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Henry Hobson Richardson - Biography and Legacy

American Architect

Born: September 29, 1838 - St. James Parish, Louisiana
Died: April 27, 1886 - Brookline, Massachusetts
Movements and Styles:
Modern Architecture

Biography of Henry Hobson Richardson


Portrait of Henry Hobson Richardson's maternal great-grandfather, Dr. Joseph Priestly (1794) by artist Ellen Sharples. He is remembered today for discovering oxygen.

Henry Hobson Richardson was born on his maternal family's sugar cane farm, the Priestly Plantation, in Louisiana. Born into privilege, his father Henry Dickenson Richardson hailed from Bermuda, while his mother, Catherine Caroline Priestly, came from a distinguished scientific family that included Dr. Joseph Priestly, known for his discovery of oxygen. Richardson enjoyed a happy childhood. He was educated at a private school where, according to author Marianna Griswold Van Rensselaer, by the time he was ten years old "his love for drawing induced his father to place him, with pupils of much greater age, under the best master in New Orleans; and in mathematics he was exceptionally proficient from the very first ". According to author Francis Russell, meanwhile, his prodigy extended to downtime activities too: "he was bright enough to be able to play several games of chess at once while blindfolded".

Early Training

Following his father's death, Richardson was intent on honoring his wishes by enrolling in the prestigious West Point military academy. He was denied admittance however due to a speech impediment; it was, according to Francis Russell, "a rejection that left a lasting mark on his psyche ".

Once a professional architect, Henry Hobson Richardson designed two buildings for his alma mater, Harvard University, including <i>Sever Hall</i>.

After a year at the University of Louisiana, Richardson enrolled at Harvard University. His college years were happy, making many friends who, according to Van Rensselaer, gave him the moniker "'Nothing to Wear,' from the fact that he had better clothes and more of them than any other one man needed ". Harvard provided more in terms of personal contacts than intellectual stimulus and Richardson moved freely within the Universities various social circles, including membership of the Porcellian Club which secured him several influential contacts. It was while at Harvard that he became engaged to his future wife, Julia Gorham Hayden. He would remain loyal to his college, ultimately designing two of the university's buildings: Sever Hall (1878) and Austin Hall (1881).

Having briefly contemplated a career in civil engineering, Richardson settled on becoming an architect and, following graduation, his step-father supplied him with the funds to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris between 1860-62. Helped by the fact he spoke fluent French (due to his Louisiana upbringing), Richardson's admittance to such a prestigious school was an impressive personal achievement. As Francis Russell explains, "at his first attempt at admission, in the fall of 1859, he failed in descriptive geometry, a subject he had been introduced to only four weeks before. But in November 1860, he came eighteenth in a field of 120 - and only the second American (after Richard Morris Hunt) to win admission ". While in Paris he became conversant with the analytical architectural theory formulated by his professor Julien Guadet, and the style of Beaux Arts Architecture - with its preference for ornamental and sculptural designs, arched entranceways and windows, and structural solidity - which was itself an amalgamation of the best aspects of the European Baroque, Gothic, and Renaissance styles.

While he enjoyed living in France, his carefree days as a student came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the American Civil War. The war had a profound impact on his family's financial situation and Richardson was left to fend for himself in a foreign land. As Francis Russell observed, Richardson, "went from being one of the richer young Americans in Paris to one of the poorer, obliged to work for his living. Though optimistic by nature, he had a difficult time ". To support himself he gained work in the offices of the French architect, Théodore Labrouste.

Despite having to adjust to his unwelcomed situation, Richardson was highly motivated and fully dedicated to his studies. Writing to his fiancée in 1862, he wrote, "study and society are incompatible [...] I hardly have time to take my meals [and] I intend studying my profession in such a manner as to make my success a surety and not a matter of chance", while adding that, "every day I find new beauties in a profession which I already place at the head of all the Fine Arts ". One of Richardson's most treasured memories of his time in Paris came from working on his own projects in the atelier of architect Louis-Jules André. It was the comradery with fellow students, and the guiding influence of André, that left the deepest impression on Richardson and he would try to recreate the same working environment when he established his own Massachusetts studio several years later.

Richardson returned briefly to America in 1862 but with the Civil War raging he could not venture homeward to the south. He considered looking for work with friends in Boston, but, on the advice of his mother, he chose instead to return to Paris to wait out the war and to advance his studies. Though it proved to be his best option, it caused Richardson considerable compunction. He recalled, "I burned with shame when I read the capture of my city and I in Paris". In order to earn money, he supported his studies by working at the Hospice des Incurables pour Hommes, a French hospital for the terminally ill.

