Happy Birthday to H.H. Richardson

H.H. Richardson was born on September 29, 1838 – April 27, 1886 in Lousiana. He lived a short life, but he managed to change the face of American architecture for a major part of the 20th century. 

Happy birthday H.H. Richardson!

You can learn more about H.H. Richardson here and here and here .

Books on H.H. Richardson include Living Architecture by James F. O’Gorman and Henry Hobson Richardson: A Genius for Architecture by Margaret Henderson Floyd. Both excellent books to enjoy and learn more about this American genius.

Here is a building by H.H. Richardson with landscape by Frederick Law Olmsted, this one is the “State Lunatic Asylum” in Buffalo, NY. The building is also known as the New York State Hospital.

Photo: Historic American Buildings Survey

In Harmony with the Architecture: The Furniture of H.H. Richardson

H. H. Richardson (1838-1886), by Sir Hubert von Herkomer (1849-1914. Oil on canvas, 1886. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. On extended loan from Mrs. Henry H. Richardson III. L/NPG.1.99

Henry Hobson Richardson, one of the most influential architects of the 19th century changed the course of American architecture with the introduction of an architectural vocabulary known today as the Richardsonian Romanesque. This new vocabulary was rapidly copied and imitated during the latter part of the Nineteenth and well into the first part of the Twentieth Century in America, Canada and Northern European countries. H.H Richardson as a designer did not limit his genius to creating architectural masterpieces, indeed “no feature was too small, no object too simple to engage his thought[i]” as his contemporary and biographer Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer notes.

Side chair for the Woburn Public Library, 1878, Designed by: Henry Hobson Richardson, American, 1838–1886 Manufactured by: A. H. Davenport & Company, active 1841–1973, Boston, Massachusetts, United States, Oak, leather. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Woburn Public Library, 1961. Accession number: 61.237

Richardson as an architect became intimately involved in every aspect of his buildings, from the interior detailing of the woodwork, to the built-in and free standing furniture. H.H. Richardson once said “I’ll plan anything a man wants from a cathedral to a chicken coop[ii].” Richardson was influenced by a variety of sources including medieval furniture, 17th and 18th century American furniture, the Queen Anne, William and Mary and Chippendale Style, also Eastlake Style furniture and the English Arts and Crafts Movement. Richardson owned a copy of Talbert’s Gothic Forms Applied to Furniture, one of the many pattern books highly popular with architects, designers, and craftsmen of his time[iii]. As an architect, Richardson had a collection of photographs which represented a wide range of styles, from the Gothic to the Renaissance, Baroque, Islamic, Asian, Egyptian, Mexican and Pre-Historic structures[iv].

The furniture of H.H. Richardson was “integral with the interior woodwork of the buildings.[v]” As an architect and furniture designer, H.H. Richardson collaborated with the best designers and craftsmen of his times including Francis H. Bacon, Charles Coolidge, and Stanford White, a partner in the firm of McKim, Mead and White, architects of the Boston Public Library. The prestigious furniture makers and carvers at A.H. Davenport and Company[vi] who later in 1916 merged with Irving and Casson executed most of Richardson’s furniture commissions including the Court of Appeals in Albany, New York, the Crane Library in Quincy, the Billings Library in Burlington, Vermont and the Converse Libraries in Malden[vii].

The Woburn Public Library, taken by John Michael Garcia.
Armchair for the Woburn Pubilc Library, 1878 Designed by: Henry Hobson Richardson, American, 1838–1886, Possibly manufactured by: A. H. Davenport & Company, active 1841–1973. Boston, Massachusetts, United States Overall: 85.4 x 74.9 x 71.1 cm (33 5/8 x 29 1/2 x 28 in.) Oak, leather. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Woburn Public Library, 1961. Accession number: 61.236

Richardson’s furniture designs follow the individualistic character of his buildings and at the Woburn Public Library, one of his most ornate, the furniture emphasizes the “simplicity and unity of design, structural integrity and honesty expressed in the use of materials.”  The furniture is as massive and robust as the buildings. The structural integrity of both the chair and the building is emphasized in the chair through the joinery and in the building through the vertical and horizontal lines.  John Ruskin in his book Seven Lamps of Architecture[viii] advocated for a simplicity and unity of design which is expressed in both the architecture and furniture of the Woburn Library. With a desire to bring back the “craftsmanship of a bygone era,[ix]” the furniture of the Woburn Library is medieval in inspiration in the sense that their scale is massive like medieval furniture which was made out of stone. The spindles recall the turned furniture of seventeenth century New England and shows characteristics of William Morris earlier furniture designs as well anticipate the furniture designed in the American Arts and Crafts Movement[x].

