Monday, September 24, 2012

Artist of the Month- H. H. Richardson

The Norman William Public Library
Woodstock, VT.

When I was a young boy I became fascinated with all things medieval.  Knights, heraldry, castles, Renaissance faires, you name it! As a young artist the aesthetic of the middle ages was extremely formative in my stylistic development.   

As an American student however my exposure to medieval art was limited to photographs in books, and relics behind glass in museums, with one very dramatic exception: Romanesque Revival Architecture. 

Steinheim Castle
(abandoned 1953.  restored 1996)
Alfred University. Alfred, NY

I remember discovering the Woodstock Vermont Library (above) as a young man where my family often vacationed.  The distinctively Romanesque Revival stylistic hallmarks of the low round arches with stout pillars,  rustic stone work and high gabled roof immediately put me in a mind that this was medieval.  Rainy afternoons in the library reading Tolkien, I could imagine being in the library at Minas Tirith or Rivendell.  Later, when I went to college at Alfred University I was inspired by the ever present Victorian stone tower of Steinheim Castle that loomed like a Romantic ruin over the campus. (above)

Romanesque Revival was a brief and often overlooked nineteenth century architectural movement that took place between 1870 and 1890 which replicated the European medieval architectural styles of the Romanesque period (1000- 1350).  The heavy, austere and imposing silhouettes of the style did not lend itself to many applications, and this aesthetic was usually limited to armories, libraries and churches while the more popular and decorative Neo-Classical style was used for landmarks like the US Capitol and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  After WWII many Romanesque buildings were torn down for being out-dated, dark and ugly, to make way for new, modern, light, climate-controlled office buildings. Romanesque Revival and other Beaux-Arts Revival styles were disparaged as fancies, appropriate only for theme parks,  their forms having completely trumped their functions. (Does any building in Manhattan need arrow loops and a portcullis?) Ironically, what has saved many of these buildings over the past fifty years has been urban decay.   In cities where development and economic growth was not robust many of these old edifices were left derelict, with no budget for demolition, restoration or replacement.  Subsequently there are few examples of this style to find in their original condition, but when you do it is a real treat.

New York Asylum for the Insane
(National Register of Historic Places 1973. abandoned 1994)
Buffalo, NY
H.H. Richardson

Although Romanesque Revival was adopted in Europe, Americans took a particular liking to the style, and the most influential champion of this movement was the architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886).   In 1870 Richardson completed the New York State Asylum for the Insane in Buffalo.  This towering medieval citadel exuded strength, power, austerity and security.  The Insane Asylum would launch Richardson's career, and make him synonymous with American Romanesque Revival Architecture, creating "The Richardsonian Romanesque Style". 

Trinity Church
Boston, MA
H.H. Richarson 

Woburn Public library
Woburn, MA
H.H. Richardson

Thomas Crane Public Library
Quincy, MA
H.H. Richardson

While Richardson would go on to design many more Romanesque buildings, The Richardsonian Style would inspire hundreds of Victorian architects all over the United States.  The Medieval Revival Movement championed by such artists as Sir Walter Scott, William Morris, Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites who sought to return art and architecture to a more genuine time of art-making, using rustic techniques and styles, and combining exterior design with interior applied arts like ceramics, furniture and textile design.  This Arts-and-Crafts movement was influential up until the turn of the century, and even inspire 20th century architects like Frank Lloyd Wright.  It is ironic that this movement which tried to re-examine genuine artistic themes was later disregarded as inauthentic. Next time you're walking through the city or you pass an old church or university, take a closer look, and you'll probably find the influence of Richardson in the buildings that brought a touch of Medieval Europe to America.

Alexander Hall
Princeton University. Princeton, NJ
W.A. Potter

Union Station Hotel
(restored 1985)
St. Louis, MO
T. Link

 Lovely Lane Methodist Church
(National Register of Historic Places)
Baltimore, MD
S. White

First Presbyterian Church
(partially demolished 1936;  NRHP 1979)
Detroit, MI
G.D. Mason

Old City Hall
Toronto, Canada
E.J. Lennox

Kingbridge Armory
Bronx, NY

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