Henry Hobson Richardson : architect biography

famous architect : Henry Hobson Richardson [page1] [page2] [page3]

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Henry Hobson Richardson
Henry Hobson Richardson
Henry Hobson Richardson
Henry Hobson Richardson

Henry Hobson Richardson

The basic qualities of mass, simplicity, proportion, and concentration were clearly seen by some of his contemporaries, and it was these same qualities that Henry Hobson Richardson seemingly used with a vengeance in the Marshall Field Warehouse (begun 1885), in Chicago, when Henry Hobson Richardson clarified his format for the "commercial box." The Marshall Field building represents a continual process of simplification of form and a paring away of excessive eccentric details present in earlier commercial formulas. The Cheney Building of 1875, for example, shunned the use of the mansard roof of the Union Express Company Building, Chicago (1872) but retained two slightly projecting pavilions. The basic cubic quality and visual alignment of windows under attenuated arches (which unite several stories and then divide at the top floors into two smaller arches) already signaled the refined format of the Marshall Field Warehouse. The single "tower" that asserts itself in the side elevation of the Cheney Building scheme disrupts the organization achieved in the cubic section and is a residue of the older formula of the Union Express Company.

Richardson 's use of a hierarchic arrangement of arches for decorative effect and to unite the surface design as a whole relies basically on the Italian Renaissance palace tradition-a popular symbolic reference for the association of a commercial structure. Such Renaissance arch organization had been employed for commercial structures since the mid-nineteenth century and had been used with much success even more recently in the 1870s in large commercial buildings by George Post (whom, interestingly, Henry Hobson Richardson had replaced in Charles Dexter Gambrill's office in 1867). The reliance on arcuated formulas to discipline the facade is used by Henry Hobson Richardson almost exclusively for commercial structures; the interior courtyard of the Allegheny County Courthouse offers a rare exception. In applying this formula, Henry Hobson Richardson is searching for decorative unity without detracting from the sobriety of the pure form of his structures. At its extreme, and the Field building qualifies, the commercial block was merely an austere (yet monumental) geometric envelope to shelter a diversity of functions. Both Post and Henry Hobson Richardson successfully arrived at a desirable solution for the commercial block by the mid-1880s (Post's Produce Exchange Building, 1884, in New York and Richardson 's Field Warehouse, 1885). These structures avoid the trappings of a "commercial palace" that were looked down on by some contemporary architectural critics, such as Montgomery Schuyler, and produced instead a severely simple form boldly expressive of its utilitarian purpose.

But what happened to this "simplicity of treatment" and this sense of pure form only 4 months later (August 1885) when Henry Hobson Richardson designed the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce Building? Was it a step backward in Richardson 's supposed quest for a progressive architecture of his times-"an unfortunate abberation defying rational explanation" as some suggest? Or, is it essentially a dual view of the concept of "reality" that was present throughout Richardson 's career, as Gowans suggests.

One definition of reality (that sponsors the creation of such elevations as the Field Building) holds that reality in architecture is "an expression of the intrinsic qualities of stone: its texture, its capacity to carry weight, the constructional techniques appropriate in such a medium;" the other definition of reality, as Gowans sees it, means "archaeological accuracy-the demonstration of how forms of a past style may be adapted to modern uses with minimum sacrifice of historical reference." This later definition gives birth to such structures, Gowans feels, as the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce building. Gowans stated that, "essentially both buildings proceeded from the same impulse and premises." However, these two structures are not essentially different, except in intent. The Chamber of Commerce building is not an anomaly in Richardson 's work that stands as a blaring impasse to his more progressive developments. It comes from the same conscious selection of forms and design formulas Henry Hobson Richardson had consistpntly drawn on throughout his career. In fact, one can view the Chamber of Commerce Building as the Marmanesque elements, or even Colonial features, this does not make him an historical or revivalist architect; this, essentially, is the shortcoming of such terms as Richardsonian Romanesque. Henry Hobson Richardson uses these elements in a fresh and original manner often purely for compositional or associational qualities, as in the brick "sidelights" or stretched dormers of Sever Hall. These elements become "found objects" (to use Marcel DuChamp's meaning of the phrase) and possess vitality and meaning that is "Richardsonian"-not historic. Therefore, the character of the Chamber of Commerce building does not reflect another view of "reality," as Gowans proposes, but a consciously conceived format that has been manipulated for a desired effect. What Henry Hobson Richardson has done in the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce is to merge the hip roof-the two but tressing towers vocabulary of the State Hospital, Buffalo with the Renaissance design formulas of his earlier commercial structures to yield a formal yet "humanistic" structure. Or seen another way, the Chamber of Commerce Building stands as a bridge between the more "romantic" massing of the earlier Merchant's Union Express Office with its French roof and side pavilions and the later "rational" massing and design features of the Field building. Simply flatten the roof of the Chamber of Commerce Building and remove or recess the side towers, and the remaining elements speak with the same power and simplicity as does the Field building.