Detail of Woburn Public Library Table

Most of the furniture of the Woburn Library was put together without the use of nails or screws, mortise and tenon joints are not only used to construct the furniture, but also to serve as the ornaments themselves. The same could be said for other Richardson designed furniture.

H.H. Richardson sought inspiration in the past in order to design timeless pieces of furniture which took on the characteristics of his buildings. His chairs and benches are as massive as the architecture, and as inviting and comfortable as his interiors are. By the time of his premature death at the age of 48 (died in 1886) Richardson had fully developed a complete vocabulary in furniture which anticipated the Modern movement. In the words of Richard Randall, Jr. who organized the first and only exhibition of Richardson’s furniture at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1962, “the variety seen in the existing examples, the drawings and photographs reveal the sanity, power and urbanity of the designs, and place Richardson among the masters of 19th century furniture design.[xi]

*** If you’d like to see the sources of the citations, please send me an email.  While conducting research in 2008-2009, I came to the realization that most of the furniture Richardson designed remains with us today and in great condition. The same cannot be said of his contemporary, the Philadelphia architect Frank Furness who also designed furniture for his buildings, but very little of it remains (shame! shame! shame!).  For the sake of clarity and length, I’ve decided to limit this post to just a certain pieces at the Woburn Public Library.

The Sacred Places of Beacon Hill

This past Sunday, the New England Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians organized a walking tour of the sacred places of Beacon Hill.  The tour was well attended and the weather was fantastic, a better Sunday afternoon could not have been possible.

The tour was an excellent opportunity to learn more about the many sacred places in Boston’s Beacon Hill  neighborhood, especially since I had only seen the interior of one of them (the Vilna Shul synagogue) before this tour. Below are some images I snapped of some sites.


Guest Blog Entry – A New and Native Architecture: Charles and Henry Greene and their Years in Boston

Robert Pitcairn house, 1906, Pasadena, CA. Charles & Henry Greene. Photo taken by David Mathias.

Modernism, specifically the International School, divorced architecture from regional identity.  Buildings should, proponents argued, be universal and primarily functional.  The movement was, and is, hugely successful, in theory and in practice.  And with modernism in its tenth decade, it can be easy to forget that not so long ago regional styles were vitally important.  The shingled homes of the New England coast.  The Spanish missions of California.  The agricultural manors of the South.

The Greene Brothers - Charles Sumner Greene (top) & Henry Mather Greene (bottom). Image source: The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Click on this image for an online version of the exhibition "A New and Native Beauty" which traveled to Boston (July 14 - October 19, 2009).

At the dawn of the 20th century, Pasadena architects Charles & Henry Greene developed a new regional style based on the climate and environment of their adopted home.  “A wooden style built woodenly,” that blurs the distinction between indoors and out, the California bungalow is certainly of that place.  A synthesis of Arts & Crafts and Asian influences with a casual California sensibility, it could not have developed anywhere else.

Thus, it may be surprising that Greene & Greene were not Californians.  Nor were they from a warm climate.  They were born in Cincinnati, raised in St. Louis and educated in Boston.  Yes, Boston.  America’s answer to Old World civilization.  The birthplace of the Revolution.  Home of the Brahmins.  It was in this world that Charles & Henry Greene acquired the skills that would enable them to develop the quintessential west-coast style.

In September 1888, Charles Greene, aged 19, and his brother Henry, aged 18, left their comfortable home in St. Louis for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they enrolled in the Partial Course in architecture.  The Partial Course, a two-year program, was significantly more popular, at that time, than the four-year course of study.  Both boys were well prepared due to their education at the Manual Training School of Washington University, a high school program offering traditional academic subjects in addition to shop training in wood and metal.

