Monday, September 23, 2013

Happy 175th Birthday to Henry Hobson Richardson

Sunday September 29, 2013 will mark the 175th anniversary of the birth of Glessner House architect Henry Hobson Richardson.  The event will be marked with a lecture on Richardson’s influence in Chicago entitled “H. H. Richardson and his Chicago Legacy” that afternoon at 2:00pm in the coach house of the museum.  The presenter will be architectural historian John Waters, who will explore Richardson’s body of work and the influence it had on architects including Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Henry Ives Cobb.  (As a special treat, attendees will receive a piece of birthday cake – the same celebrated recipe for strawberry shortcake that Richardson called the “best ever” when he dined with the Glessners in May 1885).  For reservations or more information, call 312.326.1480.

In celebration of Richardson’s birth, we present a brief biography and overview of his works from the exhibit “Henry Hobson Richardson: Architect of the Glessner House” on permanent display in the visitor’s center of the museum.  The exhibit text was written by James F. O’Gorman, professor emeritus in the Wellesley College Department of Arts, and the author of several books on Richardson and his contemporaries, including H. H. Richardson: Architectural Forms for an American Society and Living Architecture: A Biography of H. H. Richardson.

Church of the Unity, Springfield, MA

H. H. Richardson (1838-1886) is a pioneer figure in the development of an American style of architecture.  Born on a Louisiana sugar plantation, he grew up in the American section of New Orleans. His mother was the granddaughter of Joseph Priestley, celebrated eighteenth-century Unitarian clergyman and chemist often credited with the discovery of oxygen; his father was a dealer in real estate, cotton, and slaves. Turned down by West Point because of a stutter, he entered Harvard College, graduating in 1859. He proved an indifferent scholar but a popular classmate. Elected to the Porcellian, an exclusive collegiate social club, much of his subsequent career rested on the contacts he made at college including future clients Henry Adams and Philips Brooks.

In 1860 he became the second American architect to attend the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then the leading architectural school in the Western world. The fall of New Orleans to Union troops in 1862 cutoff funds from home and prematurely ended his studies, so he found work at the office of Théodore Labrouste, an important government architect. Richardson’s Parisian education thus combined theoretical exercises with practical experience. He absorbed the French system of balanced planning but rejected its classical forms. 

At the end of the Civil War he returned to the States, married Julia Gorham Hayden of Boston, and moved into a mansard-roofed house of his own design on Staten Island, New York. He formed a partnership of convenience with Charles Dexter Gambrill, and designed his first building, the Church of the Unity in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1866. During this time he also collaborated with the pioneering landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, to prepare a master plan for Staten Island.

Richardson’s career lasted just twenty years, and from 1874 until his death twelve years later, he worked out of a studio behind his residence in Brookline, a suburb of Boston. There he set up an office on the French atelier system, drawing assistants from the recently established school of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His office produced several prominent architects including Charles Follen McKim and Stanford White, two of the major architects of the next generation. A summer trip in 1882 to the Auvergne and other medieval sites in France, Spain, and Italy confirmed his choice of Romanesque as the basis for a personal style, which in time became known as Richardsonian Romanesque.  His fresh approach to those robust forms marked his later buildings, many of which were erected by Norcross Brothers of Worcester, Massachusetts.

Richardson was a hail-fellow-well-met, a man’s man who, as a New York Senator once stated, could “charm a bird out of a bush.” But his gargantuan appearance (John Glessner estimated his weight at 370 pounds) masked a deadly malady, Bright’s disease, which killed him at the age of forty-seven. Philips Brooks likened his passing to the “vanishing of a great mountain from the landscape.” The study of his life and work, written by Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, appeared in 1888 and was the first book devoted to an American architect.  It did much to spread the knowledge and influence of the Richardsonian Romanesque far beyond New England.

