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Henry Hobson Richardson

American Architect

Born: September 29, 1838 - St. James Parish, Louisiana
Died: April 27, 1886 - Brookline, Massachusetts
Movements and Styles: Modern Architecture
Henry Hobson Richardson Timeline
"I'll plan anything a man wants, from a cathedral to a chicken coop. That's the way I make my living."
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Henry Hobson Richardson
"There is a lot of work to do, isn't there? And such work! And then to think that I may die here in this office at any moment. Well, there is no man in the whole world that enjoys life while it lasts as I do."
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Henry Hobson Richardson
"Let me but have time to finish Pittsburgh and I should be content without another day."
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Henry Hobson Richardson
"If they honor me for the pigmy things I have already done, what will they say when they see Pittsburgh finished."
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Henry Hobson Richardson
"No man can do good work who is perpetually cramped and thwarted."
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Henry Hobson Richardson
"Architects should not be made the convenience of contractors."
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Henry Hobson Richardson
"The architect acts on his building, but his building reacts on him - helps to build itself. His work is plastic work, and, like the sculptor's, cannot be finished in a drawing. It cannot be fully judged except in concrete shape and color, amid actual lights and shadows and its own particular surroundings; and if when it is begun it fails to look as it should, it is not only the architect's privilege but his duty to alter it in any way he can."
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Henry Hobson Richardson

Summary of Henry Hobson Richardson

Richardson is amongst the few architects to have had a particular style named after them. At a time when the more ornate Romanesque Revival style had come to define modern American architecture, Richardson drew his influence from the more orderly Romanesque designs associated with the southern European churches built by French, Italian and Spanish pilgrims in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. He combined his "solid and heavy" medieval-like exteriors with an innovative modern take on interior space, and in doing so he found a combination that saw America put down its own marker on the timeline of Western architectural history. The "Richardsonian Romanesque" style, as it became known, lent itself to a wide range of building types and proved a formative influence on some of the country's greatest architects including Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and John Wellborn Root.

Accomplishments

  • Following on directly from the American Romanesque Revival of 1840-60, the Richardsonian Romanesque style is generally accepted to have been America's first uniquely original trend in architecture. The extravagant earlier revival style had unconditionally embraced ornate European Gothic trends, but Richardson's more sober designs were still flexible enough to assimilate less ostentatious ornamental details including polychromed walls, decorative friezes, Syrian arches, and overhanging roofs.
  • The Romanesque Revival took the best qualities of classical Roman architecture and blended these with elements of "Gothic" stylization such as conical roofs; asymmetrical facades and incongruous stone and brick façades. The Richardsonian Romanesque style introduced a more refined, more elegant age of American architectural design that could be applied to buildings ranging from churches to town halls; railroad stations to libraries; court houses to domestic dwellings.
  • Richardson emulated the aesthetic of the medieval style by focusing on thick stone walls and through a preference for sturdy arches. Indeed, the original Romanesque structures were solid and heavy and Richardson's civic buildings were also muscular and imposing. But he proved himself to be much more than a revivalist with his interiors earning him added distinction for their innovative and orderly spatial organization.
  • Rather than the uneven massing (massing being an architectural term that relates to how a building's exterior relates to its interior) that defined Gothic architecture, Richardson insisted on harmonious massing. His famous design for Sever Hall at Harvard University, for instance, drew special admiration for the way it balanced and ordered its striking red mortar façade with a functional, general purpose interior.
  • Towards the end of his career, Richardson presented modern Americans with a sweeping reworking of domestic homebuilding that was characterized by a shift towards the more modern style of open planning. Making full use of advances in construction materials, Richardson pushed his stronger, thinner, exterior walls to the edge of the property thus allowing for more spacious, light-filled, domestic residencies. One might even cite Richardson as an early advocate of the "form follows function" maxim that guided some of the twentieth century's most important modernist architects and designers.

Biography of Henry Hobson Richardson

<i>The Brattle Square Unitarian Church</i>. Richardson's design features a 176 foot tower adorned with a frieze by Fredrick Auguste Bartholdi (who would later sculpt the Statue of Liberty).

With a short career that amounted to "One of the great unfinished poems of American cultural history", Richardson was, according to the art historian John Russell, "one of America's lost leaders"; a pioneer of a post-Civil War nation who "almost singlehandedly brought architecture from its position as hardly more than a subdepartment of contracting to the very front rank of the professions".

Important Art by Henry Hobson Richardson

H.H. Richardson Complex (1872-80)

First known as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, the Richardson Olmsted Complex was built over an eight-year period after Richardson had won the commission in 1871. Describing its most eye-catching features, author Francis Russell notes that the, "sturdy, twinned towers [that] rise naturally from a structure [have] precisely the amount of jut and thrust that was needed. Corner turrets look spontaneous and not stuck on. The sweeping entranceway, consisting of three round arches, deep-set between projecting side bays, prevents the eye from moving uninterrupted upward. Hip-roofed dormers rehearse the forms of the towers and turrets. Lintels and colonnettes between the dormers show a finesse of detailing [then] new to Richardson's work ". Many of these elements were inspired by the Romanesque style of medieval Europe and the complex provides the first example of the so-called "Richardsonian Romanesque" style.

This work is also significant because it was the largest commission Richardson would receive in his short career. With so many elements to incorporate into a single complex, and because it was built to accommodate and provide the best surroundings for those battling severe mental illness, Richardson worked in conjunction with other design experts and medical professionals to provide a holistic environment. One of the contributors was Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect of New York's Central Park and the Buffalo park system, a lifelong friend (and former assistant) of Richardson, who designed the grounds for the complex. His input led to the building being oriented to the southeast thus maximizing it exposure to daylight. This strategy, combined with the red sandstone and brick central administration tower block, and the five wards set back on each side, produced a more open, spacious site that offered a more considered and humane environment for treating patients than had been seen in America hitherto.

