Monday, August 28, 2017

Postcards from Boston #4 - First Baptist Church

Richardson’s first church design in Boston’s Back Bay is overshadowed by his monumental Trinity Church, which gave him a national reputation.  The commission for the Brattle Square Church, received in 1870, was extraordinarily important in his career, however, in that it is the first of his buildings to feature the characteristics of what became known as Richardsonian Romanesque. 

The congregation of Brattle Square Congregational Church constructed its first building in 1699, and a second was built a few years before the American Revolution.  By 1869, the Brattle Square area went into decline resulting in the congregation purchasing a prominent lot along Commonwealth Avenue in the developing Back Bay neighborhood.  H. H. Richardson was among a small number of architects asked to submit designs, possibly at the suggestion of Benjamin Crowninshield, a strong supporter of the project and father of Richardson’s Harvard classmate, Benjamin W. Crowninshield, for whom he had designed a nearby house in 1868. 

Construction began in 1871 and the building was finished in time to be dedicated just before Christmas in 1873.  The higher than expected cost of the building, combined with a financial depression in the early 1870s resulted in the congregation filing for bankruptcy in 1876.  

Six years later, it was acquired by the First Baptist Church for $100,000 which soon after engaged another architect to design a chapel at the west end of the building.  Galleries were added to the auditorium to correct acoustical issues in the original design.

The building is cruciform in shape; however, one arm is so short that the auditorium is actually T-shaped, with a huge rose window at each end of the T.  

The main axis runs parallel to Commonwealth Avenue, with entry off of Clarendon Street through an arcade consisting of three large arches composed of three different types of stone in shades of buff, cream, and red, set atop intricately carved foliate capitals.  

The floor of the entry porch is set with encaustic tiles in similar colors creating an overall harmony to the space.   

The stone used for the walls is a locally quarried Roxbury puddingstone, which works especially well for the Romanesque design, with the whole set beneath a roof of dark grey slate tiles set into decorative patterns.

The building is dominated by a massive 176-foot tower which rests on four large piers framing arched openings that form a covered carriageway.  

The tower contains multiple arched openings of various sizes and is capped by a pyramidal roof clad in red clay tiles.  

An enormous frieze near the top was designed by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty.  In was carved in situ by Italian stone carvers working from plaster models created by Bartholdi.  The four sides contain groupings of figures depicting the sacraments of baptism, communion, marriage, and death.  At each corner, angels blow through trumpets (originally gold in color), which earned the church the name “The Church of the Holy Bean Blowers.” 

Today, the church is in need of major repairs with canopies covering the sidewalks and scaffolding encasing the Bartholdi frieze.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Postcards from Boston #3 - Trinity Church Rectory

Three years after the completion of Trinity Church, H. H. Richardson was invited back by the congregation to design a rectory for Rev. Phillips Brooks.  Located just over a block to the north of the church on a corner lot at 233 Clarendon Street, the building shows Richardson’s mastery of a monochromatic palette to achieve a sophisticated and elegant design.

Richardson received the commission in April 1879 and the building was completed the following year.   The exterior is clad in a locally made hard red brick with trim of Longmeadow brownstone.  A balanced, asymmetrical façade is centered by the most commanding feature of the house – a low sprung arch surrounding a deeply recessed entry porch.  

Decorative stonework set within the arch over the door and three-part windows features Richardson’s trademark eight-petaled flower set amidst bands of triangles and simple geometric leaves.  

Foliate designs enliven the base of the arch, its inner perimeter, and the stair newel, while a band of double dentil trim surrounds the outer edge of the arch. 

The pitched roof features a forward-facing gable at each end and two dormers of different sizes in between, each with a different window configuration.  Of particular note is the finely laid brickwork set at 45 degree angles creating subtle triangular panels along the sides of the gables.  Bricks are laid in soldier courses at the level of the second floor windowsills, and a band of brickwork creating a checkerboard pattern is set between courses of brownstone framing the transoms of the first floor windows.  The second floor is dominated by three large panels of cut brick, in floral and foliate designs. 

The irregular arrangement of the windows reflects the interior configuration of the house.  One of the most prominent spaces was Brooks’ library, which was featured in Artistic Houses: Being a series of interior views of a number of the most beautiful and celebrated homes in the United States published in 1883-1884.  

The room was located at the south end of the first floor with the brick and stone fireplace placed in an alcove set within a projecting bay. 

After the death of Rev. Brooks in 1893, the building was enlarged by Richardson’s successor firm, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, which added the present third floor.  Their design closely mimics the second floor below (without the decorative brick panels), and Richardson’s top floor was rebuilt above according to his original design.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Postcards from Boston #2 - Trinity Church

H. H. Richardson’s design for Trinity Church on Boston’s Copley Square firmly established him as the most important architect in this country, and also made him the first to be recognized and respected abroad.  This distinction was reinforced when his fellow architects selected Trinity Church to head the list of the ten best buildings in the United States in 1885.  A century later, it was the only building from the original list to be included in a similar survey sponsored by the American Institute of Architects.  More recently, Geoffrey Baer included the building in his PBS documentary “Ten Buildings That Changed America.”

Richardson received the commission through a competition in the spring of 1872, of which he was one of six architects invited to submit.  By the time construction began on the building itself in 1874, Richardson had moved his home and office to Brookline, so that he could closely supervise the building.  He would remain in Brookline for the remainder of his life, resulting in the largest concentration of his work being located in Boston and surrounding towns.