Trinity Church in Copley Square, 1872-1877, H.H. Richardson's first architectural masterpiece

Boston’s Copley Square was an imposing place in 1888.  In addition to the academic building in which Charles and Henry spent considerable time, the square boasted the Museum of Fine Arts, Trinity Church and the embryonic Boston Public Library.  Thus, the young Greenes had front row seats to observe a classic by H. H. Richardson and to witness the birth of a significant project by McKim, Mead and White.  That is quite an education exclusive of the classroom.

Henry Hobson Richardson was, prior to his death in 1886 at age 47, a prominent American architect.  He studied at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts though his own preferences tended toward the English Arts & Crafts and the Richardson Romanesque he created.  Due to the makeup of the faculty, MIT offered, at that time, a very traditional Beaux-Arts curriculum.  Charles Greene bristled at the highly formal, traditional coursework.  By contrast, the exquisite Arts & Crafts interior of Trinity Church must have seemed very refreshing.

MIT students had easy and free access to another Copley Square institution, the Museum of Fine Arts.  Significant among the museum’s collections was a substantial assortment of Japanese art and artifacts.  Additionally, Charles and Henry visited the East India Marine Society Museum in Salem, home to an impressive collection of Japanese objects.  Though the Greenes would subsequently be exposed to Japanese architecture at the 1893 and 1904 World’s Fairs, this early encounter no doubt opened their eyes to a new aesthetic, one that would be pivotal in their careers.

An excellent example of the Shingle Style is the Mary Fiske Stoughton House, 90 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Built 1883; architect H. H. Richardson. Expanded in 1900 by John Fiske. Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Survey number HABS MA-1033.

Even wooden shingles and shakes, an element heavily identified with Greene & Greene houses, can be traced to the brothers’ time in Boston.  Charles and Henry frequented Nantucket during Summers, where surely they would have encountered the ubiquitous shingle style.  Later, during internships, both Greenes gained further experience with the style.  Charles worked at Andrews, Jaques and Rantoul while Roughwood, a large residential commission clad in shingles, was being constructed in Brookline.  Charles later worked for Herbert Langford Warren who sometimes employed the shingle style.  Henry worked for a time for Frederick W. Stickney, a master in the use of shingles, who is responsible for the Kennebunk River Club.

It is worth noting that in addition to direct influence, H. H. Richardson had a significant indirect impact on Greene & Greene.  Virtually every architect with whom they worked during their post-MIT time in and around Boston, had significant ties to Richardson.  Not surprising since his legacy figured large in the Boston architectural scene for quite some time.

In 1893, Charles and Henry Greene moved to Pasadena, California to be with their parents who had relocated there with the hope of improving Mrs. Greene’s health and the family’s financial prospects.  Greene & Greene, Architects was established in 1894.  Despite the fact that most of the groundwork had already been laid for the firm’s signature style, that style didn’t begin to emerge for nearly a decade.  During the interim, their designs were eclectic as they learned about the alien environment and searched for their own voice.  They, of course, had other exposure to the Arts & Crafts, Asian forms and the use of wooden shingles but their five years in Boston, when they were quite young, established the foundation for the “new and native architecture” that constitutes their legacy today.


David Mathias is an author and photographer with a background in computer science. He was educated at the University of Delaware (B.S.) and Washington University in St. Louis (M.S., D.Sc.). He was a college instructor for fourteen years before abandoning computer science, academia and a paycheck for the full-time pursuit of writing. David has published articles in Popular Woodworking, Woodwork, Style 1900 and American Bungalow.  His first book, Greene & Greene Furniture – Poems of Wood & Light is an examination of the houses and furniture of Charles and Henry Greene. You can learn more about David and his research on the furniture and houses of the Greene Brothers by visiting his website and blog. David’s book can be purchased through his website or through any bookstore or online dealers.

