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Henry Hobson Richardson

Henry Hobson Richardson, Architect [1838-1886]

Portions of the text below were adapted from Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. [1] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.

He was born at Priestley's Point, St. James Parish, Louisiana, on the 29th of September, 1838. His father, Henry D. Richardson, was a planter of American birth, but his earlier ancestors were Scotchmen, who however had moved to England before the family came to this country. His mother was Catherine Caroline Priestley, who was a daughter of Dr. Priestley, the famous theologian. It is easy to believe that all these circumstances of his origin contributed something which can be recognized in the character of the distinguished architect.

Mr. Richardson received an appointment to West Point from Judah P. Benjamin, who was then a Senator of the United States. He went to the Military Academy and passed his examinations; but the death of his father changed his plans, and his education was transferred to Harvard College, where he entered in 1855, and graduated in the Class of 1859. His college course, so far as one can learn, was marked by no extraordinary signs of promise. Bright, gay, popular, he seems to have indicated no special disposition to the art in which lie was destined to make for himself such a brilliant career. Nor is it possible to learn what led him just before his graduation to determine upon architecture as his profession.

It was the years immediately following graduation, — the years from 1859 to 1865 — which brought out the character of Richardson and filled him with enthusiasm for his chosen work. In those years the war was raging. Richardson was studying in Paris. His resources, which had till then been abundant, failed him entirely, and he was obliged to work for his support. The strong pressure of poverty behind him called forth the energy and persistency which were in him, and the fascination of the work before him, which he speedily felt and to which he heartily abandoned himself, quickened a genius before unsuspected by himself or by his friends. He entered the office of a French architect, and made drawings for several public buildings in Paris. Thus he labored for his daily bread while he was eagerly pursuing his studies. These years were the making of the man and of the architect at once.

Mr. Richardson returned to America, and began business for himself in New York on the 1st of January, 1866. He married on the 3rd of January, 1867, Julia Gorham Hayden, daughter of Dr. Hayden, of Boston.

The years from 1865 to 1871 were full of steadily increasing work and constant progress towards those characteristics which in his later life gave such broad and noble significance to all he did. His earliest buildings were in Springfield, Massachusetts, where the railroad offices and the Agawam Bank already gave evidence of his great power. The Church of the Unity, however, in the same city, is a Gothic building, and quite unlike the ecclesiastical structures of his later years.

In 1871, Mr. Richardson began to build the Brattle Street Church in Boston. In 1872, he prepared and presented his plans for Trinity Church. About the same time he built the Cheney Buildings, in Hartford, Connecticut Not much later came the Memorial Library at North Easton, the Public Library at Woburn, and the beginning of his work at the State Capitol at Albany. These buildings, and others which belong to the same period, mark the ripening of his powers, and the development of that strong and masculine style which afterwards was seen in all he built, and which must always make his work recognizable and notable for the best qualities of architecture.

Then came ten years of the most brilliant and exuberant vitality. The place which the successful architect, still a young man, had won at the head of his profession, was recognized with singular cordiality on every side. Students flocked to him for instruction, and his studio at Brookline, where he established his home in 1875, became famous for the inspiration with which he filled it. He was sought out by men from all over the country who wanted greatness and simplicity and strength in any of the fields of architecture in which he had shown his power. These fields were very various. Churches like those in Boston, and like the great cathedral which he designed, but never built, in Albany; great civic buildings, like those in Albany and Cincinnati, and his last great work, which he left unfinished in Pittsburgh; memorial halls and libraries, for which he created a type of singular beauty and fitness in North Easton, and Quincy, and Maiden, and Burlington; Academic structures, like Sever and Austin Halls at Cambridge; railroad stations, which surprise the traveler with the possibility of what before seemed hopeless; great mercantile houses in Boston, Hartford, and Chicago; dwellings in Washington, and Boston, and on the sea-shore, and in the country; — these all came in profusion from his brain, which stamped each of them with separate originality and yet gave them all the indubitable mark of his personal character and genius.

To those who knew him well, all the work that he did must seem to have essential relations to the sort of man he was. The style was the man. A solidity and seriousness which yet was always full of vitality and never dull, a love of simplicity which was not an abandonment of richness but a delighted discovery of it in the simplest things, a constant desire to produce impression by great forms and masses and not by pettiness of detail, spontaneity and freshness which were all the more impressive because they carried in themselves the principle of self-restraint, — all these appear in the freely treated Romanesque in which his monumental buildings are constructed, and something corresponding to them is felt, by those who knew him, in all the character and conduct of the man.

His influence upon the architecture of America must be very strong, and cannot be anything but good. He broke the spell which still rested in large degree upon the freedom of his art. He gave it dignity and greatness. He never trifled. He reverenced his profession. He was not afraid of repetition, trusting confidently to the constant diversity of occasions and of needs to make monotony impossible. He will be imitated, of course, in stupid and mechanical fashion; but he will also do what he would have most wished to do; he will inspire men to be real, simple, and sincere. He will make tricks and devices seem unworthy of an art whose greatness he felt and declared in all his buildings.

Mr. Richardson was made a member of this Academy [American Academy of Arts and Sciences] in 1881, of the Archaeological Institute of America in 1881, and of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1886, only three weeks before he died. When this last honor reached him, he said, "If they praise me so for what I have done, what would they say if they saw what I can do." It was the consciousness of unused power. To himself and to his friends he seemed, dying at forty-eight, to be dying young. If he could have had twenty years more of life, no man can say with what work he might have enriched the world. But life had been a fight with death for years. Everything he did had been done for years in pain and sickness. Nothing but a vitality which seemed to have no limit, an enthusiasm and buoyancy and joyousness that never failed, had kept him in this world. At last the ever-advancing illness conquered even them, and his work was over, and he died.

His death took from his friends a character which they must always remember with delight. To know him was to live in a land of wonderful profusion. There was a charm about him which will not submit to be analyzed, and which can never be forgotten. He remains a picture of breadth, openness, simplicity, happiness, and strength. He seemed to enlarge the thought of human nature while be lived, and to leave the world perceptibly more empty when he died.

    Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol XIV; May 1866 to December 1886, University Press, John Wilson and Son, Boston, 1887

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