Reading Richardson’s Biography

HH Richardson and His Works

I have been making my way through Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer’s Henry Hobson Richardson and His Work (1888) in the last couple of days. Her biography provides details about his Southern Plantation heritage, his ties with New Orleans Creole culture and his ambivalent attitude toward the Civil War. These details are interesting to me because I have yet to see an architectural history survey (published after 1960) that makes any reference to these realities of U.S. history. I mean, who wouldn’t be interested in knowing how New Orleans Creole culture influenced Richardon’s architectural vision? These influences would have affected many architects practicing in Richardson’s generation, especially those who migrated from the South to enroll at Harvard or MIT or to practice in large Northeastern cities.

H H Richardson (c.1860), Source: Archives of American Art Journal v. 19, no. 1, p. 2

H H Richardson (c.1860), Source: Archives of American Art Journal v. 19, no. 1, p. 2

I won’t go over everything I’m reading, but will try and review the details that relate to my interests in race and architecture. According to Van Rensselaer, Richardson’s family was made up of successive generations of British immigrants to the United States, or people of ‘Angl0-Saxon’ heritage as it was fashionable to call them in the late nineteenth century. Henry Hobson Richardson’s father, Henry Dickinson Richardson, moved to New Orleans when he was sixteen years old to become a “cotton-merchant” (1). H. H. Richardson’s grandfather, James Richardson, emigrated to the island of Bermuda where the locals practiced indentured servitude and slavery from the seventeenth century onwards. Henry Hobson Richardson was born on the family grounds known as Priestly Plantation, although van Rensselaer gives no indiction as to whether the family directly owned slaves or the nature of the family business. However, we do get lots of clues as to Richardson’s attitudes toward the war and his desire to fight on the side of the Confederacy.

Whenever H. H. Richardson refers to race and ethnicity in his letters, he restricted his comments to a comparison of white ethnic heritage in the United States and abroad. That is to say, he never directly mentioned African Americans who were at the heart of the Civil War. At one point, he made a direct comparison between ‘French’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ culture when he returned to France after taking a forced leave back home for lack of funds (funds that were disappearing because of the Civil War):

I think Paris a dangerous place to send a young man. Paris is to a man what college is to a boy. I mean as regards life. I never shall cease to thank Heaven for my short trip to Boston […] It gave me an opportunity of comparing side by side the habits, customs, lives, of the French and Angl0-Saxons. Had I remained longer in France I fear I should have been prejudiced. My feelings and ideas of French life are different from what they ever were before. I prefer our old-fashioned ways and ideas by far […] I have discussed the self-same topic at least a dozen times since my return, and have always taken up the cudgel for my own country. I mean, as a matter of course, from a social point of view. Politics I wash my hands of, externally at least (10).

There is much in this passage, written on March 27, 1862, to take note of. For one, it seems that Richardson’s attitude toward French opulence shifted as a result of his financial hardships. As the Civil War progressed, his ‘regular remittances of money from New Orleans’ began to dwindle and disappear. After a time he was forced to work during his time at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which effectively prevented him from competing on equal footing with talented local, and wealthy, French students. This means that his chances of winning prestigious competitions, which required months of committed drawing, became slim. This fact is verified by the writings of a French acquaintance of Richardson, Adolphe Gerhardt:

His resources threatening to become exhausted, he husbanded them for a while as carefully as possible, but soon there remained for him no choice save to support himself by working as a draughtsman in architects’ offices […] It was but at unduly long intervals that he could take part in the school competitions which lasted each for two full months. He was thus compelled to renounce the effort after successes to which he was well entitled to aspire (8).

As a result of his financial hardships, the carefree and lavish personality that Richardson displayed on his entry into France was replaced by a more studious and thrifty personality. Despite Van Rensselaer’s romantic depiction of Richardson’s strife, it is hard for me to feel sorry for him, as the ‘inconveniences’ he suffered were the direct result of a Civil War begin fought to free the enslaved in his country. He directly benefited from an economic structure for agriculture that provided wealth on the backs of free (i.e. enslaved) labor. How can one not see his lavish wardrobe and socialite lifestyle tainted by this history, or chide him for his sense of entitlement?

