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The Richardsonian Romanesque


The Fennimore County courthouse, Agincourt, IA / 1888-1889 / William Halsey Wood, architect (ostensibly)

William Halsey Wood

You might think I’d have completed at least one Agincourt project by now. You’d be mistaken.

The Richardsonian Romanesque is a style of the late 19th century named for the great Boston architect H. H. Richardson [1838-1886], a curious connection because, in my view at least, Richardson’s own work became less and less “Richardsonian” toward the end of his truncated career. Were I designing the Fennimore County courthouse in the style of the man himself, it would look very different – and not nearly good enough. Indeed, it would be a far more difficult exercise than working in the idiom that bears his name, and might just be inimitable. Why? Because inspiration is more challenging than imitation — by a long shot.

It’s a curiosity that Halsey Wood’s projects of the mid to late 80s aren’t influenced as strongly by Richardson as are those of Wood’s contemporaries, architects we can blame for the parody of Richardson’s style which followed the great architect’s death in 1886. I sat down recently to consider which of HHR’s buildings WHW might actually have seen, studied, and drawn inspiration: there’s no evidence Wood ever penetrated very far into New England; Richardson’s practice was situated in suburban Boston.

There were Richardson imitators in NYC, however, but if Halsey happened to see an actual HHR design, he’d probably have found it in, of all places, Pittsburgh, where Richardson had two important buildings: one very large and one quite small, but both admirable works. Wood did three projects in P’burgh and could easily have seen the Allegheny County courthouse and jail; less likely the petite Emmanuel church across the river.

For overt Richardsonianisms (spell check doesn’t like that one bit) among Wood’s designs, the most obvious are St Paul’s Passaic, St John’s Wellsboro, and without question Peddie Memorial First Baptist in Newark. They all issue from about the same – circa 1890 – time and each incorporates some of the earmarks of a Richardsonian (rather than a Richardson) design. Witness Peddie Memorial:

HHR, for example, would not have done those entry arches as Wood has done here (at left), that is a single arch produced with just five voussoirs: the impost block and three very large stones for the voussoirs. Looking at Peddie one day, I understood that a closer parallel, by far, was the Finnish work of architect Lars Sonck. But Sonck was an architect of the early 1900s, so if there was any connection here, it would have from Wood to Sonck. So my observation is merely a coïncidence.

It’s not an exact parallel but Sonck’s telephone company building in Helsinki bears some of the same brooding mass as Peddie. Richardson’s arches were low and “Syrian” — with a spring line well below waist level — but both WHW and Sonck increase their visual weight and carrying capacity several times over. It’s a psychological rather than a physical thing.







PS [26OCT2020]: An updated version of the Fennimore courthouse elevation:

Fennimore County Court House, Agincourt, IA / William Halsey Wood, architect / 1888 / elevation drawing 26OCT2020

Fennimore County Court House, Agincourt, IA / William Halsey Wood, architect / 1888 / elevation drawing 31OCT2020

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