Review: High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture

Evening Gown, Label: Christian Dior, Gianfranco Ferré for Christian Dior, Autumn-Winter 1989-1990, Silk Crepe, Silk Organza. Gift of Mrs. Alfred Bloomingdale. FIDM Museum Collection. 2006.116.113 Photo Credit: Brian Sanderson, FIDM Photography

Betsy Bloomingdale rose to fashion fame in 1964 when she appeared on the “Empress of Fashion” Eleanor Lambert’s Best Dressed List. Noted again in 1968 and inducted into the International Hall of Fame in 1970, Bloomingdale collected haute couture fashion for more than 30 years, in the process redefining style in America. Widow to Alfred Bloomingdale, once heir to the Bloomingdale empire and a principal founder of the Diner’s Club credit card, Mrs. Bloomingdale’s enduring sense of style is the subject of a new exhibition at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Curated by the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture (in Lowell from August 14, 2010 – January 2, 2011) illustrates Mrs. Bloomingdale’s passion for the most exquisitely crafted garments by her favorite fashion designers. The creations of Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, James Galanos for Amelia Gray, Gianfranco Ferré for Christian Dior and Oscar de la Renta among many other designers are all beautifully presented in this exhibition.

“Who are you wearing?” is the famous question we hear a hundred times over at the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. As a celebrity obsessed culture, we’re interested in what stars like Nicole Kidman (who professes her love for the creations of Balenciaga), Sarah Jessica Parker or Charlize Theron are wearing. The art and science of haute couture extends beyond the red carpet. In 1868 Charles Frederick Worth founded the Chambre de la Haute Couture, the labor organization that forever changed the world of high fashion.

Evening Dress, Label: Givenchy, Hubert de Givenchy, Autumn-Winter 1968-1969, Silk Velvet, Cockerel feathers. Gift of Mrs. Alfred Bloomingdale. FIDM Museum Collection. 77.116.14

A trademarked term, haute couture can legally and only be used to describe garments made by official members of the Chambre Syndicale. These members must follow very strict rules and produce garments of the highest quality and made of luxurious and expensive materials. If this doesn’t sound daunting enough, workrooms must be located in Paris and each house must employ a minimum of 20 seamstresses. Each house is also required to have a private clientele which today consists of approximately 200 clients worldwide (that’s a combined total, a shocking number which alludes to the price of each gown!).

Each garment, which takes an average of about 300 to 1,000 hours to create, is made by hand and fitted to the client’s measurements. The finished piece is truly a breathtaking work of art.

The pieces part of the exhibition are accompanied by gorgeous hand drawn sketches and photographs of Mrs. Bloomingdale wearing her creations to high profile events like the wedding of Princess Diana and dinners at the White House.

The catalog for the exhibition is disappointing, it is very expensive for its size and does not do any justice to the pieces in the show.

My favorite pieces in the exhibition include an evening gown (2003) executed in red iridescent taffeta with vertical ruffles on the lower half by Oscar de la Renta as well as an evening dress (1968-1969) by Hubert de Givenchy made of silk velvet with cockerel feathers (pictured in this post).

Evening Gown, Label: Christian Dior, Gianfranco Ferré for Christian Dior, Autumn-Winter 1989-1990, Silk Crepe, Silk Organza. Gift of Mrs. Alfred Bloomingdale. FIDM Museum Collection. 2006.116.113 Detail.

The gowns in the exhibition tell the story of Betsy Bloomingdale and her passion for haute couture. Mrs. Bloomingdale created a personal style which has transcended and endured the test of time, further shedding light on Coco Chanel’s famous quote “fashion fades, only style remains the same.” This exhibition at the American Textile History Museum is NOT TO BE MISSED.

End of Summer Architectural Day Trip: The Architecture of the Piscataqua

The Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua: Houses and Gardens of the Portsmouth District of Maine and New Hampshire by John Mead Howells is considered a classic book on the colonial architecture of the seacoast region of New Hampshire and southern Maine. No longer in print, the architectural monograph is replete with black and white exterior and interior photographs and floor plans of some of the most influential houses in American architecture. Two years ago, while browsing through the art and architecture section at the Brattle Bookshop in Boston, I came across a gorgeous used copy of The Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua. I knew I would study the images in the book for years to come and had no other option but to buy it. During my New Hampshire vacation two weeks ago, my friend and I headed to Portsmouth (a familiar territory) on a day trip to explore the architectural heritage of the Piscataqua region. 

