought to wreck it to make way for a commercial development. In 1923, architect George Oakley Totten, Jr., a student of Richardson, disassembled and then reassembled the entire building, stone by stone, moving it to its present location in his Model T Ford. After years of disrepair, and a rotating cast of tenants, it’s now been reborn as a series of luxury apartments.
The Staten Island Work of Early Starchitect H.H. Richardson [Curbed New York]