H.H. Richardson: Celebrating an American Genius!

Trinity Church in Copley Square, 1872-1877
Trinity Church on Copley Square, (1872-1877)

This week marks the 171stbirthday of one of the greatest architects of all time: Henry Hobson Richardson.  Born on September 28, 1838 in Louisiana, H.H. Richardson gained international fame immediately following the completion of one of the most iconic buildings in the city of Boston; Trinity Church on Copley Square.

Considered one of the most important and visually compelling buildings in American architecture, Trinity Church gave birth to the style known today as the “Richardsonian Romanesque.” The Richardsonian Romanesque became the first style of American architecture to be copied throughout the United States, Canada and northern European countries. Characterized for its massive, almost fortress like appearance, thick rounded arches, heavy rustication, red clay tiles for the roof and for the most part the use of a central tower, the style dominated American architecture for the rest of the 19thcentury. Notable examples of the Richardsonian Romanesque in the area include the Cambridge Public Libraryand Cambridge City Hall and in Boston his influence is seen throughout the city, particularly in the Back Bay.

Richardson not only designed the buildings that we know of today, but also the furniture and the interior detailing of the woodwork that occupied them.  His influence as a furniture designer is traced in the current Greene and Greene exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston which closes on October 18, 2009.

The Woburn Public Library (1876-1879)
The Woburn Public Library (1876-1879)

H.H. Richardson’s creative genius and influence on American architecture and design has been obscured through the years by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), considered to date the most powerful force in modern architecture in America. With the 175th anniversary of Richardson’s birth approaching in 2014 and the 130thanniversary of the Woburn Public Library marked in 2009, the legacy of H.H. Richardson will continue to live on for future generations of historians and architects alike who have witnessed the power of his designs on American culture.

Happy Birthday H.H. Richardson!

Many of Richardson’s buildings are open to the public including Trinity Church, Stonehurst in Waltham, the Converse Memorial Library and the Woburn Public Library among others. For more information on this American genius, consult the following books and monographs.


Kenneth Breisch, Henry Hobson Richardson and the Small Public Library in America: A Study in Typology (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997)

Margaret Henderson Floyd, Henry Hobson Richardson: A Genius for Architecture, (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1997)

James F. O’Gorman, Living Architecture:  A Biography of H. H. Richardson, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997)

James F. O’Gorman, ed. The Makers of Trinity Church in the City of Boston, (Amherst and Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts)

Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works (New York: Dover Publications, 1969)

Stonehurst (The Robert Treat Paine House, Waltham, MA 1883-1886)
Stonehurst (The Robert Treat Paine House, Waltham, MA 1883-1886)

¿Quién soy yo? Who am I? – Cultural Diversity and Preservation

img409 copy
The author with his host family in Valparaiso, Chile in 2004.

“Who are you?” This question always stirs deep emotions within me, for finding an answer is never easy. The context in which it is asked will result in a different response every time. Our identity is shaped by the groups with which we have become affiliated or with whom we share a common thread. This is problematic as group identities like race and gender roles are socially constructed, forcing individuals who are part of a particular group to take on an identity with which they may or may not identify. The “who are you” question sheds light into the issue of diversity and the cultural nuances that are proving to be a challenge for preservation. The January/February issue of Preservation magazine comes to mind as it is indicative of a much larger cultural issue that must be addressed in the field if it is to become inclusive in preserving everyone’s history.

The magazine highlights the superb preservation work currently underway in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico and showcases the Latino preservation movement in the United States. The message communicated through the use of the word Preservación, however, was ambiguous and did not reflect the positive outlook that the story transmitted. When speaking of preservation in a Latin American context, the word that immediately invokes the ideas of the American preservation movement is conservación. The Puerto Rico State Historic Preservation Office translated into Spanish would read “Oficina Estatal de Conservación Histórica (OECH).” The choice of words as a native Spanish speaker do not convey a desire to be more inclusive in preservation, but instead it assumed that those who speak Spanish and English will understand the message behind it. The word Conservación would have taught readers a profound lesson in language and culture, a message that could have broken language barriers.

Cultural diversity is proving to be preservation’s greatest challenge. The preservation field must acknowledge that within the Spanish-speaking community there are a countless of differences in language and cultures.

Historically, preservation has done an outstanding job of preserving those places that matter to people with economic power. Its successes have been driven by those who possess a higher education and are politically savvy, calling attention to a particular resource and garnering the support from the community to save historically significant places from demolition. Unfortunately, not everyone is this privileged. The successes of preservation have also exposed its failures, in that marginalized people who live in the periphery of major urban centers or in cities where industry once employed hundreds of immigrants have now become dilapidated battlegrounds for preservationists.

