Richardson and the Romanesque
H. H. Richardson’s value in the evolution of late 19th century American style is twofold. First, he introduced a version of Early Medieval architecture influenced by his time at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, France. [As a Louisianan, it was a good place to ride out the Civil War.] It was in France and Northern Spain that Richardson gleaned the value of simple geometries and strategic ornament, lessons that would prove to be vital during a career barely twenty years in length.
The architect’s second contribution is subtler and can best be understood looking at his entire career. As an ersatz historian I can cherry pick specific works and put them together or in sequence to prove pretty much anything, but Richardson’s career is so compact and the examples so comparable that I’m convinced he almost single-handedly reformed the excesses of Victorian and Ruskinian Gothic that dominated post-Civil War America. Project by project, Richardson limited his shapes, restricted his material palette, and simplified or eliminated ornamentation. And in doing so, he facilitated the movement toward Modernism that premature death at the age of forty-eight denied him.
The architect’s reductionist tendency achieved its ultimate expression in late works like Emmanuel church in Pittsburgh and the Henry S. Potter residence in St Louis, both completed in 1886, the year of Richardson’s death. Each has been stripped of extraneous ornament: brackets, moldings, gratuitous textures or shifts in material for the sake of contrast. Emmanuel’s hairpin plan has the simple efficiency of a paperclip. Its windows, cut almost directly into (out of?) a plain brick surface; articulated only by sandstone sills and basic concentric courses of brick that define their semicircular tops. What could be more elemental.
Richardson’s suburban residence for Henry S. Potter* [1850–1918; president of the St Louis Steel Barge Co.] once stood at Goodfellow and Cabanne, on a large lot in a leafy suburban enclave. Its simple massing, an external expression of internal function, used shapes that are at once childlike and sophisticated. Its skin, a uniform sheet of shingles pulled taught like a drumhead across walls and roof alike.
But these prescient buildings seem to have had little influence on a wave of “Richardsonian” design only amplified by his untimely death. Throughout the Midwest, dozens of courthouses, city halls, schools and other building types reflect the influence of his earlier work, which was easier to parody and to extract design riffs. Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery—which leaves for each of us to answer a question which ought to be on the mind of every architect: Where lies the distinction between imitation and inspiration? And is that distinction a mere gap or a gulf?
*H. S. Potter lies beside his wife Margaret Lionberger Potter in the Lionberger plot at Bellefontaine Cemetery. Two other members of the family—one of them very likely Margaret’s brother—were also HHR clients.