Mature Period

With his education completed, and having earned the distinction of being one of the first Americans to graduate from the Architectural Section of the École des Beaux-Arts, Richardson returned to America in October of 1865 (after the four year Civil War). Choosing not to settle back in the South (in fact he would never return to New Orleans again) he opted to make his home in New York City. His earliest days on the East Coast saw him struggle to find work; his situation was made more difficult with the death of his mother. Despite these setbacks, Richardson maintained his dapper dress-sense. As Francis Russell explains, early on in New York "he had to sell the collection of architectural tomes he had bought at Harvard, and before long he was down to his last dollar, though still conspicuous in his English suits, his English shoes, his stylish cravats, and his strong and still-slender build. Somewhere, somehow, he had to make an impressive beginning as his own master ". Indeed, he received his first commission in November of 1866 (at the age of thirty) for a Unitarian church in Springfield, Massachusetts. On learning that he had been awarded the commission, Van Rensselaer records that Richardson "burst into tears and exclaimed, 'That is all I wanted - a chance ".

This commission revived his spirits and gave him the confidence to think he could actually make enough money to support a family. He married Julia Gorham Hayden in January 1867 and they settled in a home, of Richardson's own design, on Staten Island. His nearest neighbour was the journalist and landscapist Frederick Law Olmsted with whom he would collaborate on later projects. His marriage was lasting and happy and the couple would raise six children together.

The rounded arches, columns, and towers found on Richardson's state mental hospital, known as the <i>Richardson Complex</i> (1870), embodies some of the features of the Romanesque Revival style he had evolved.

In 1867, shortly after his first commission, Richardson entered into partnership with the architect Charles Gambrill with whom he founded the firm Gambrill & Richardson. He began taking on important commissions including several churches, public libraries, the State Capitol building in Albany, and a state mental hospital in Buffalo. It was through Gambrill & Richardson that he ushered in the revival in the medieval Romanesque style he had studied and admired while studying in Europe. It was a style that would eventually bear its own name: Richardsonian Romanesque: a less dramatic, more subtle and rounded - more American - approach than the popular European Gothic style. The author Dr. Jackie Craven notes the architectural features Richardson employed included "square stones, round towers with cone-shaped roofs, columns and pilasters with spirals and leaf designs, low, broad 'Roman' arches over arcades and doorways, patterned masonry arches over windows [and] medieval details such as stained glass".

Romanesque Revival detail on the <i>Austin Hall</i> building that Richardson designed for the Harvard Law School in 1881-84. These decorative elements show the care and attention he gave to the fine details of his buildings.

Richardson spent a great deal of time focusing on the finer interior and exterior details of his buildings. According to Van Rensselaer, "he was among the first American architects to preach and practice the fundamental precept that when walls and roof are standing a building is not finished, but still needs that its builder should concern himself with every detail of its decoration, perfecting it himself or calling upon other artists to perfect it in a way harmonious with his own results. No feature was too small, no object too simple to engage his thought ".

While based in Manhattan, Richardson produced designs for the State Asylum for the Insane in Buffalo, the Brattle Square Unitarian Church and the Trinity Church (both in Boston). The original Trinity Church had been the charge of the famous preacher Phillips Brooks and was already considered one of the most important Episcopal churches in North America. Richardson's design earned him many admirers and, as his reputation grew, many of new commissions came in from the Massachusetts area. As a direct result, the Richardson family relocated to the town of Brookline (just outside Boston) in the spring of 1874. Richardson's next significant move was to dissolve his partnership with Gambrill. According to Van Rensselaer's account, "the ties of the partnership had so relaxed that when they were severed in October, 1878, no public announcement of the fact was made. Richardson's offices were now also removed to Brookline and accommodated under the same roof with his home; and here, amid singularly advantageous and congenial surroundings, he lived and worked during the eight years that remained to him ".

His first solo commission, for the Sever Hall, his alma mater, amounted to a "statement of intent". According to Francis Russell, Richardson duly "surrounded himself with the cream of Brookline society, an ideal society in which he himself was the center [...] Neighbors and visitors from out of town crowded into the house on Sunday afternoons to listen to quartets playing Haydn and Beethoven and to look at the designs that were on display ".

On a professional level, too, his home suited him well. He hired assistants Stanford White and Fredrick Law Olmsted, both of whom would go on to find fame in their own right, and took great pleasure in schooling new students. As Francis Russell explains, "Richardson created in Brookline the atmosphere of the Parisian ateliers he had known in his youth, infused with the same spirit of hard and selfless work, an uninhibited exchange of ideas, and communal feasting. Richardson was more than simply a mentor to his assistants: [he] was father, teacher, employer, playmate, and god. Architecture was not all they learned from him. In all his dealings, he was a model of civility, though he demanded nothing short of their best. He gave them the run of his library and his tennis court, (though not for more than thirty minutes during a work day) the benefit of his life experiences, and the best of his food and wine ".