Trinity Church, Boston, MA

Richardson became the most admired architect in the country as the result of a number of significant buildings designed during the last fifteen years of his life. Five of his buildings appeared on an 1885 national survey of the ten best buildings of the United States picked by his fellow architects.  Trinity Church headed the list. He also found followers across the United States and as far afield as England, Finland, and Australia. He was the first American architect to have such a wide influence and respect abroad.

What Richardson called his free interpretation of the Romanesque style first occurred in his masterwork, Trinity Church on Copley Square in Boston, a commission he won in competition in 1872. Rejecting the thin walled Gothic Revival style with its pointed arches, then popular for Episcopal churches, he designed a vast open auditorium for the charismatic preacher Philips Brooks. The interior is a broad centralized space rising amid chancel, shallow transepts, and a shortened nave with round-arched wooden vaults. Its colorful thick walls, brilliant stained glass, and rich acoustics add to the special quality of the space. This shaping of the interior created an exterior that is a pyramid of rough hewn granite with contrasting sandstone trim capped by a massive, squat tower. The effect is that of a “mighty fortress.” It remains high on the list of major architectural achievements.

In following years Richardson created seminal works, both private and public, for cities, suburbs, and the commuter lines connecting them. For suburban or country houses he looked to geology for inspiration, piling glacial boulders into organic forms, or wrapping the structures in wooden shingles. His addition to the Robert Treat Paine house in Waltham, Massachusetts, looks as if it were emerging from the ground like an outcropping. His gate lodge for the Ames estate in North Easton, Massachusetts, seems a man-made glacial moraine. For small towns around Boston he designed granite faced public libraries and railroad depots, the latter capped with sheltering hip roofs that spread out to create ground-hugging shapes.

Among his later buildings, Richardson rated the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as the most important. A major city commission built of granite with round-arched openings and a tall tower, it radiated the “majesty of the law,” according to a local historian. The unarticulated wall surrounding the jail yard may be the most impressive run of stonework in the country; its low sprung arch with its seven-foot voussoirs is among the most powerful ever built, and served as the big brother of the 18th Street entrance of Glessner house. 

Marshall Field Wholesale Store, Chicago, IL

Richardson’s influence on Chicago architecture was as strong as it was elsewhere. His major Chicago works, the Marshall Field Wholesale Store and the Glessner and MacVeagh houses, created powerful images of solid rusticated granite walls, round-arched architecture, and disciplined geometry in contrast to the caprice of the pointed Victorian Gothic. His example inspired many of the late nineteenth-century designers who shaped the architectural image of the city.

Just prior to Richardson’s death, he assigned his office to three of his assistants, and the new partnership, named Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, produced major commissions across the country as well as local iconic landmarks including the Art Institute and the former public library (now the Chicago Cultural Center). Under the name Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott, the Boston-based firm continues to occupy an important place in contemporary American architecture

Louis Sullivan owned a copy of Van Rensselaer’s book on Richardson’s work, and his local buildings loomed large in Sullivan’s mind. The Marshall Field Wholesale Store had a great affect on him in particular.  In that building, Richardson conceived a blockbuster structure, a building which “in massiveness, simplicity of lines, and . . . blending of artistic beauty with adaptability to its purpose” was unrivalled according to a contemporary critic. The architect Rudolf Schindler said it stood out from nearby works “like a meteor from another planet.” A four-square block of red Missouri granite articulated with the architect’s signature half-round arches, it echoed the gridiron plan of the city.

 For Sullivan, it was an “oasis” among its neighboring buildings which seemed a “host of stage-struck-wobbling mockeries,” as he wrote in Kindergarten Chats. He adapted the scheme of its façades for his Auditorium Building (now Roosevelt University), and in later buildings such as the Stock Exchange, he continued to use the masonry arched forms of the Richardsonian Romanesque. The salvaged archway entrance to the Stock Exchange near the Art Institute is as much a tribute to Richardson’s influence on the architects of the city as it is to Sullivan.