While the building's function has changed, first in 1927 when half of the complex was given over to Buffalo State College for campus use, and more recently in its conversion into a hotel and conference center, Richardson's original building, remains, according to the Richardson Olmsted Campus website, "one of Buffalo's most important and beautiful buildings ". This boast was confirmed in 1986 when it was awarded the official status of National Historic Landmark.

Trinity Church (1872-77)

The Trinity Church on Copley Square in Boston is one of the great monuments in the history of American architecture. Trinity was an Episcopal Church that by 1869 had outgrown its old central Boston location and plans were afoot to relocate the church to the city's more affluent Back Bay area. This need to move was accelerated when the original Trinity church fell victim to Boston's Great Fire of 1872. The rector of Trinity, Phillips Brooks, was one of the great preachers of the day and it was he who pushed for the relocation on a tract of land facing Copley Square.

What would become one of Richardson's most iconic buildings, it became a crowning example of Richardsonian Romanesque styling and it is the first building in which the architect introduced his preference for rough stone (an estimated 90 million pounds of stone were used), his signature arches and, in this example, an elegant series of towers.

With the Trinity Church, Richardson had introduced American worshipers to a new style of church architecture. According to the architectural historian James F. O'Gorman, Richardson, "scrapped his first sketches, which called for a classic design typical of Gothic Revival Episcopal churches of the time, and, instead, sketched an unconventional Greek cross plan [...] This approach represented a radical departure for American ecclesiastical design. It presented an inclusive, open auditorium plan closer in spirit to the emerging needs of democratic contemporary American congregational practice, than to the hierarchical, conventional Episcopal designs and worship practices of the day". Indeed, Richardson followed Pastor Brooks's commitment to a "more honest" style of church, and in so doing Richardson had unwittingly provided a paradigm for future church designs.

What is perhaps most characteristic about the Trinity Church is the equal attention Richardson paid to all aspects of the building. As Francis Russell described it, visitors to the church would, "marvel at the way the exterior hints at the mysterious contents within ". Richardson had succeeded in creating what he termed a "color church" and to do so he turned to partnerships with other leading artists. According to Francis Russell, "Richardson was determined that the interior would be alive with color, a decision that led to his collaboration with various artists, including Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Englishmen William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, and John LaFarge, who was responsible for the murals and stained glass. What Richardson wanted was nothing less than for the spirit of the age to take up residence in Trinity Church ". He succeeded in his task, and in so doing created a building that remains one of the most important and treasured in the Boston cityscape.

New York State Capital (1867-99)

The New York State Capital building was arguably one of the most complicated collaborative commissions in which Richardson played a leading part. Over the course of the thirty-two years it took to complete this building, Richardson was a member of one of three different teams of architects who worked on the project and as such the building can be viewed as a collage of styles. This period saw him collaborate with architect Leopold Eidlitz and took place between 1875 and 1883.

The first team of architects had begun to build the capital in a classical Roman Renaissance style. When Richardson took over, he made additions in his Romanesque Revival style. This, according to Van Rensselaer, caused widespread "indignation at the thought of seeing in a single building a union of two different styles ". Undaunted, Richardson persevered and added key elements to the building including the governor's and court of appeals rooms. The most notable of his contributions was, however, the senate chamber. As it is described in detail on the New York State Assembly's official website: "this room has been acclaimed as one of Richardson's finest designs. Beginning at its highest point, the chamber's richly carved golden oak ceiling was designed with deep paneled 'pockets' or recesses, creating an acoustically perfect 'debate arena' for the senators. The walls are covered with beautiful, shimmering 23 carat gold leaf. A master at using the different materials of the world, Richardson imported Siena marble from Italy for the large arches above the visitor's gallery, red granite from Scotland for the pillars, and Mexican onyx to panel the north and south walls. The ultimate in luxury was attained with red leather and carved mahogany paneling on the walls below the galleries [...] At the back of the chamber are two large fireplaces, each with openings six feet high ".

Learning first-hand the difficulties often associated with government commissions, Richardson was dismissed when governor Grover Cleveland began his term in an attempt to curb what he felt were escalating building costs. Describing the difficulties associated with this job, Van Rensselaer states how it was for Richardson, "the only time in his life [that he was] publicly in opposition to other members of his profession".

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Henry Hobson Richardson
Influenced by Artist
Artists
  • Edward Burne-Jones
    Edward Burne-Jones
  • No image available
    Louis-Jules André
  • No image available
    Charles Gambrill
  • No image available
    John La Farge
  • No image available
    Théodore Labrouste
Friends & Personal Connections
  • No image available
    Marianna Griswold Van Rensselaer
Artists
  • Louis Sullivan
    Louis Sullivan
  • Edward Burne-Jones
    Edward Burne-Jones
  • No image available
    Charles Gambrill
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    John La Farge
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    Frederick Law Olmsted
Friends & Personal Connections
  • No image available
    Henry Van Brunt
  • No image available
    Marianna Griswold Van Rensselaer
Movements & Ideas
  • Modern Architecture
    Modern Architecture
  • No image available
    Richardsonian Romanesque architecture
  • No image available
    Romanesque Revival architecture
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd

"Henry Hobson Richardson Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Anthony Todd
Available from:
First published on 17 Oct 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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