Hubert von Herkomer's 1886 <i>Portrait of Henry Hobson Richardson</i>.

Unfortunately, Richardson's life was not without its impediments. He developed an obesity problem that saw him weigh in at well over three hundred pounds. According to Francis Russell, "his obesity was a symptom of Bright's disease, or chronic nephritis, a deadly malfunction of the kidneys. As he aged, his energy progressively grew more and more limited, and he knew he could not count on a long career ". In describing the limitations that this disease placed on Richardson, Van Rensselaer adds that, "often he was kept for many days at home by its attacks or actually confined to his bed; and he gradually grew so very stout that his weight alone might have been thought an almost prohibitive obstacle to bodily exertion ".

Later Period

So dedicated was he to his business, Richardson only took one overseas vacation, a trip to Europe in the fall of 1882. In part, this voyage was planned so that he could consult with doctors in London about his health; though he also visited France, Italy, and Spain. While taking in the architecture of Western Europe, he also enjoyed a visit with William Morris in his studio. Despite a lack of resolution to his health problems, the trip proved a pleasant gastronomic and aesthetic diversion which he confirmed in a note home, "I feel as if I were being mentally and sentimentally stuffed with pâté de foie gras, and expect to have an artistic indigestion for the rest of my life".

Architectural drawing for Richardson's <i>Alleghany County Courthouse</i> (<i>Pittsburgh Courthouse</i>) building which he built between 1884 and 1888.

Upon his return to America, Richardson threw himself into his work with an intensity that belied the fact that he would only live for four more years. He worked intently on, and was most enthused by, his last two major projects: the Pittsburgh Courthouse and the Field Building in Chicago. Suffering repeatedly from health relapses, he told colleagues that he wished more than anything, "to live two years to see the Pittsburgh Court-house and the Chicago store complete ".

In the last years of his life, Richardson turned his attention to designing domestic residences and felt, according to Van Rensselaer, "the deepest concern and the most entire pride in the many houses he then had in hand ". These more modest (in scale) structures, which included a series of small railroad stations throughout the North East, provided most of Richardson's late-career commissions.

Richardson designed several houses in the last years of his career, including this fine residence for John Hay in Washington, D.C. in 1884.

In the sure knowledge that his health was deteriorating, Richardson never took life for granted and worked as if each day might be his last. According to Van Rensselaer, "it was only a few weeks before his death that after a tour of his crowded offices he paused to say: 'There is lots 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 [and concluding that] 'there is no man in the whole world that enjoys life while it lasts as I do' ".

In March of 1886 Richardson became sick with tonsillitis followed by a flare-up of his more chronic condition. Despite warnings to relax his workload, he travelled to Washington, D.C. to oversee works in progress. When he returned home he suffered a relapse and died two weeks later aged just forty-seven. With so much potential and years ahead of him had he been healthy, one can only speculate on what he might have achieved.

Richardson died, at the height of his powers and with major works in Boston, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Ohio, Chicago and St. Louis still under construction. Summing up his impact on American architecture, the art historian John Russell wrote the following: "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?".

The Legacy of Henry Hobson Richardson

In his short (twenty-one-year) career, Richardson succeeded in leaving his indelible mark on the history of modern American architecture. According to architect William Morgan, he remains "widely regarded as one of the giants of American architecture. Both a prophet of the future and a remnant of the past, he became the leader of the revival of Romanesque forms that bears his name, while at the same time his powerful buildings and imaginative use of materials influenced the generation of modern architects that succeeded him ".

His style can be located in the designs of former employees Charles Coolidge and George Shepley, and other luminaries including Frank Alden, Fenimore Bates, Herbert Burdett, Harvey Ellis, Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow, and George D. Mason. Indeed, the leaders of the Chicago School of Architecture, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, took inspiration from his style. As the architect William Morgan notes, "unlike so many of his contemporaries, Richardson was able to conceive of a building as a whole and to maintain its integrity throughout, regardless of decorative features. This 'organic' approach was one of his principal legacies to Sullivan and Wright ".

A strong part of Richardson's legacy lies also in his role as a mentor and teacher. He influenced the careers of many modern architects including Stanford White and Fredrick Law Olmsted, both of whom thrived under his tutorage. He also helped shape the careers of the many students he brought into and worked with in his studio. While his career was cut short by ill health, his ideas and respect for the nobility of the field of architecture, and what it could be in a modern, independent, America, lived on in the designs of those he influenced.

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony 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 Antony Todd
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First published on 17 Oct 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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