HH Richardson + His Legacy

Portrait of HH Richardson

Henry Hobson Richardson is the 1st American architect of international renown – and the only one with an architectural style named after him.

Richardsonian Romanesque meshes different masonry materials and a bold scale. His work seems to pound the table and demand your attention. The style is as American as the man. It blends dissimilar materials into a cohesive and strong design. Prior to Richardson, American Architecture used wood shingles, clapboards, brick or stone as predominant building elements. These materials simply were not grand enough. He favored granite and brownstones, blending the two materials with unique masonry arches and monumental windows, towers and buttresses and announced his buildings’ presence and permanence.

Indeed this vision has proven true– 150 years after his buildings were completed virtually all remain. They are too stately, too imposing, and too important to their communities’ identity to suffer demolition. Boston is blessed with his singular masterpiece – the Trinity Church in Copley Square built in 1872.

Supposedly, the designer of the John Hancock Tower, Henry Cobb from I.M. Pei & Partners, decided the best design for a skyscraper standing in the presence of HH Richardson’s masterpiece is total invisibility – a mere reflecting wall for the magnificence of this historic church.

The City of Woburn is similarly blessed with another Richardson Masterpiece, the Winn Memorial Library, built in 1876. Public structures of the late 1800’s were among the most ornate and prominent buildings in America. Gentlemen such as Jonathan Winn and his family provided the funding, and a community benefited from an iconic structure that would last for centuries (we hope!).

Intriguing is Richardson’s propensity to work on humble structures as readily as grand and iconic buildings. The same detail and bold scale in his train stations in Framingham, Newton, Palmer, and Holyoke, MA is found in Trinity Church and the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail in Pittsburgh, PA.

An enormous man with enormous appetites, HH Richardson died in 1886 at the age of 47 from kidney failure. His legacy lives on as his 3 young protégés formed the firm of Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge and completed iconic buildings of their own such as South Station in Boston. That firm is now the prominent Boston Architecture firm of Shepley Bulfinch.

In the short span of 20 years Richardson designed more than 50 buildings and his influence stretched for a full century.

Credit: Tony Hisgett (Permissions)