This dual sensitivity toward romantic and rational schemes runs throughout Richardson 's career and accounts for the disparity of judgment among what contemporary critics saw as Richardson 's "best" work-works that seemingly drew from inspiration far afield from one another. Richardson 's broad-based popularity, then, likely stems from the dual nature of his designs. Coeval architects, who held widely divergent design biases, could each find something they could draw from in the rich and varied offerings within Richardson 's oeuvre.

The difference in handling of these two structures results from a difference in intent. The Field Warehouse was designed as a utilitarian, investment structure with no pressure to present a corporate image and, therefore, could afford to be severely simple, whereas the problem presented by the Chamber of Commerce building, as Van Rensselaer states, had not the hampering monotony of a simple commercial building but it was quite as modern in way. American merchants, like their far-off predecessors in Belgium and Holland, want a great and dignified happy assemblage; but with a keener eye to revenue, they that it shall be combined with an "office building"-Urat every possible foot of space shall be put to use in ways that are often quite at variance with the chief use of a building, and that as many such feet as possible shall be secured by vertical extension. The form that the Chamber of Commerce takes, it appears, results from a desire to satisfy the demands for "dignity" (in its use of the hip roof and side turrets) and the desire for utility (in its compactness and expressed separation of parts).

As O'Gorman is quick to inform us, Richardson 's quest for a personal style does not reflect a direct development. Although there are consistencies in format applications and spatial arrangements, his path is less than direct in synthesizing the "derivative and often awkward eclecticism" of the late 1860s to the mid-1870s into the "profound and powerful" language of his maturity. The key to Richardson 's eventual success, however, has less to do with coming to grips with any one style than with the final resolution of his design process and aesthetic philosophy with which he could address all of his styles. Henry Hobson Richardson gained full command of his resources, as O'Gorman put it, in 1878. Oschner recounts: Richardson 's professional maturity was marked by a series of projects beginning in 1878: Sever Harll, Cambridge; The John Bryant House, Cohasset; the Amea Monument, Wyoming; and the Crane Library, Quincy. In these projects Henry Hobson Richardson began to simplify form and to ruminate archeological detail. Henry Hobson Richardson turned instead to basicīs Kapes, continuous surfaces, and the innate qualities of his buildings.

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In this manner, buildings from widely divergent stylistic roots became swatches from the same design fabric. Stoughton is the Glessner House rendered in granite instead of shingles; Ames Gate is Sever formed out of glacial boulders in lieu of brick. Sweeping surfaces allow for the synthesis of form and feature into a unified whole.

It was Richardson 's unique ability to manipulate masses imaginatively into functionally distinct volumes, design within a fixed framework of several formats, and apply a consistent aesthetic philosophy to the surface treatment that defines the essence of his mature style. The end result is a highly powerful and original architectural statement free of historical precedent. After 1878, America had its first original style-Richardsonian. American architecture had come of age.


1. M. G. van Rensselaer, Henry Hobson Henry Hobson Richardson and his Works, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1888 and 1969, p. 126.
2. W. A. Langdon, "The Method of Henry Hobson Richardson," The Architect and Contract Reporter LXIII, 156-158 (March 9, 1900).
3. J. F. O'Gorman ed., Henry Hobson Richardson and his Office, A Centennial of his Move to Boston, Harvard College Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1974, p. 60.
4. Ibid., p. 60.
5. H. H. Hitchcock, The Architecture of Henry Hobson Richardson and his Times, Hamden, 1961.
6. J. J. Glessner, "Why we built this house and how we came to select this architect," (a four-page typescript, only two printed), reproduced in full in Ref. 5, pp. 328-330.
7. W. Jordy, American Buildings and their Architecture: Progressive and Academic Ideals of the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Vol. 3, Doubleday, New York, 1976, pp. 314-375. A good background on the development of library formats in the United States.
8. M. Schulyer in W. Jordy and R. Coe, eds., American Architecture and Other Writings, Atheneum, New York, 1964, pp.

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