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    When I was coloring The American House Styles of Architecture, I became very interested in learning more about all the different styles represented. I particularly liked the Edward E. Ayer house, done in Richardson Romanesque. Though Richardson himself was not the architect for this house, I wanted to read more about him and see his original works. When Dover offered this book on sale, I jumped at the chance to buy it.
    What I was hoping for was a book similar to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, the House and its History, a fascinating book which combined a history of the house, and the people involved. It was written in a very personal manner, which gave readers insight into the harmonies and disharmonies of the people involved, along with the grueling task of creating such an artistic masterpiece.
    That is what I expected from this book. What I got was a disappointment. This woman's writing is just dreadful. It is not scholarly, but that would have been okay. I would not have objected to her personal recollections of the man, or her personal opinions of his work, had they been written with passion. But the end result is a book that takes 138 pages to make the same few comments and observations over and over and over. She knew the man. I wanted to know the man, too—what made him tick—what was in his soul. I wanted to know about the buildings he designed. What did they look like, how did people perceive them? I wanted a description so that I could close my eyes and see the structure in front of me, as it stood 130 years ago. Oh, there is lots of information here in this book, but it dryly drones on and on. The words are there but the heart is not.
    I did do research on Mrs. Rensselaer. She had a respectable reputation as an art critic and author, especially for a woman in her time, and had a salary to match. And yet, she fought against suffrage! Supposedly, this was the first important work written about the architecture of Richardson. Perhaps in its day it was perceived differently. Interestingly enough, even though I found lots of articles praising her writing, when I searched to find if there were any online reviews of this book, I found none. Perhaps no one has actually read it Ha! In any case, here is an interesting article about Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer.
    But nonetheless, as I always say,"Am I glad I read it?" Well, yes, because, combined with my own research, I know a hell of a lot more about Henry Hobson Richardson and his works than I did before I read it. There are many other books available about him, and I will no doubt read more on this great man.
     Wikipedia refers to Richardson, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright as the "recognized trinity of American architecture." That article gives a good overview of Richardson and his major works, along with some nice images. Richardson was only 47 when he died. Though Rensselaer claims he suffered a lifelong debilitating illness from an accident in Paris while he was attending the École des Beaux Arts, in fact, he suffered from Bright's disease, a kidney disorder often associated with diabetes which was the cause of his death. Even though Richardson was married with six children, Rensselaer barely mentions them. Most of her book consists of praise, praise, praise of his works and his character, but she fails to mention that even though he was paid very well, he spent lavishly and left his family a huge debt when he died. The god-like picture she paints of him is unrealistic, almost humorous, often nauseating. I would have preferred the truth. But perhaps back in 1888, it would have been unacceptable to speak too personally, or to be too critical of personality flaws. The book's greatest fault may be that its style is outdated.
    Rensselaer takes the first third of the book to give a brief biography of Richardson, beginning with a lengthy ancestry. His father, Henry Dickenson Richardson was from Bermuda, and his mother Catherine Caroline Priestly was the grand-daughter of the Dr. Priestly who discovered oxygen. Richardson was born on the Priestly Plantation in Louisiana in 1838. As mentioned earlier, he went to the École des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1859 to study architecture. (His schooling began at Harvard in civil engineering.) When the civil war broke out, he returned home briefly, but then went back to Paris in 1862. Apparently, his family was quite well-to-do, because Rensselaer laments the fact that he actually had to work to support himself when money from home no longer was available, due to the war. Well, gosh, I don't know many people in college who don't have to work, these days (and back in my days, too,) but she spends pages praising his courage and fortitude just because he had to work!.

"The unfaltering vigor with which, in spite of all obstacles and discouragements, he pursued his studies is worthy of deep admiration. Only those who have tried to gain at the same time an education and a livelihood can understand how great must have been the temptation to think his training complete enough and to turn his whole thought to self-support; all the greater, too, by reason of his early wealth, and his naturally lavish and self-indulgent disposition."

    Wikipedia, however, says that he did not finish his training.

