11.15. RICHARDSON’S WORK PRIOR TO COMING TO CHICAGO

H.H. Richardson, Allegheny County Jail and the “Bridge of Sighs” from the Courthouse. (Online)

But the completion of the Rookery lay three long years in the future.  Meanwhile, as Root was working on its design during the spring of 1885, the hole in the ground one block north from the site of the Rookery at the southwest corner of La Salle and Monroe, from which Marshall Field’s 13-story skyscraper, designed by S.S. Beman was to grow, remained silent.  (See Sec. 11.2.) If Levi Leiter, his former business partner was going to succeed in stopping Field’s plan to erect Chicago’s tallest building, he would attempt to overcome this public-relations nightmare by proceeding to build one of Chicago’s bigger buildings.  Having anticipated the growth of his own wholesale business following the dissolution of the partnership with Leiter, Field had accumulated by May 1881, all of the lots that formed the half block on the south side of the Adams Street corridor, bounded by Franklin, Fifth (Wells), and Quincy, for the eventual erection of a new building to move his wholesale operation from its existing location two blocks north at the northeast corner of Madison and Market (N. Wacker).  Richardson’s first biographer, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, stated (unsubstantiated) that while Field awaited the court’s decision on Leiter’s request for an injunction, he had opened secret negotiations in April 1885 with H.H. Richardson to design the new store.  It was on June 26, 1885, that Judge Moran had ruled in Leiter’s favor by granting hm a permanent injunction that not only forced Field to appeal the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court, but also squashed any hope on Field’s part for a quick resumption of construction of his skyscraper.  With the capital slated for the skyscraper now apparently freed, it would seem reasonable to suspect that Field decided to divert these funds to construct the new building for the wholesale division, giving Richardson the green light to complete the design.

H.H. Richardson, John J. Glessner House, Chicago, 1800 S. Prairire Avenue, 1885. (glessnerhouse.org)

Richardson had just burst onto the Chicago architectural scene during the month prior to Leiter’s injunction, and would seem to have been just the “hot pencil of the moment” that Field needed to make a publicity splash large enough to overcome the skyscraper debacle. On May 2, 1885, Real Estate and Building Journal announced that John J. Glessner had asked Richardson to design a house for his family on the southwest corner of Prairie Avenue and 18th Street diagonally across the corner from the home of George Pullman and only half a block north of Field’s house. 

H.H. Richardson, Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, 1885. (Online)

Then on June 8, Richardson had been named the winner of the design competition for the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, beating out Root, Chicago’s leading designer.  Six days later, the June 14th issue of American Architectpublished a list of ten buildings considered by the American Institute of Architects to be the best-designed buildings in the United States (this was the first such list compiled and it had been conducted (suspiciously?) on the heels of the formation of the W.A.A. the previous November.  Not only did Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston top the list, but four other buildings also designed by Richardson rounded out the list of ten.  (see Vol. Two Sec. 1.5) Can there be any doubt that if Field wanted to overcome the negative publicity of the skyscraper fiasco, there was no American architect more fashionable in June 1885 for him to invite to Chicago than H. H. Richardson for the purpose of designing his new building.  Another Bostonian (joining the ranks of the Brookses) would influence the direction of Chicago’s architecture during the 1880s. 

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

Since the rather ignominious completion in 1873 of his earlier Chicago building, the American Express Building (for which Wight had to be called in to redesign the foundation and, correspondingly, the front elevation), Richardson’s career had steadily grown in stature and sophistication, to the point where he was now at the forefront of American architecture.  He had evolved an architectural style using the Romanesque of Southern France and Northern Spain as his inspiration, a style that he was successfully reinterpreting for the American context.  (In Vol. One I discussed that many European theorists, including German Gottfried Semper, had identified the Romanesque as a possible historic style to study for clues on to how to evolve a modern style because it was understood to have been the transition from Roman classicism to French Gothic.  It also was thought that Romanesque still had potential to develop because the onset of Gothic had prematurely ended its stylistic development.)  To best understand Richardson’s impact on Chicago at this time, as well as the influence that Chicago’s architecture had on his design for Marshall Field’s Wholesale Store (that has been severely underestimated by historians), it is necessary to review and understand the buildings that he had designed immediately prior to June 1885.

The last Richardson buildings that we reviewed were the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and the Allegheny County Courthouse.  I discussed the design of each in light of the manifest changes he was making in his work following his trip to Europe in the fall of 1882. Chief among these changes was a search for a simpler, more “reposeful” aesthetic, especially in his buildings’ color and form.  In the design of the courthouse he repeated not only the monochromatic color scheme of the earlier Ames Wholesale Store, but also its layered elevations that were broken up with projected continuous sillcourses. 

11.16. THE ALLEGHENY COUNTY JAIL 

Richardson, Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail. Note the elongated arcade. (Ochsner, H.H. Richardson)

This was only the case with the front half of the complex, the Courthouse, however, for with the Jail that was located immediately in back of the Courthouse where he was freed from the more traditional expectations of a courthouse, Richardson’s ‘functional formalism’ produced one of the most innovative and modern-looking buildings of the nineteenth century.  Similar to how he had detailed the unbroken vertical accent of the Courthouse’s tower, gone were the continuous sillcourses that had fractured his stone masses into horizontal slices.  

Above: Tower of the Allegheny County Courthouse; Below: Jail and the “Bridge of Sighs” from the Courthouse. There are no sillcourses breaking the elevations into layers. The building is now one continuous surface. (Ochsner, H.H. Richardson)

Not only were the walls of the multistory jail now unified into a single, unbroken multistoried surface that allowed one to read the building’s mass as an abstracted geometric sculpture carved from one piece of stone, but Richardson had also vertically grouped the windows of the four floors of jail cells under an elongated arcade that seemed to be carved within the continuous stone surface.

Above: Richardson, Allegheny County Courthouse. Four-story continuous arcade in the Jail elevations. (Author’s collection); Below: Beacon Hill Reservoir, Boston, 1849. (O’Gorman, Richardson-Selected Drawings)

This detail bore a marked resemblance to the Beacon Hill Reservoir in Boston erected in 1849, where the granite wall surfaces were also left unstriated.  Even the reservoir’s machiolated cornice was repeated by Richardson in the jail’s tower and octagonal central pavilion.  One also, however, cannot ignore the influence of Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, that the young Richardson would have been quite aware of from his stay in Paris during the Civil War as well as his time working in Théodore Labrosute’s office while in Paris.

Herni Labrouste, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, 1838-51. Arcade digitally extruded for effect. (Author’s Collection)

FURTHER READING:

O’Gorman, James F. Selected Drawings – H.H. Richardson and His Office. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1974.      

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

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

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