It is the exterior form of the Glessner House that I am most interested in because it shows where Richardson’s aesthetic ideas as they pertained to how his buildings “met the sky,” were at almost the precise moment he received the commission for Field’s Store. Elaine Harrington recorded that the Glessners told the story of how, during his first visit with them in Chicago Richardson had spied the above photograph of this out-building at Abingdon Abbey, England in their library. He asked Mrs. Glessner, “Do you like it?” She said yes, and he replied, “Then I’ll make that the key note to your home.” As the gabled wall of the abbey broke the flat cornice of the rest of the structure, its form was right out of Richardson’s oeuvre of picturesque rooflines. It is at this point that we now engage the legend of Richardson having brought the “palazzo box” form to Chicago in his design for the Field Store. But before I do so, permit me one parenthetical addition:
Richardson’s last urban project immediately prior to the Field commission, the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce designed in early 1885 had still employed his more traditional layered elevation of the Pittsburgh courthouse, albeit the upper sillcourses were detailed within the plane of the wall, instead of projecting them beyond as was still the case in the Courthouse.
In comparing the earlier Ames Wholesale Store with the Cincinnati building, one can sense the subtle evolution of Richardson’s understanding of his elevations and massing. The projected sillcourses that resulted in the layered elevation of the Ames Store have been reduced or absorbed into the wall surface of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, allowing it to be read more as a unified mass that has been wrapped with a continuous surface. It will be this detail (and not the Field’s box-like form as most historians cite) that will be the most influential design feature of the Field Store on Chicago’s architects. Why? As long as an architect layered a building with projecting sill courses, it would be impossible to rotate the articulation of a tall building ninety degrees to express its verticality (this was precisely the problem Root faced with the Rookery.). Once Richardson has distilled a multistoried building’s elevation to a continuous surface with the elimination of his layers, Chicago’s architects would be able to give their skyscrapers a vertical expression.
At the same time, one is struck by the overall formal similarities between the Ames Store and the Chamber of Commerce designed within the relatively short span of only three years, even though one is a commercial structure and the other is more of a civic institution. Especially noteworthy is Richardson’s continued use of the picturesque, steep-sloped roof, punctuated by high-pitched dormers. His love of a highly picturesque silhouette is also evident in the Allegheny County Courthouse (above) that was designed in the period between the other two buildings, where the ever-present dormers establish a continuity of effect among all three of these large, urban projects.
All three designs exhibit his favorite roof detail, allowing a dormer to extend to the plane of the exterior wall of the building, where it is intersected by the vertical projection of the wall plane beyond the eave of the roof until it blended into the dormer’s gable. (I refer to this detail in his buildings as a “medieval crown.”) This detail denied any chance for the wall to end in the Renaissance-like horizontal cornice of the palazzo, that could conceivably hide his beloved roofs from an observer on the ground. Even the contemporary Pittsburgh jail and Glessner House can be seen to be in Richardson’s family of gabled roof/wall intersections. (While the MacVeagh House’s dormers were set-back in its still dominant hipped roof, the house still expressed its roof.)
As one reviews Richardson’s designs following his return from Europe, be they small residential projects or large, urban blocks, therefore, one constant formal theme is quite evident: the roof of a building designed by Richardson at this time was an important, indispensible part of the building that had to be architectonically celebrated. In no project, built or unbuilt during the decade 1875-85, prior to his arrival in Chicago, had H. H. Richardson even contemplated a palazzo box building with a flat cornice. You will find his last such design was the Hayden Block of 1875. Even his 1881 design for the Ames Wholesale Store, the exact same program that Field was commissioning him to design, was topped with his iconic “crown.” (To confirm this, please review Richardson’s complete oeuvre published in Jeffrey Ochsner’s H.H. Richardson: Complete Architectural Works.)
So if Richardson had not designed a building with a flat cornice during the previous ten years, even after having spent time touring Florence in 1882, where did the box for which Richardson would become famous for bringing the box to Chicago come from because it is obvious that in the spring of 1885 he still preferred his “crown” sitting atop his buildings? More importantly, how did the historical record get so skewed so that it is standard architectural history that Richardson’s striving for architectonic repose had, even before he received the Field commission, brought him to the realization that he should now design only palazzos with flat roofs and the Chicago commission gave him the opportunity to do so, because as I will argue, a box was the furthest thing from his imagination, until the moment he received the Field Commission.
Like Chicago’s other architectural “urban legends” such as how the 1871 fire wiped the slate clean of historic architecture so that he city’s architects could invent a modern architecture without distractions, or how Jenney invented the skyscraper with the first use of iron skeleton framing in the Home insurance Building, the impact of Richardson’s Field Wholesale Store is also overblown in “Windy City” architectural legend. And we have one person to point to for this: Louis Sullivan and his highly-selective memory. In his Kindergarten Chats written in 1901, fifteen years after the fact, Sullivan enshrined the Field Store:
“I have meted justice to other buildings, in their iniquity; I would give justice to this one, in its justice… As you say, the structure is massive, dignified and simple. But it is much more, … so much more that I have called it an oasis… Four Square and brown, it stands, in physical fact, a monument to trade, to the organized commercial spirit, to the power and progress of the age, to the strength and resource of individuality and force of character; … artistically, it stands as the oration of one who knows well how to choose his words, who has somewhat to say and says it – and says it as the outpouring of a copious, direct, large, and simple mind… Therefore, have I called it, in a world of barren pettiness, a male…”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org)