    Richardson finally returned home for good in 1865, but he made his home in New York, never again to set foot in his native New Orleans. But it really didn't take him that long to establish himself as an architect. His first big commission, the Church of the Unity in Springfield was in 1866, followed by two others. (Unity was demolished in the 1960s, and is uncharacteristic of Richardson's developed style, (Figure 1) This picture is from a postcard). He moved to Staten Island, and married in 1867. That same year, he partnered with Charles Gambrill, as Gambrill & Richardson. The partnership remained until Gambrill's death in 1878 (although the Wikipedia article makes no mention of this at all). Meanwhile, Richardson relocated to Brookline, near Boston in 1874, where he was able to view daily the progress of construction of Trinity Church (Figure 2) which is considered by many to be his greatest work.
    As would be expected with any new artist, it took a while to establish a signature style. Richardson was drawn toward the Romanesque, inspired by the architecture of Southern France, rather than Paris. In Rensselaer's book, her last major biographical chapter before his death describes his tour of Europe—a journey he probably should not have undertaken because of his illness. He did see doctors upon his arrival in London, however, he apparently did not heed their advice. He proceeded to travel at a rapid pace throughout France, Italy and Spain, with a fairly good idea of what particular structures he wanted to observe. Though he traveled with friends, he apparently left the wife and kids at home to fend for themselves. This was in 1882, and it firmly established his stylistic goals for the remaining four years of his life.
    The next two thirds of the book are spent describing many of Richardson's major structures in chronological order. And in this section, Rensselaer's writing is even more annoying than in the biographical section. For instance, in her chapter on Austin Hall at Harvard, (Figure 3) she says:

"A fortunate result is not often secured by a color scheme which takes a conspicuously lighter tone for the most emphatic members; but it is unusually satisfactory here, as the large relative quantity and the good disposition of the Ohio stone prevent any look of weakness or confusion."

    Okay, so what we're saying is that the light and dark stone looks cool together, right?? AAAAARGH!!!!

    Although, I have to agree with one of her descriptions, of the Ames Lodge, (Figure 4) which she calls "semi-humorous" and "whimsical." She also says:

"It is built of bowlders such as were used in the Medford church, but in a more eccentric way. No stones were too big, too rough, or too abnormal in shape to claim a place in its walls, and the ashlar about the openings was made a inconspicuous as possible. Considered in themselves these walls would be brutal if they were not so amusing; but refinement is given the building by the graceful great curve of the archway (built of cut stones of many tints but all of local origin) and by the fine sweep of the simple roofs."

    Kinda looks like something from The Hobbit. . .

    Rensselaer quotes Richardson as saying to her, "The things I want most to design are a grain elevator and the interior of a great river-steam-boat." He never was commissioned to do either, however, he did design the State Capitol at Albany (Figure 5), with a gorgeous staircase (Figure 6); a number of libraries, including two very different-looking ones: Converse Memorial Library, Malden, MA (Figure 7), and the Ames Library in North Easton, MA (Figure 8) and the Crane Memorial Library in Quincy, MA, with an exquisite doorway (Figure 9) . He also designed the Allegheny Courthouse and Jail with the little bridge that connects the two, in Pittsburgh (Figure 10), several railway stations, including the one in North Easton (Figure 11), and the funky Ames monument in Sherman, Wyoming (Figure 12), plus numerous other buildings, churches, warehouses, and residences.
    The pictures in the book are of course in black and white, but they are still great pictures. The ones included on this page I found online.
    So, would I recommend reading this book? Yes and no. Historically it is an important work, and if you can struggle through Rensselaer's style, there really is a wealth of knowledge to be gained. A modern work, however, would most likely be more enjoyable and easier to understand, along with updated information and the benefit of retrospection.

Church of the Unity, Springfield

Trinity Church, Boston

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Austin Hall, Harvard

Ames Gate Lodge

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State Capitol, Albany

Stairway in State Capitol

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Converse Memorial Library, Malden, MA

Ames Library, North Easton

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Crane Memorial Library Doorway, Quincy, MA

Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail, Pittsburgh

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Railway Station, Easton, MA

Ames Monument, Sherman, WY

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