5.8. H.H. RICHARDSON AND THE LAYERED ARCADE

Gambrill and Richardson, Original Design for American (Merchant’s Union) Express Company Building, Chicago, 21 W. Monroe, 1872. (The Land Owner, November 1872)

Of course, the American architect most famous for his use of arcades was Henry Hobson Richardson, and I have minimized my reporting of him to this point because it was not until 1875 that he began to employ the arcade and I wanted to establish that he was not the first American architect to do so.  That being said, I can no longer, nor do I wish to ignore the great Richardson.  I had introduced him in Volume One in relation to his firm, Gambrill & Richardson, having designed the post-fire American Express Building but that was some time ago, so let me give a quick summary of his background to 1875.

Richardson, born in Louisiana and raised in New Orleans, had moved to Boston in 1856 to attend Harvard from 1856-1859, originally intending to become an engineer.   His interests had shifted to architecture and his stepfather had volunteered to pay to send him to Europe in the summer of 1859 so that he could study its great buildings.   After Great Britain, Richardson had moved on to Paris, where he decided to apply to study architecture at the École des beaux-arts in Paris (where he became the second American, following Hunt, to do so; note, however that this occurred after Jenney had graduated from the École Centrale in 1856).  His family’s financial resources were drained during the first part of the Civil War, however, that forced him to leave the school and seek employment in Paris during the remainder of the Civil War in order to avoid the Confederate draft. 

Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, 1838-51. (Author’s collection)

He found employment in the office of Henri Labrouste’s older brother, Théodore Labrouste, an architect in his own right who had won the Prix de Rome in 1827, and therefore, had been in residence at the Villa Medici in Rome while his brother was preparing his controversial envoi of 1828.  

Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque nationale, Reading Room, Paris, 1861-1868. (Author’s collection)

During his time in Labrouste’s office, Richardson was exposed to the two brothers’ work and theory of a “Romantique” architecture.  In fact, in addition to studying the completed Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, he was able to watch the construction of the older Labrouste’s Reading Room for the Bibliothèque impériale (following downfall of the Second Empire, its name was restored to Bibliothèque nationale.)

5.9. THE FRENCH INTEREST IN THE ROMANESQUE: SYRIAN BYZANTINE AND SICILIAN NORMANESQUE

Edmond Duthoit, Ruins of the Monastery of St. Simeon Stylites, Antakya, Turkey, watercolor shown at the Salon of 1864. Richardson was in Paris during this time. (Middleton, The Beaux-Arts)

The young Richardson was also in Paris when Edmond Duthoit was exhibiting in the Salons of 1863 and 1864 a number of his watercolors and reconstructions of the Byzantine monastery complex of St. Simeon Stylites, erected in 475 near ancient Antioch, what is now Antakya, Turkey but then was Syria (hence, the interest in “Syrian” detailing).  Historian Robin Middleton has shown that during Richardson’s stay in Paris, Byzantine architecture was being championed by a number of French architects as a style from which nineteenth century architects might glean a process of how to evolve a modern, nineteenth century style, as Byzantine was seen as a transition from Roman to Gothic architecture: a style that had abandoned the Roman model of copying Greek architecture and returned to the principles of the Greek “rational” process of evolving forms to meet their own unique conditions.  

Ruins of the Monastery of St. Simeon Stylites, Antakya, Turkey. (Online)

A second historic style that these same French architects championed at this time was the Romanesque, as best represented by the Norman Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily erected in 1174. While the Gothic Revival also had its champions in Paris, especially in the writings of Viollet-le-Duc, it also had its detractors for a variety of reasons.  Some saw the round arch as “purer” than the pointed, while others simply pointed to what the British Gothic Revivalists were building. 

Cathedral of Monreale, Palermo, Sicily, 1174. (Online)

These theorists argued that while Gothic had reached a point of perfection in the early 13th-century, as time marched on Gothic had degenerated into decadence, as most styles in history had done.  One exception to this “natural law” of stylistic development, perfection, and decay, however, had been the Romanesque because the onset of Gothic (by Abbot Suger at St. Denis) had prematurely interrupted the use of Romanesque before it had run its natural course.  Thereby, not only was there still “room” for Romanesque to continue to develop, but there were also no examples of “decadent” Romanesque to negatively influence architects, and this was critical, because these advocates saw Romanesque as the transitional phase from Byzantine to Gothic.  They focused on the Romanesque because they were looking for a design process that could develop or evolve an appropriate style for the 19th-century and they had envisioned their own period also as one of transition, that is, from the Neoclassicism of the 18th-century to whatever might evolve in the late 19th-century.  Viollet-le-Duc had summarized this attitude succinctly in 1863:

“How is it that after establishment of the Eastern Empire, the Byzantines were able to apply new forms to Roman structure without any apparent transition?  To ask that question, and to resolve it, is to find the key to the whole of medieval art, both in the East and in the West.”

Cathedral of Monreale, Palermo, Sicily, 1174. (Online)

For our purposes, Syria and Sicily provided Byzantine and Romanesque examples as an alternative inspiration to Gothic for French architects in search of a style for their century.  Richardson’s American buildings cannot be understood without knowing of the impact that this body of work had had on his own development while in Paris.

FURTHER READING:

Hitchcock, Henry-Russell. The Architecture of H.H. Richardson and His Times. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1961.

Middleton, Robin (ed.). The Beaux-Arts and Nineteenth-Century French Architecture. Cambridge: MITPress, 1982.

Ochsner, Jeffrey Karl. H.H. Richardson: Complete Architectural Works. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982.

O’Gorman, James F. H.H. Richardson: Architectural Forms for an American Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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