Have we preservationists done enough in asking what is it that really matters to these communities? Have we inquired about their identity and listened carefully as to what the answers may be? I believe that the first step in working with marginalized communities in this country is to create an enriching dialogue in which questions of cultural identity are explored. My hope is that the responses will facilitate in breaking the boundaries and closing the preservation gap that has many communities in a state of deterioration.

In Boston, small non-profit organizations like Discover Roxbury and others are working diligently to break the boundaries, and in the process empowering community members and visitors to take pride in their neighborhood. Having lived in and explored culturally diverse neighborhoods in Boston including Roxbury, I witnessed on a daily basis the challenges that the preservation community faces. Investing in education and engaging in dialogues involving identity and history is key to halting the further decay of urban neighborhoods.

After a college semester studying abroad in Valparaiso, Chile, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I journeyed along with my sister to the Dominican Republic in search of the beauty and history I left behind as a child. Wandering among the stately colonial churches and palaces of Old Santo Domingo, I realized why many of us Latinos living in the United States feel emotionally disconnected with the architecture and surroundings. I sensed the pride and ownership people have in the history that is associated with these architectural treasures. We, as preservationists, must work towards emotionally reconnecting the Latino Community with the architectural resources that surround them, which also reflect their history in the United States.

Who am I? The question still remains a difficult one, but I am a Dominican who was born in the Dominican Republic, raised in Boston with American citizenship. I also consider myself an American, not because of my citizenship, but because I was partially raised here and have developed a love for this country and its architectural history. Who am I in the Dominican Republic? I am a Banilejo (from the province of Bani), but also a Boca Canastero, from the town of Boca Canasta. I identify myself as Latino when referring to the political power that we as a community possess in this country. A power that is gradually being acknowledged by society and those working in historic preservation.


To join in the discussion, visit the Latino Heritage Month Landing Page of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Review: A New and Native Beauty: The Art and Craft of Greene and Greene

Entry Hall Window Panel: Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A New and Native Beauty: The Art and Craft of Greene and Greene at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (July 14 – October 18, 2009) traces the extraordinary achievements of the Brothers Charles and Henry Greene in their quest for beauty in everyday objects. Inspired by native landscapes and materials as well as traditional Japanese crafts, the Greene Brothers were also influenced by the works of Henry Hobson Richardson, the single most influential architect of the 19th century.  For the first time in any museum, A New and Native Beauty highlights pivotal moments in the careers of Charles and Henry Greene and the American Arts and Crafts Movement.

Following the ideas of William Morris, the driving force behind the English Arts and Crafts Movement which integrated social and moral ideologies into the art and architecture produced during this time, the Greene Brothers also rebelled against the uninspiring machine made objects; products of the industrial revolution, and placed emphasis on hand crafted ornamentation and details in their work. The first part of the show places the brothers within the larger context of the Movement and establishes a direct link between the furniture Henry Hobson Richardson designed for the Woburn Public Library and the furniture designed by the Greenes for their stunning houses in California. The rest of the show positions the spectator inside seven houses designed by the Greenes displaying furniture, stained glass, ironwork and lighting fixtures which not only harmonized with one another, but also with the building they intended to be part of.

Consistent with the furniture of the Woburn Public Library, one of Richardson’s most ornate buildings, the furniture of the Greene’s follows the individualistic character of their buildings. The furniture part of the exhibition emphasizes the simplicity and a harmonious union of design, the structural integrity of the architecture and the honesty expressed in the use of materials. Richardson’s influence on the Greene Brothers is observed throughout the exhibition in the rounded brackets and in the exposed mortise and tenon joints. In contrast to the furniture of the Woburn Public Library whose exposed tenoned joints serve as the ornamentation, the furniture of the Greene Brothers was inlayed with mother of pearl and silver which distinguishes their work from other Arts and Crafts artists.

The accompanying catalog to the exhibition edited by Edward R. Bosley and Anne E. Mallek beautifully illustrated, offers the latest scholarly research on the work of Greene and Greene including their stained glass as well as their female clientele. The catalog and the objects of decorative arts part of the Greene and Greene show place the brothers among the masters of the American Arts and Crafts Movement.

  A New and Native Beauty: The Art and Craft of Greene and Greene celebrates the works of these two extraordinary artists “considered to be the quintessential Arts and Crafts designers[1],” as well as the astounding careers of Henry Hobson Richardson, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Stickley Brothers who became some of the most influential architects of the American Arts and Crafts Movement.


[1] Elizabeth Cumming and Wendy Kaplan, The Arts and Crafts Movement (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991) 123