Under the influence of Sullivan and Van Rensselaer’s book on Richardson, the young Frank Lloyd Wright was also taken with the older man’s buildings, especially the organic qualities of his suburban work, which, although he was loath to admit it, Wright adapted to his own early domestic designs. His Heurtley house in Oak Park, for example, recalls the organizational scheme of Richardson’s Crane Memorial Library in Quincy, Massachusetts. As late as 1949, Wright’s entrance to the V. C. Morris Shop in San Francisco reprised the form of the interrupted archway of the 18th Street entry at Glessner house.           

Other Chicago architects also looked at Richardson’s accomplishments. The exterior of Burnham and Root’s Rookery reflects knowledge of his arched style, as does their now-demolished Masonic Temple. Massachusetts-born and M.I.T.-trained Henry Ives Cobb adapted the Richardsonian Romanesque to a number of local works, including the original Chicago Historical Society building (Dearborn and Ontario), the Newberry Library, and the houses at 1811 and 2110 South Prairie Avenue.

Richardson’s Glessner house is among his finest works. Begun in 1885 and finished in 1887 by his successor firm, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, the house demonstrates the courage of John and Frances Glessner to commission such an unconventional house, for it was generally misunderstood and disliked by their neighbors when first completed.

John Jacob Glessner, one of the founders of International Harvester, a farm equipment company, was deeply involved in the civic and cultural affairs of Chicago.  He served as president of the Citizen’s Association, the Commercial Club, and Rush Medical College, and as a trustee of the Chicago Orchestral Association and the Art Institute. Frances Macbeth Glessner was active in Chicago as well.  Among her social and philanthropic commitments were Fortnightly of Chicago and the Society of Decorative Arts.  She was also an accomplished pianist, silversmith, embroiderer, and beekeeper.  An extensive search for an architect led the couple to Richardson, who provided them with an ideal winter home on Prairie Avenue in which they resided from October through May each year.

Clients and architect were ill-matched in personality; the Glessners were conventional while Richardson was flamboyant. Yet they became fast friends and formed a virtually perfect client-architect relationship.  While dining together the day after first visiting their Prairie Avenue site, Richardson quickly sketched the L-shaped plan of the house. With a few practical changes, that is the plan of the house as built. The ultimate design rested on Richardson’s interpretation of such European precedents as the tithe barn at Abingdon Abbey in England (a picture of which the Glessners owned), and the Manoir d’Ango in Normandy (a photograph of which the architect had on file).  John Glessner later recorded that “from what (Richardson) told me and what his young men said afterwards, I am convinced that this house of ours is the one of all that he built that he would have liked most to live in himself.”

The austere north side of Glessner house, with its minimal window openings, rises from the street-side edge of the property and provides a stark contrast to the courtyard elevation with its large windows that provide an abundance of natural light to the interior. Its exterior design marked it as unique among the homes on fashionable Prairie Avenue. The Glessner house sits low and solid on the ground while the other houses rose high and gaunt atop steep steps. The walls of rusticated granite laid in continuous horizontal courses stood in marked contrast to the numerous small-scale and polychromed details of the neighboring houses. Richardson’s delight in “massive and quiet” architecture found its full expression in the Glessner house.  

The library of the home was inspired by Richardson’s own office in Brookline. The interior appointments of the house reflect the dawning Arts and Crafts Movement inspired by the designer and theorist William Morris in England. Richardson had visited Morris in 1882 and became one of the bearers of this new movement to America. Textiles, wallpaper, and furniture by Morris grace the interior, while dining room furniture designed by Charles Coolidge of Richardson’s office and a piano case by Francis Bacon (all made by A. H. Davenport of Boston) stamp the house as a precursor to the flood of craftwork that was to mark the turn of the twentieth century.

Richardson dressed in monk's robes

“He was the most versatile, interesting, ready, capable and confident of artists, the most genial and agreeable of companions.  Everybody was attracted to him at sight. . . All of his work was stamped with his individuality.  It had great influence upon contemporary architecture and that which immediately followed, and his early death was a distinct loss to this country.”

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