Located a stone throws away from the campus of the University of New Hampshire (UNH), Portsmouth offers an all-inclusive education in American colonial architecture. In fact, while a student at UNH, Portsmouth was my personal “on the field” classroom while I took a 17th and 18th century American Architecture course (we did not go on any fieldtrips considering Portsmouth is only about a ten minute drive from the UNH campus). This course not only introduced me to the colonial architecture of the East, South and Midwestern parts of the country, but also to the driving influences of pattern books and architectural treatises including Leon Battista Alberti’s De re aedificatoria (1452, Ten Books on Architecture) Sebastiano Serlio’s Il Settimo Libro Archittetura del Serglio (1575), Andrea Palladio’s  I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture)  to Inigo Jones, the English architect who fell in love with Palladio and gave us the first English translation of The Four Books of Architecture.  

The following are just some of the houses you’ll encounter in Portsmouth.

The Jones House, part of the Strawbery Banke Museum was built around 1790. The Strawbery Banke museum is Portsmouth most popular destination, an outdoor history museum containing more than 40 restored buildings spanding the 17th through the 19th century. For more information, visit http://www.strawberybanke.org

Goodwin mansion. Built around 1811, the Goodwin Mansion served as the home of civil war governor Ichabod Goodwin from 1832-1896. The house has a beautiful recreated Victorian garden. For more information, visit http://www.strawberybanke.org

The Governor John Langdon House was built around 1784 by the Governor himself. This house is considered to be one of the best examples of the Georgian style fully developed in the colonies and according to Howells “both interior and exterior show the mastery which our builders, joiners and carvers had achieved over their materials.” The house is owned by Historic New England and is open to the public for viewing. For more information visit http://www.historicnewengland.org

The MacPheadris-Warner House is considered to be one of the earliest extant brick urban mansions in the country. It was built in 1716-1718 for Archibald MacPheadris, a Scottish Captain. According to Howells’ The Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua, the gambrel roof of the house is not original, instead there was a double peaked roofs running the entire length of the house with deep valleys between them. This beautiful example of an early Georgian house in New Hampshire is 2 ½ stories tall with symmetrically placed equal number of rooms on each side. The exterior door with its segmental pediment acknowledges one’s arrival both physically and symbolically, it builds up the anticipation for its lavish interior. As you can see from this picture, the segmental arch above the door is missing, the house has been under restoration for a number of years, proof that preservation is not only costly, but also a lengthy process as well. For more information visit,www.warnerhouse.org.

The Moffatt-Ladd House built around 1763 is a full three story house signifying the progression of wealth in the colonies. It is a refined Georgian house with a free standing Greek portico and a grand asymmetric plan. The house is owned and maintained by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Hampshire (NSCDA-NH) and has been open to the public since 1912. For more information visit http://www.moffattladd.org. Although I have photographed this house myself in the past, I cannot locate such images therefore I am borrowing this image from Birdgal5 on Flickr.

One of my favorite houses in Portsmouth is the Larkin-Rice House. Built in 1815 by Samuel Larkin, this gorgeous, understated and highly refined Federal style house has been attributed to both Benjamin Latrobe for its similarities to the Burd House in Philadelphia (sadly demolished) and to Charles Bulfinch, architect of the Massachusetts State Capitol. This image was taken by “Dan,” for more images of other historical places in New England, click on the image. I will update the image when I visit Portsmouth again in the future.

If you are ready to indulge in 17th and 18th century architecture in New England, Portsmouth is one of two distinct coastal destinations (the other being Salem, MA) to spend a weekend day trip exploring the fascinating architecture and gardens  of Colonial America. Grab your copy of The Architectural Heritage of the Piscataqua (it’s a big book!) or any other 17th and 18th century American architecture guidebook and head to Portsmouth. This seacoast town in New Hampshire has many historic house museums, great restaurants and shops all within walking distance from one another! It is the perfect day trip for all those architectural history geeks like myself or those interested in naval American history or historic gardens.  The houses discussed in this post are only a handful of the historic treasures waiting to be re-discovered by you.   

Have you gone to Portsmouth, if so, do you have a favorite house?