‘Architects of an American Landscape’ Review: Genius by Design


A few years ago, author Hugh Howard told the editor of his publishing house that he wanted to resurrect the reputation of Henry Hobson Richardson as “the most admired architect of his day”. But if no one has heard of Richardson, his publisher replied, who is going to buy your book?

Mr Howard, who has written about Frank Lloyd Wright, Phillip Johnson and the architecture of Thomas Jefferson, found a clever conceit: a twin biography of Richardson and his friend and legendary collaborator Frederick Law Olmsted. Unlike Richardson, Olmsted – co-creator, with partner Calvert Vaux, of Manhattan’s Central Park and designer of the US Capitol grounds – needs no introduction. Another difference: while Richardson’s crudely hewn stone buildings, such as Trinity Church on Copley Square in Boston or the stately New York Capitol building in Albany, have long since fallen out of fashion, the woodland landscapes and gardens Olmsted’s English always stimulate the imagination.

Architects of an American Landscape: Henry Hobson Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, and the Reinvention of American Public and Private Spaces

By Hugh Howard

Atlantic Monthly

416 pages

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Mr. Howard’s vanity works. “Architects of an American Landscape,” a readable and intelligently paced double biography, is the literary equivalent of a rolling Olmstedian vert. In the last chapter, the reader fully appreciates the short and productive life of Richardson (1838-1886), whom Henry Adams, the intimate friend of senators and presidents, called “the only truly great man I ever knew.” Olmsted’s material seems like a welcome bonus, with scholarly accounts of his conservation work in Yosemite Valley, his pioneering efforts in forest management for Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, and of course his many collaborations with Richardson.

When young Harvard graduate Henry Richardson showed an interest in architecture in 1859, the estate barely existed. Architects were called “undertaker” because they undertook to construct buildings. America had no schools of architecture. Enthusiasts like Richardson had to attend the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, steeped in European classicism, to gain a foothold in the profession.

After almost six years in Europe and eager to start building, Richardson discovered that “everything in the American cityscape was derived from forms across the Atlantic”. A religious skeptic, he attacked traditional Beaux-Arts truths with his early church design, favoring Gothic over Classical, first with Unity Church in Springfield, Mass. In 1867 he built Grace Church in Medford, Mass., with the “New England bowlers” (as the mother of one of the church’s benefactors had suggested), thus following the saying of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “The best is nearest – / Make your work or your art out of it.” At 29, the teenager Richardson was already anticipating Frank Lloyd Wright’s “organic architecture”. (Wright, who hated to praise other architects, would confess to a “secret respect, leaning a bit towards envy” for Richardson.)

Richardson’s next project, Brattle Square Church in Boston’s Back Bay, showcased the stone cladding and wide round arches that would characterize the “Richardsonian Romanesque” style. The church mesmerized young architecture student Louis Sullivan, future stalwart of the Chicago School of Architecture and Wright’s mentor, and it led directly to what many consider Richardson’s greatest commission, Trinity Church.

Mr Howard calls Trinity “an episcopal duomo”. It is an atypical and innovative structure. Featuring a massive interior space built without columns, Trinity was to be a “colored church”, as Richardson put it. His friend John La Farge contributed 20,000 square feet of gold and red murals, as well as some stained glass, for the walls and the soaring dome. The Boston Transcript called Trinity “the first church in this country to be decorated by artists.” An 1885 survey of 75 prominent architects chose five Richardson buildings among the nation’s 10 best, with Trinity topping the list.

Mr Howard rightly points out that Trinity is “the centerpiece of one of America’s most memorable urban squares”, adorned after Richardson’s death by the magnificent Boston Public Library of its former designer Charles Follen McKim, across Copley Square. (Relationships abound: McKim’s partner in McKim, Mead & White, Stanford White, also worked for Richardson.) Henry Cobb of IM Pei & Partners completed the square’s architectural trio in 1976 with the headquarters neighbor of John Hancock. Cobb clad his 62-story tower in mirrored glass, he told this newspaper in 2011, because “it needed a dramatic profile.” But in the square, he added, “we had to honor the Trinity Church”.

After Trinity’s dedication in 1877, the 39-year-old Richardson had only nine years to live. However, a host of great creations awaited him, including several collaborations with Olmsted. Perhaps best known is the sprawling, 200-acre Buffalo State Asylum, in Buffalo, NY, which married Richardson’s fresh architectural style with Olmsted’s impeccable feel for calming landscapes. “Thanks in large part to the rooting of Olmsted [the Asylum] in nature,” Howard writes, “the safe and therapeutic place would betray no air of incarceration.”

In addition to their formal collaborations, Mr. Howard illustrates how the friends worked side by side, even though the two names did not appear in the drawings. The two men were active in the movement with the unlikely name of the “railroad beautiful”, which transformed the shabby railway depots into elegant halts. In Newtonville, Massachusetts, Richardson’s “fresh greenery and blooming flowers” created “a haven of rest and shade for the waiting passenger”. Richardson designed similar stations in other Massachusetts towns. The rise and fall of the stations’ distinctly curved, floating roofs, Howard notes, “would echo the soft top-to-bottom character of the surrounding New England skyline.” As it was now second nature to him, Richardson thought in Olmstedian terms.

Richardson also designed half a dozen public libraries in Massachusetts, most of them scrupulously appointed. (In Quincy and Malden, Mr. Howard writes, “the man who put Richardson’s buildings on their site was Olmsted.”) Indeed, Mr. Howard credits Richardson with creating the “archetype” of the library. public. When Andrew Carnegie launched his famous library building initiative in 1890, Howard says, the design was “Richardsonian”.

Churches, train stations, libraries, but there is more. In 1880, Olmsted and Richardson collaborated on a summer residence in Cohasset, Mass., completely covered in shingles. “Richardson’s simple vanity of a shingle membrane and a few details would inspire countless variations and imitations,” Howard notes. Another glorious Richardson-Olmsted production, completely covered in shingles, the Stoughton House (mansion, in fact) in Cambridge, featured an “open-plan” ground floor, with few partitions. Floor plans “which consisted less of rooms than of spaces that flowed into each other” are innovations generally attributed to Wright or early 20th-century European Modernist architects, not Richardson.

There is one question that Mr. Howard does not answer satisfactorily: why did the Richardsonian aesthetic fade so quickly? Why does the author’s beloved subject need a resurrection so badly? “For a time,” architect and church designer Ralph Adams Cram wrote in 1936, “we were all Richardsonians.” Yet now no one is. To modern eyes – to my eyes, at least – his masterpiece Trinity Church is the heaviest structure in Copley Square, earthly and not heavenly. Inside, it’s arguably a ‘colored church’, but the muted colors seem dark and gloomy compared to modern shrines that celebrate brilliance and sunlight. An example would be Philip Johnson’s spectacular Crystal Cathedral outside Los Angeles.

Modern tastes have evolved with building technology that allows luminous structures like Hancock Tower and Johnson’s Cathedral to rise and shine alongside Richardson’s stone and chthonic artwork. While many of Richardson’s buildings were demolished in the 20th century, Mr. Howard writes towards the end of his book: “Olmsted’s parks in particular seemed to gain in luster over time.

Perhaps the moral conveyed by this excellent double biography is that a constructed aesthetic is doomed to collapse, while made-up “natural” landscapes will stand the test of time. That said, Mr. Howard makes a strong case that we should take an informed second look at Richardson’s prodigious accomplishments.

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