One of four piers supporting the tower

Work began in 1873 when 4,500 wooden piers were driven into the ground to support the enormous weight of the building.  Four huge piers in the sanctuary support the weight of the tower, and sit upon granite pyramids underground, measuring forty feet wide by twenty feet tall.  This massive engineering feat was essential, given that the site sat in the middle of the Back Bay, a former swampy area that had been filled in over the preceding fifteen years.  

Parish House

The overall plan of the building is in the shape of a Greek cross, with the Parish House extending to the northeast, reflecting the original irregularly shaped plot of land.

The exterior comprises four different types of local granite and is trimmed with Longmeadow brownstone.  Richly carved ornament is set amidst walls featuring Richardson’s trademark polychrome stone work, including checkboard and zigzag patterns on the front façade, and eight-petaled flowers on the apse.  

Inspiration for the overall design includes the French Romanesque which Richardson studied extensively during his years at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in the early 1860s.  His refinement of the style led to what later became known as Richardsonian Romanesque and characterized the buildings in the later years of his career.  The cathedral at Salamanca, Spain served as a model for the large tower. 

In 1876, at Richardson’s request, the congregation hired John La Farge to complete the interior decoration.  As noted by Keith Morgan in his Buildings of Boston, “(La Farge), assisted by Augustus St. Gaudens and a team of American artists, produced the most extensive scheme of figurative and architectural painted ornament of any American building up to that time, influencing the emergency of mural decoration in American public buildings.”

The interior features an exceptionally open auditorium for Rev. Phillips Brooks, a Harvard classmate of Richardson, considered one of the finest preachers of the late 19th century.  A marble bust by Daniel Chester French dominates the baptistry, and was completed in 1897.  It commemorates Brooks’ 22 years as rector of Trinity Church, and his two years as Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, in which position he served until his death in 1893.

Christ in Majesty (detail)

The church features a dazzling collection of American and European stained glass windows.  Five are by La Farge, including the Christ in Majesty window set into three lancets over the main entrance, and his New Jerusalem window in the north transept.  

The New Jerusalem (detail)

That area features a series of windows by Sir Edward Burne-Jones for Morris & Co., who also designed the window, David’s Charge to Solomon, located in the baptistry.  

David's Charge to Solomon

William Morris as the head of Goliath (detail from upper right of window)

A humorous note is that Burne-Jones incorporated Morris’ image in the window, as the severed head of Goliath being held in the right hand of David.  Other English windows include a series of seven surrounding the chancel by Clayton & Bell of London and several by Henry Holiday, also of London, including Three Scenes in St. Paul’s Life, shown below.

Three Scenes in St. Paul's Life

The building was consecrated in February 1877 with the total cost of the site and building at $635,000.  In 1897, Richardson’s successors, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, added the richly carved west porch, combining Richardson’s general scheme and the design of St. Trophime, a Romanesque church in Arles, France.  The firm returned to add the massive sculptural pulpit in 1914.  Architects Maginnis and Walsh extensively remodeled the apse in 1937-1938 to reflect the shift toward a more ceremonial form of worship.



A major restoration and expansion was begun in 2003, and continues to this day, with significant work on the exterior being undertaken during 2017. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Postcards from Boston #1 - First Spiritual Temple

During the first week of August 2017, nearly two dozen docents, staff, and supporters of Glessner House Museum journeyed to Boston, Massachusetts to explore the work of H. H. Richardson and his contemporaries.  Over the next few months, we will be bringing our readers a series of "postcards" from Boston highlighting some of the buildings we saw - some well known, some less so.  

We begin our series with the First Spiritual Temple located at 26 Exeter Street.  

The building was designed by the architectural firm of Hartwell & Richardson in 1884 and was completed the following year.  Hartwell & Richardson was a Boston-based architectural firm founded in 1881 by Henry Walker Hartwell and William Cummings Richardson (no relation to H. H. Richardson).  The firm was prolific through the late 19th century, designing numerous churches and municipal buildings in its early years, and many residences later on.  Their most significant commission is generally regarded to be Osgood Hill, the Moses T. Stevens estate in North Andover, Maryland, completed in 1886.  

Osgood Hill and First Spiritual Temple both owe much to H. H. Richardson, and demonstrate the enormous impact he had on other architects of the period.

The First Spiritual Temple, a classic example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style, was the first house of worship built in the United States for the Spiritualists, who popularized the idea that the living could commune with the dead.  The movement originated in New York and gained popularity in the mid- to late-19th century and included the use of mediums, seances, the Ouija board, and other ways of connecting with the dearly departed.  The popularity of Spiritualism declined in the early 20th century and for seventy years the Temple operated as the 900-seat Exeter Street Theater.  After years housing various commercial enterprises, it was converted into the Kingsley Montessori School, which currently occupies the structure.

Classic features of the building which show the influence of Richardson include the rusticated stone in two contrasting colors, the tall dormers rising up from the wall surface below, clustered columns around window groupings, polychromatic stone work in checkerboard and leaf patterns on the front facade, and of course, the extensive use of the arch.  

Looking at the building as a whole, it is composed of a simple large box richly ornamented to give it an imposing presence on its corner site.  

The name "First Spiritual Temple" is set into the stone above the entry arch, amidst richly carved foliate decoration.  Immediately below, two medallions depict the words Religion and Science atop a globe sitting over a cross, and a triangular arrangement of the words Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity with a downward flying bird at the top point, and six-pointed stars at the lower points.  (Another six-pointed star sits over the side entrance on Newbury Street).  

Above the Temple name to either side, ghostly faces are carved into the stone, another indication of the original purpose of the building.

Today, passers-by continue to note the impressive architecture, but few are aware of the other-worldly movement that led to its construction in the 1880s.
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