Richardson had actually begun to experiment with eliminating the continuous banding in his elevations in two buildings he had designed earlier in 1883.  The Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, using brick, and the Converse Memorial Public Library in Malden, MA, using his more characteristic rock-faced stone. This technique may actually, however, have been inspired even earlier by his shingle-styled houses, the Bryant House of late 1880 and the Stoughton House designed after his return from his Europe tour. 

In both houses, he eschewed any sense of expression of the second floor by covering the surface of the entire two-story volume with the repetitive module of the wooden shingle.  At about the same time Richardson was also designing two houses that had exteriors of brick, to which he also imparted the same unity of the continuous surface, left unbroken by the elimination of the projected sillcourses. In both houses the windows were surgically incised into the brick surface. 

Two adjacent houses. Left: John Jay House.; Right: Henry Adams House. Washington, DC, 1884. (Ochsner, H.H. Richardson)

In Sec. 11. 3. I noted the unbroken surface of the upper two floors lining the courtyard in the Allegheny Courthouse. In 1884, this same approach appeared in his next stone design after the Pittsburgh jail, the Immanuel Baptist Church in Newton, MA.  

Therefore, when we are confronted by the unbroken stone wall surfaces in his designs for the Jail and the Glessner House of May 1885, we can appreciate them within the continuum of his efforts following his return from Europe to simplify his elevations into unbroken, continuous surfaces that tended to help one perceive the overall mass of the building as a unified totality, rather than an accumulation of horizontal layers.

H.H. Richardson. Above: Allegheny County Jail. (Ochsner, H.H. Richardson); Below: John J. Glessner House, Chicago, 1885. (Zukowski, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis)


John Jacob Glessner was vice-president of a company that manufactured farm equipment (in 1902 the company would merge with others to become International Harvester), who had moved from the company’s headquarters in Springfield, OH, in 1885 to Chicago to manage the company’s expansion.  He had purchased the southwest corner of Prairie Avenue and 18th Street in the city’s premiere residential neighborhood along Prairie Avenue to join such stalwart business titans as Marshall Filed, George Pullman, and Philip D. Armour. Glessner contacted Richardson in May 1885 to design his new house. 

Prairie Avenue neighborhood. Above: Looking south down Prairie Avenue from the Glessner House at the far right. (glessnerhouse.org); Below: George Pullman, diagonally across from Glessner, 1729; Marshall Field, half a block to the south, 1905. (Zukowski, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis)

Concerned about the city’s growing labor unrest and class conflict (it was becoming common for such families to routinely receive kidnapping threats) the Glessners communicated these concerns to Richardson who responded with a unique design: a Renaissance urban fortress pushed right up to the sidewalks along the two streets,  How unusual this was for the neighborhood is clear when compared to the “conventional” Victorian house-box sitting within a green lawn, such as Field’s own home just across the street half a block to the south designed by Richard Morris Hunt in 1873. 

Richard Morris Hunt, Marshall Field House, Chicago, 1905 S. Prairie Avenue, 1873. (Online)

Richardson’s Glessner design took advantage of the environmental context by placing its U-plan (actually it was a standard Arts & Crafts L-plan as prescribed by Pugin with a stable wing that finished the closure of the interior court. This orientation allowed Richardson to use the wall along the north face (aided by a servant’s corridor) to insulate the interior from the winter’s north/northeast winds while opening up the interior to the south to permit as much daylight and solar gain as possible in the winter.  

Glessner House vs. Robie House. The architectural ramifications of using the same plan concept (i.e., pushing the building up against the north edge of the lot and opening up the section of the house to the south) on different sides of the street: Robie House on the north side, Glessner House on the south side. (Zukowski, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis)

Richardson was thus able to create a courtyard in the interior of the site completely isolated/protected from the streets that was assured of daylight all-year long, in which the children could play without parental fears of kidnapping. Richardson reinforced this “homelike” interior setting by facing the house’s courtyard walls with residential-scaled brick rather than the exterior’s castle stone walls.

Richardson, Glessner House. Courtyard. Note that the walls are built with brick, not the stone used on the exterior. (Author’s collection)

This plan concept would not have been possible if Glessner had bought a lot on the northside of a street (was it luck or had Glessner consciously picked such a location?). All we need to do to understand the formal difference between the two orientations is to put the same program on the north side.  Fortunately, this was exactly the problem solved by Frank Lloyd Wright in the Robie House some twenty year later.  

Glessner House vs. Robie House. The architectural ramifications of using the same plan concept (i.e., pushing the building up against the north edge of the lot and opening up the section of the house to the south) on different sides of the street. Above: Robie House on the north side, Glessner House on the south side; Below: Left: North faces; Right: South faces. (Author’s collection)

This is also quite evident in Richardson’s other house he was designing for Chicago banker and grocery wholesaler Franklin MacVeagh located on Lake Shore Drive, immediately to the north of Potter Palmer’s castle.  Once again Richardson used as his point-of-departure Pugin’s L-plan that he once again pushed to the northern edge of the site, although now he had to wall in the exterior “play court” (as would Wright) to provide some protection for the children.  Nonetheless, he still couldn’t hide the courtyard from public view as he was able to do with the Glessner’s lot on the southside of the street.


Harrington, Elaine, “International Influences on Henry Hobson Richardson’s Glessner House.” Zukowski, John (ed.), Chicago Architecture, 1872-1922: Birth of a Metropolis. Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1987.

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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