Because of the obvious politicization of slavery in the United States, Richardson took an apolitical attitude toward his discussions of slavery and the Civil War. He steered clear of what he called ‘politics’ by necessity as it would have forced him to part ways with his French acquaintances who were not so taken with the political economy of the South. According to Van Rensselaer, Richardson considered entering the Civil War on the side of the Confederates, but was only kept from doing so by his Boston Friends:

Then he thought seriously of going South, for his sympathies were naturally with his own people, although before the actual outbreak of the war he had felt and spoken strongly against secession. His Boston friends, however, vigorously opposed a step which would mean almost certain ruin of his career. Their efforts to induce him to take the oath of allegiance were in vain; but he promised not to enter an insurrectionary State without their knowledge, and finally consented to go back to Paris and resume his studies (9).

It is interesting to note that Richardson would not fight for the South, but also refused to fight for the North. His biography is ambiguous about the reasons for his decision. Were they primarily due to family history and an attachment to his heritage, as he was fond of saying in public, or did he harbor serious reservations about giving up the privileges that a slave economy afforded him as a Southern gentleman? It is clear, however, that his Boston friends thought any clear allegiance with the Confederacy would have made Richardson unfit for the role of a gentleman architect in the Northeast. At the very least, we know that Richardson learned early on – from his days in Boston’s elite circle to his travels abroad – that defending slavery was not going to win him any friends among some of the most progressive members of architecture’s international elite. He suffered his privations so well only because he truly believed himself talented enough to establish a new basis of personal wealth with his desired profession.

Finally, I think I should provide some information for the architects reading this blog who want to know how racial attitudes might be reflected in design work. There is an interesting letter from Richardson to his then fiancé dated April 25, 1862 in which he details some of the projects he was working on in Paris. In this letter, he reveals some of the programs that he undertook at work and in his academic studies:

I have been for the last two days, and was last night, trying to compose a palace for the governor of Algiers, and residence for the emperor – that is, besides my regular work, which is a Corps Legislatif. The more I see and know architecture the more majesty the art gains. Oh, if I had begun at nineteenth to study it! To Athens and Rome I must go, coute sue route (11).

I can’t be sure from this letter whether the governor’s palace in Algiers was an academic or professional project; it could be that he was hoping to secure more responsibility at work with Labrouste or some other State architect at the time. Regardless, it is interesting to note the political nature of the projects he undertook, which would have been true of both a competition undertaken at the Ecole or in private practice. Donald Drew Egbert provides us with some background on the more popular subjects of esquisse (sketch) projects for French students in his book The Beaux-Arts Tradition in French Architecture (1980).  Take a look at this reference if you want to know more about the day to day life of students in French ateliers.

Reading Richardson’s biography makes me interested in looking at more of the surviving historical correspondence between Richardson and others during the period of the Civil War. There are some papers held in Harvard University’s archives in the Houghton Library as well as at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. (If you know of any others, please let me know in the comments section.) If I ever get a chance to visit a Richardson archive, I will be sure to update this blog entry with what I discover!



Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer. Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works [1888] (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969)

Donald Drew Egbert. The Beaux-Arts Tradition in French Architecture, edited by David Van Zanten (Princeton Architectural Press, 1980)



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About cldavisii

Charles Davis is an Assistant Professor of Architecture History at SUNY Buffalo. He has a PhD in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and a M.Arch from the State University of New York at Buffalo. His specialization is the role of racial discourses in modern architectural style debates, including the ways that organic concepts of form allowed designers to invest buildings with racial and ethnic characters. In addition to maintaining this blog, his academic research and books reviews can be found in journals such as Architecture Research Quarterly (arq), the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Harvard Design Magazine, Append-x and VIA. He is co-editor of Diversity and Design: Understanding Hidden consequences (Routledge: 2015), a volume of fifteen case studies examining the influence of diversity of contemporary design. His dissertation research will be published in an upcoming monograph entitled Building Character: the Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style (University of Pittsburgh Press).